Prudence – Week 10

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started and finish 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.

This week, I reflected on prudence and action.

“I learned three things about happiness during this program,” I shared in the closing circle of the three-day Manila Remix program I co-facilitated with the School of Slow Media, on Sunday evening. “First, that happiness often comes not from calculation, but irrational decisions – as, for me, the decision to fly twice to the Philippines, and be here with you. Second, that happiness is not something that we consume, like a magic pill, but something that emerges as a result of our own activity. And – consequently – I learned, also, that happiness can often manifest even as we feel completely depleted of energy, when we finished a cycle of action, and all we need is rest.”

We develop routines and ways of living that balance the various elements of our life. When we travel to new places, often, one element can be disrupted, and we topple. With my French and Italian background, good food has been a staple in my life, and – as I articulated over lunch on Monday – served as a repeated source of pleasure balancing off the many small frustrations of everyday life. The food in Manila did not suit my palate – and by Monday, I felt a growing sense of lack. Luckily that day, lunch at the Brave Design house had fresh basil from the garden in abundance – and as I chewed eagerly, I could feel myself getting back into shape.

It is important to take time off, but to do so, we must leave aside things that have to be done. There is no end to the work of cleaning and caring and organising. Therefore, time off happens only when we choose to neglect something that calls for us. This is the wisdom embedded in the Gospel scene of Mary and Martha. Yes, it is important to fuss over the kitchen and give guests a good meal – but there will be always be more to be done, and the moment will never repeat. Therefore, wisdom demands that, sometimes, we push our work aside, and take time to sit with the visitor – or with ourselves – trusting that those around us can bear with a bit of chaos, so that we be more present.

There is no centre to Manila, nor is there a clear cultural narrative of what it means to be Filipino. The people I met are open-minded, original, warm, and diverse. Life here seems to follow an ever-repeated quest for meaning, integrating the various elements that come from outside, rather than the deliberate unfolding of a predetermined existential script. This is a trading seaport – a place of creative chaos – an open structure.

Developed infrastructure reduces the need for individual prudence. Everything works as expected, and, in some aspect, this increases the range of our potential action: reliable infrastructure is a valuable public good, if we prioritise productivity. In Manila, the wrong choice of work, commitment, timing, location, can result in hours blocked in traffic. Apps and collective wisdom reduce uncertainty, but only to a degree. What’s more, in this polycentric city, there is no clear intrinsically better place to be. Prudence is therefore not only required, but cultivated – together with a different attitude – patience, and a cheerful embrace of the creative possibilities inherent in chaos.

I landed back in Melbourne on Friday, after a short and fitful night on the plane. I had discounted that entire day, projecting myself into zombie state, comatose in my armchair – but I was surprisingly with it, I finished a book, I cleared a backlog of admin work, and I chatted with friends. We can often do more than we believe – whether it’s embracing activity, or deliberately resting and reflecting – as long as we choose to resist the siren call of emptiness. And this will bring us joy.

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