"My mother had always told her kids: If you're about to do something, and you want to know if it's a bad idea, imagine seeing it printed in the paper for all the world to see."
- From the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)
These days, we don't have to worry only about appearing in the newspaper one day. With the Internet, Twitter, texting and camera-ready smart phones, in an instant, we may know of anything done by anyone, anywhere. From the mundane to the frightening, we have one-click access to everything. Whatever we do or say has the potential to zip around the globe with or without our consent.
This social-media driven way of living is not likely to change any time soon. Our potential exposure to the entire world has become an actual possibility, so maintaining an Internet-savvy perspective that "everyone might see me do this" has become more essential to remember than ever. Yet modern as this outlook may seem, its roots date back generations.
Look Both Ways
With advice applicable across any religion or spirituality, one of the most profound teachings of the Buddha offered guidance on how to live with strength and compassion. He suggested we strive "(to) not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove." Today we live in a world where any communication we send, any photo we take and any action we select may be captured and in a moment shared with millions -- or at very least our boss. So it remains timely advice to recognize the potential impact of our behavior, separate even from any judgment of it being right or wrong.
The dictionary definition of "reprove" is "to correct with kindly intent," not "to imprison." Certainly, that's one way the wise condemn our actions -- they send us to jail. It potentially could become harder and harder to break laws when a single photo or a mishandled email can reveal the crime. But that's not the point, since there's a substantial list of behavior for which the wise might reprove... and not choose to prosecute.
"What would the wise think?" is a larger concept than getting caught misbehaving; it's about living well day-to-day. A parent recently told me that when she manages not to get flustered over her son's lost homework, he's more likely to admit his mistake and agree to make up the work. When she shouts, he gets defensive and yells back. What action would the wise, whoever they are, suggest? What action would you, in your most sage moment, recommend to your best friend?
In more modern terms, if someone posted this interaction online, how would you come across? Not only focusing on right or wrong, but if someone wise stumbled upon this moment, what would they say? How would the collective wisdom of society reflect on my tone and language with my child right now? Not would they judge me for it, but how would they recommend I proceed?
This fundamental guidance can become as instinctual for parents as teaching how to cross a road safely. Instead of fighting the fact that our next misstep could end up on Facebook, we can emphasize a basic concept about free choice. Model a practice for ourselves and our children of pausing and reflecting, asking yourself, 'am I selecting a path of wisdom right now?' If millions of people see me on YouTube, or if my children or grandchildren one day read this email or see this photo, will they reprove?
Proceed with Caution
Being 'wise' doesn't mean being overly strict or moralistic. We all have made decisions in the moment we later regretted or have completely mishandled some situation. All of us say dumb things and do dumb things. And most of us do stuff as teenagers we wouldn't repeat as adults. That's life. At least in my experience, the truly wise laugh at their inane adolescent experiences, cut themselves some slack even when electing to make amends for screwing up and release themselves from any unobtainable goal of perfection.
All we can do is aspire for wisdom, notice when our aim is off and try again. Have fun, act silly, push boundaries, take risks, live on the edge. Do whatever feels natural while maintaining a broader perspective: What is the potential impact of my action right now, on myself and on others? Is this who I believe I am? Is this how I want to be perceived by the world? Living this way when some event goes completely off the rails we can still acknowledge that we've done our best to care for ourselves and those around us.
We can create a habit for ourselves and our children: Over and over again, pause and reflect. Even alone in the woods, with no technology in sight, recall the teaching of the Internet. What's the intention behind this next action of mine? Would the wise reprove? Would the world reprove, or would I, if this particular moment goes viral?
Follow Mark Bertin, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/markbertinmd