Saturday, February 25, 2017

Dear Prudence

If you're new here, this is a weekly column consisting of letters written to my grandchildren (who exist) and my great-grandchildren (who aren't here yet) -- the Stickies -- to haunt them after they become grups and/or I'm dead.

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Irregularly Appearing Imaginary Guest Stars
Marie-Louise -- My beautiful muse (right shoulder) and back scratcher 
Iggy -- Designated Sticky
Dana -- Designated gentlereader (left shoulder)

"Did you ever have to finally decide?" -John Sebastian

Dear (eventual) Grandstickies & Great-Grandstickies, 

This is the first of four columns devoted to the four cardinal virtues. 

Last week's column was devoted to what are traditionally referred to as the seven virtues. There are four cardinal (hinge) virtues that are fundamental to all other virtues and this column is devoted to one of them, Prudence. The other three will be covered in future columns.  

There are three theological virtues that are supplied to us, according to the Christian tradition at least, by God. Being an agnostic, I'm in the process of trying to make a prudential decision as to whether or not I'll explore the theological virtues. 

Nowadays, employing prudence usually refers to being careful and cautious.

Classically speaking, it refers to applying reason, wisdom, experience, morality and the like when a decision needs making. Use your brain! as they say. Given what you know, who you are, what you believe, etc., what's your smartest/best move in light of...

[Wait a minute, Mr. Obvious, ain't that the same thing? Dana, imaginary gentlereader, speaks. Iggy and Marie-Louise, imaginary grandsticky and my muse, respectively, both toss me an inquisitive look.]


I could be a careful and cautious weasel, carefully and cautiously considering the best way to murder you in your sleep and abscond with your cuckoo clock collection. Most would not define me as a virtuous dude.

But, as I was about to say, what's your smartest/best move in light of the fact that how you go about deciding on a course of action is, or at least should be, a virtue unto itself?

[Iggy: Poppa, I like, don't understand what...]

Patience, sticky one, all will soon become clear. Let me back up a bit.

You, and everyone else, are confronted all day and every day, with choices. They range from the trivial (which flavor of coffee creamer shall I use?) to profoundly important (is this the person I want to marry, do I want to be married to anyone?).

[Dana: Once again our hero demonstrates he has a keen eye for the obvious.]

Stop giggling you lot, and pay attention. In both of the examples above making a prudent decision simply means that regardless of your immediate/initial impulses, adopting a big-picture view and then making the best possible decision under the circumstances. Simple right?

Well, no, not really.

Simple to define, somewhat harder to put into practice. Regardless, you need to choose what's behind door number one, two, or three.

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Door number one: Immediate/initial impulses, or, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die", an understandable reaction, given the fact that no one gets out of here alive. This is the choice of least resistance. This is the if it feels good do it option.

Examples: I'm not gonna' worry about how much sugar is in my yummy coffee creamer (or anything else). Life is short, live for today. Get married just because I'm pregnant/I impregnated someone just because it's a fact that having a mum and a dad is any given kids best option? I don't even like him/her! What about my happiness?

I make no judgments. Not (fortunately) my job. I've made no shortage of mistakes and I certainly wouldn't care to be married to someone I don't even like.


Note that in the first example, coffee creamer, in the short term at least only one person is involved, you. In the second, at least three, and likely, many more. We have to share the playground with other kids.

And I must point out that birth control is available at any convenience store and that employing it would have been the prudent thing to do.

Next up, door... Sorry, listen, while I know this is the era of the casual hookup and that sex, formally considered the most intimate activity two humans beings can engage in, is nowadays just another need to be taken care of, I can't help but wonder.

Given (evil microscopic) bugs, and babies, and the dramatic qualitative difference between having sex and making love to someone you love (or, at least are deeply in like with), I should think that prudence trumps immediately and unconditionally surrendering to your howling DNA.

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Door number two: Traditional path. You believe in an afterlife of some sort, the nature of which requires that you follow a prescribed ethical/moral code to either go somewhere better than here or reincarnate a step or two up the ladder after you are deleted.

So, either you or someone(s) you take seriously, didn't toss the tot out with the jacuzzi water. Good. You're not just adrift on the Sea of Life, you've set a course and have a destination. Life is hard. Life with a context, less so (more on this in a minute).

Two things. What you say, goes, but only for you (HT: Thaddeus Golas). The sermon you live is much more powerful, and effective, than the sermon you preach.

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Door number three: The door for people that reject doors one and two. This is my door, and while many choose it, I'll only speak for myself.

First, two more things.

"All generalizations are false, including this one." -Mark Twain.

My three-door theory is a generalization -- and an analogy. Analogies and generalizations, and all words for that matter, are at best, useful symbols. I'll be exploring that subject at some point in the future.

And also, of course, generalizations oversimplify for the sake of clarity. Many, no, most of us, regularly take a peek at what's up behind all the doors.

I try to practice prudence for two reasons. (Today's column is sponsored only by the number two. The letter P didn't pay its bill.) Prudence is what separates the man person from the beastie. Also, life with a context, as mentioned above, is not as hard as life without one.

While I believe in and have written about the concept of gut first, brain later I'm an almost rabid proponent of the importance of brain later. This is the gift that enabled/enables us to rise to/remain at -- the top of the food chain.

Earth's a very rough neighborhood. While I acknowledge that there are legitimate objections raised by ecologically and/or spiritually-minded folks as concerns H. sapiens domination of the playground, it works for me. Brain over brawn.

Thomas Hobbes is famous for pointing out that the state of nature is a war of all against all wherein life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Word! The state of nature also doesn't include books or grilled cheese sandwiches (shudder).

As to life with a context, yes Virginia (or Iggy), one could plausibly argue that, as is often said, life's a bitch and then you die. Who gives a damn about prudence, or any sort of virtue for that matter? Do as you please and try not to get caught if it's illegal. Door number one thinking.

What I mean by life with a context is simply a life with an imposed framework. Those folks that choose door number two are supplied with a time-tested framework that imposes order on chaos (as defined by the previous paragraph), which is part of the appeal.

In my semi-humble opinion (and I'm not alone), as long as you keep an open mind, a life with context, that is: personal rules, goals, interesting work, a code that defines/acknowledges the sharing of the playground, Arete, or (insert your thoughts here), is just better than embracing self-indulgence and chaos.


Yup, better.

It feels better. It's something you have to feel, directly experience -- mere words won't do. Decide, resist drifting, and you'll know. If/when it stops working, make a new decision. Poppa loves you.

Poppa loves you,
Have an OK day

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©2017 Mark Mehlmauer