Temperance – week 10

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.

Over the week, I reflected on the meaning of temperance in our historical moment. 

We live in times of  exceptional affluence. For much of the world, abundance is a greater problem than scarcity. Is this a new normal, however, or a passing apex? And is temperance preparation for inevitable collapse, adaptation to plenty forever, or a way to stretch abundance over space and time? Is temperance, therefore, a matter of prudence, wisdom, or justice?

I headed over to university for a workshop on Monday. I was early, deliberately, and looked for a cafe to sit down, relax, and do some writing. None felt inviting enough. After a walk around the block, I grabbed a 1$ coffee from 7/11, and sat on public tables and chairs outside a building. I had a great time. How odd, however, I reflected, that my initial impulse was to trade money for a space, when so much was available for free. And how odd that I was unable to simply sit and think without purchasing a drink.

We live in times of exceptional abundance. Over a billion people today – that’s about as much as the entire planet at the time of the French Revolution  – live in unprecedented abundance. Meanwhile, 60% of species are heading towards extinction, forests are disappearing, and oceans turning to jellyfish. This is the dark side of our times: material plenty for humans, extreme duress on other living forms.

On Wednesday morning, I headed over to Riverland, by the Yarra. Instead of the usual urban Neapoli cafe, I enjoyed the seagulls, ducks and palm trees; the sun rippling on the water, the bristling leaves of a eucalyptus tree. This, I thought, is more nourishing than music or pastry.

What will we sacrifice in the name of abundance? Since the 1950s, exploitation has grown exponentially. This is the trend I inherited, alongside all people my age. ‘I will never be hungry again’, we say in unison, nor experience material frustration. So what if nature goes.

When I struggled with deadlines and multiple pressures on Friday, when the weather suddenly dipped into winter, my body reacted with a deep sense of hunger. I grabbed a block of tofu, spread spicy sauce over it, toppled half a bag of peanuts, and ate. I grabbed a piece of cheese, and ate. I grabbed an ice-cream, and ate. I grabbed a rockmelon, and ate. I stayed clear of meat – but not clear of excess. I followed an inherited script: this is how I was brought up. The practice of temperance requires active resistance not only towards impulses and urges, but towards our ingrained habits and cultural norms. I consume, I conform. Abstinence, even restraint, is an outlier.

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