This year, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started and finished the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I published an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.
This week, the last of the year, I reflected on the relationship between past and future, and the respective roles of saying yes and saying no.
The time between Christmas and New Year is a time where – in Australia – everything closes, and the weekly rhythm is collectively suspended. There is a sense of abundance in this one week between the birth of Christ and the New Year. Time to rest, reflect, and prepare.
I woke up multiple times on the 25th, inspired by the spirit of the day – or maybe the spirits of the previous night. I headed over to the study, jotting down insights, then back to bed, and up again for more. Freedom and wealth are categorically distinct, as are freedom and power. Freedom in wealth and poverty differ, as do the freedom of the powerful and the freedom of the powerless – but wealth nor power are the form nor condition of our freedom. Their pursuit, therefore, should be subservient to the more fundamental pursuit of freedom – which I understand as the practice of virtue. For this, religion is a precious gift, which we celebrate on Christmas day. Religion is best understood not as a statement of belief, but as a language – an inherited structure that determines and enables our relationship to the world, each other, and our own self. In that perspective, different religions should be thought of not as logically distinct and mutually exclusive statements, but as different languages, each shaping the world in a unique manner. Therefore, there is no direct intelligibility between different religions. Rather, translation is required, possible – and, for those who put in the long hours required – immensely rewarding.
The best way to know what you want, and achieve proper discernment, is probably to look back, and consider what you’ve done. This proposal should be held along the one that liberation from the chains of our past is the path to contentment. This year in June, on the way to Europe, I took four days of stopover in Singapore to think about my 40s, and how I would like to live them. For this, I considered the goals I had given myself in 2017. For each in turn, I asked myself ‘why’ nine times over, digging deep in my intentions, until a pattern emerged. On Tuesday, I applied a similar approach to think through my goals for 2018. I reviewed my notebooks of the past 15 months, looking for goals I set myself, challenges I faced, and how I reflected on my past achievements. I realized, as I did so, that I made real progress on some fronts: recurring worries and challenges that I explored at length in the last months of 2016 and early 2017 have now disappeared. On other aspects, I was surprised how stuck I had been. After this exercise, I wrote new goals for the year to come, small and big. Develop a sustainable education and training portfolio. Deepen my spiritual practice. Read and listen to Chinese smoothly. Crystallize and share thoughts on knowledge and collective narratives as public goods. Finish my PhD. Review the ways I interact online. Pilot four new training programs. Develop four healthy habits. Block off six long week-ends with my partner. Do twelve adventurous things. These goals, I hope, are framed in a way that will allow me to break the circle, and go further up the spiral.
This year, I attempted to practice virtue. This was an exercise in saying yes. But as I repeatedly realized, for this, I often had to say no. However, it is only by the end of December that I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept. Proper understanding of sin is a crucial part of prudence: by helping us identify what we should avoid, it also limits the field of possibilities, thereby making it simpler to distinguish the right choice. Sin is a drive we should resist – but it comes in many forms, and often confuses us. What appears as resisting lust or gluttony may, in fact, be following the path of pride or sloth. Sometimes we feel that an action was wrong, but we’re unsure exactly why: this, again, shows an inadequate understanding of sin.
One particularly dangerous form of sin, I realized on Thursday, is the pride that we take in our own achievements, and our gluttony for getting things done – best manifested by the terrible adjective ‘busy’. I didn’t take time to reflect on prudence that day, but simply jotted down those thoughts before heading to bed – with a belief that this was, in fact, acting with prudence.
Friday, this year-long project finished. I dedicated four sets of thirteen weeks to the deliberate practice of the four cardinal virtues. The end of a commitment often comes with a sense of relief – as if a burden was lifted from one’s shoulder. In this case, however, the feeling is different. The result of this project is not only the fifty blog posts I produced. I changed.
I will not repeat the project next year, nor engage in one exactly similar. I will continue writing regularly – but on a broader range of topics. And I will continue to practice virtue, but no longer write about it systematically.