Today, it’s especially difficult to take a moment away from the distractions of our modern world, quiet our minds, and contemplate what it means to be temperate. In fact, it’s not a word we use very often and is certainly not welcome in today’s colloquial lexicon. What is temperance? And why is it so important, especially this day and age, to practice?
Temperance is one of the Cardinal Virtues, perfecting one’s ability to control desires, emotions, and material appetite. Saint Augustine’s life before his conversion is probably the most prominent example of a life lived without temperance – and then after his conversion, a life full of virtue, with temperance just one of many virtues.
Saint Augustine called temperance the preservation of “one’s integrity and freedom from corruption”; and Saint Ambrose called it “tranquility of soul,” for it “is the safeguarding of what is honorable, and the regard for what is beautiful” (Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part). Even Aristotle recognized the importance of temperance, calling it “the virtue of the irrational parts” concerning pleasure in his Nicomachean Ethics.
Temperance moderates desires and pleasures, providing a balance in life. It is moderation and restraint, being praised as such throughout Scripture. “It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable” (CCC §1809).
It seems almost impossible to practice the virtue of temperance in today’s world – a world full of instant gratification and a got-to-have-it-all mentality. In fact, society as a whole has found it unnecessary, and is unwilling to practice temperance and moderation except in matters where it is most needed, such as faith. Temperance is linked to absolutely everything we do and is the foundation of a well-lived balanced life – from diet, entertainment, and technology to marriage, relationships, and sex. In fact, without temperance, there is no guard against the capital sins – pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. Without the control of one’s desires, there is uncontrollable greed (avarice) and then jealousy and wrath over not having it; or, gaining all of one’s desires and then becoming prideful. More obvious is the lack of control over one’s appetite, either with food or sex, leading to gluttony and lust. And lastly, sloth.
It’s less obvious how a lack of temperance can lead to sloth; but with technology and the constant need to be plugged-in, moderation is a much needed practice. Sloth is often related to laziness, being physically and emotionally inactive. However, it’s also spiritual and emotional apathy, having lack of concern, being indifferent and disinterested in the outside world. The constant use of technology has blurred the lines between reality and fantasy, allowing people to separate themselves so far from their humanity. With technology, we’ve been able to hide our faces and voices through texting, avoid confronting problems by just broadcasting to a disassociated and disinterested audience, and avoid arguments altogether by just pressing close at the top of the screen.
Conversations lack genuineness and feeling because we’ve separated ourselves from people through a screen that filters emotion we would otherwise witness. We are more connected as a society than at any other time in history, and yet study after study shows how isolated we really feel.
When I go out to eat with my husband, I constantly see couples go through a whole meal without even so much as a glance at one another, with their heads buried in their phones except to order their food. I see families sit down to eat, and instead of engaging their children, set iPads and tablets in front of them. People have lost their imagination because, instead of ever being bored, they switch on the TV or the iPad to be entertained by someone else’s imagination. Parents ignore their children, instead paying more attention to their phone than to the living, breathing human in front of them. Without practicing temperance with technology, we live our lives through it and neglect the world around us. We lose our apathy for others because we don’t see them in front of us; we become emotionally lazy and indifferent. After all, we don’t have to care about the person on the other end of the screen; we can just choose to shut it off if we begin to feel anything at all.
Technology certainly has its place and there are certainly positive aspects of it – medicine, increase in information availability, and education are just a few. However, just like anything in this world, it must be used in moderation. With temperance, technology becomes an object to be used, not the object we surrender to day after day, hour after hour. As Saint Augustine said, “Temperance is love surrendering itself whole to Him who is its object,” but we can’t surrender to Him if we are constantly plugged in.
It goes without saying that our lives are saturated with technology everywhere we go. Even gas stations now have televisions at the pumps to distract us from pumping gas! It’s getting increasingly difficult to practice moderation with technology. When my husband and I were expecting our first child, we did some serious thinking about how to maintain our relationship as a married couple. We knew it would be increasingly difficult to spend time with one another with a newborn, so we took an inventory of how we spent our time, and realized how much of that time was spent plugged in instead of with one another. Our attention was on our gadgets, not on each other. We would talk, but we wouldn’t converse while glued to the technology. We realized if we were to spend any real time with each other after our daughter was born, we’d have to cut something. So we cut the technology and made certain times of the day and certain places technology-free. We made a pact to not have phones present or the TV on when eating. The TV is only turned on during weekend nights. We don’t use technology in the car and cell phones are to remain in the pocket when we go out to eat. And when we head to bed, our devices head to bed too. These things are difficult to do and we give in to the temptation to just zone out in front of technology every now and then – particularly the TV. However, during those times that we spend more time on our devices than with each other, we find ourselves out of sync with each other. And now, with our daughter, we find she is fussier when we indulge in technology then when we actually spend time with her. It is a living and breathing example of the difference temperance makes in the use of technology.
As we make our way through Christmastime and look ahead to Lent, I challenge you to practice temperance in technology and see the difference it makes in your own life with no interruption or distraction. Make it a New Year’s Resolution to moderate how much you’re plugged in and, if you’re feeling particularly brave, give up the use of a device for the upcoming Lent season. You’ll be surprised what you’ll notice, what you’ll get accomplished, without the distraction of technology.