Prudence – week 2

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I will publish an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

Week one was about perspective and exploration. Week two was about preparing for the future. How can I live a life both responsibly planned and open to serendipity?

This was the question I started with on Sunday. I woke up early, and headed to my favourite cafe, where I followed my Chinese  and PhD practice routines: I have systems in place that help me stick to goals in both fields. But as I read and wrote, I started chatting on my phone – including with a visitor from Romania. We spent a couple of hours together, talking about religions and world views. There’s a chance I might work with his organisation in Timisoara. He lives half the year on my mother’s Island, and I might introduce them. We were able to meet because I let myself be distracted from other pursuits.

Inspired by our Sunday conversations, I decided on the Monday that I would focus on anticipating misunderstandings. It was a well-suited day for this. I had a six hour workshop with a French friend, in which I deliberately clarified my assumptions about activities we discussed, articulating definitions, and aiming for maximal precision. This happened in French, and was a very powerful exercise to solidify the concepts in my head: bullshit does not resist translation. Later that day, I had a Skype meeting with my Swedish team. Then I realised a thing. Silences are part of conversations. Various cultures organise turn taking differently. Some things will be said, others left unsaid. With practice, translating what is said becomes easy, relatively. But there is an ocean of unsaid, much harder to translate – yet defining all our interactions, and a more dangerous source of errors and confusion than mistranslated concepts.

Is it prudence to say ‘fuck it’ on special occasion, loosen plans, and let chaos rule? On Tuesday, for my birthday, I thought I would embracemy inner Dionysios. Beyond core daily disciplines, I went with the flow. There was a meeting, a vague plan – executed – to buy a pair of pants, and an impromptu lunch. I let some space for chaos, and had a few gorgeous moments, But – as it turned out – wasn’t quite clear enough. I set myself to finish a book that I didn’t finish, and felt frustrated. I had to be back home on time to prepare my birthday dinner. It was a nice day, but left a mild sense of incompletion. I didn’t accomplish much, and I didn’t fully relax.  I let myself wander, but was not consistently present to my wanderings.

I had to face a different situation the following day. There had been twelve people home, too much wine, too much food.  It was hot, I didn’t sleep very well. I had not put an alarm, started the day late, and woke up tired. What would be the prudent thing to do? Let plans drop, and nurse my hangover? Or stick firmly to daily routines, at least? I reframed this in the following way: should I attend to my present self – telling me to rest more – or to my past self, the one that, in full possessions of their means, decided on a set of tasks? I held on to routines, and felt energised. But in the afternoon, plans needed rethinking. I had to postpone a planned check up after I realised I needed an appointment. And so, loose tiredness took over, and I spent an afternoon doing nothing in particular, lingering in front of the screen, unable to replace my plan with a new one, or plug off.

On the following day, this is what I aimed to improve. We live most of our lives in a state of great vagueness. We’ve got big ideas for the future, but as we move closer, our goals shift and ripple. There is a narrow path between two dangers: the ‘big-picture’ that remains forever hazy, and the close-minded ‘attention to details’. I had previously decided that this would be a day for focusing on my PhD. I had an appointment with my supervisor, and came with a clear overarching question: how can I best use the remaining time in my PhD so that the work will be most useful for others, and most helpful for my own professional future. I further broke it down into three sharper question: should I reframe the thesis and focus on the topic of educational design (where I see heading); should I aim to finish soon, or delay; and what else, beside my existing activities and the PhD, should I focus on. Her wise advice was comforting on the second and third points. As to the thesis, ‘tread lightly’, she said, in other words, ‘beware the rabbit holes’. I should avoid excessive attempts at erudition. Strike the right balance between excessive vagueness, and too much details.

At the end of the week, I was back to my initial question: how can I set myself goals in such a way that I can both accomplish plans, and leave room for serendipity? In December, I bought one of those ‘goals diaries’ offering templates for systematic  reflection. I spent a few hours filling it in at the end of December, and on Friday, reviewed it for the first time. I noted an ambiguous feeling: I had already done a lot / I was progressing too slowly. I wondered: why this contradiction? The missing element was a sense of duration. Most of my goals were articulated in a clear manner – but I never sat down and calculated how many hours, in total, over the year, I would spend on each. So I did that for one project. I have decided to work on my Chinese reading skills, and read four books in Mandarin, at the rate of 4 pages a day. I realised two things. First, that this added up to about eight months only – leaving a full third of the year for rest or flexibility. This, somehow, never made it to my calculations – yet I already anticipated a sense of guilt at not reading six books, only the four I committed to. More interestingly, I realised I had no idea exactly how long it would take me to read four pages a day. The calculation was helpful – and yielded a week of rest, for the four months I would not be reading! I continued with my day, feeling calmer, following my plans. I finished early. I had to stay in my Footscray co-working space for call, so cleaned my desktop, stretched, and played with a jigsaw puzzle. On the way back, a friend invited me to dinner. I had finished my week, I was prepared for serendipity – and I had a beautiful night.

Now, I shall take the rest of my Saturday to rest. It is prudent to take Sabbaths. And I’ll think of my next week tomorrow.

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