The Turning of the Year: The First Virtue Resolution

I think of these winter holidays—solstice, Hannukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Day—as one long celebration of  the turning of the year and a fresh start.  Like many Americans, I am more than ready to turn the page on a very difficult and challenging year. At this time of year starting again has always meant New year’s resolutions. 

My mother introduced me to this practice.  I remember that when I was ten, I resolved to learn to light the gas kitchen range, which did not have  pilot light. Pretty scary.  I did.  But after a year when we were on sabbatical and had a similar situation, with every lighting of the broiler threatening to burn down the house.  I made a lifelong commitment to electric cooking stoves.   

I have just finished the draft of a new book called Passionately Moderate: Democracy and Civic Virtue. Working on that book, I have been thinking a lot about virtue this year, and I decided to resolve, not so much as to do in 2021, as to be. I picked three virtues that I wanted to make into habits of the heart that guided my actions.  They are prudence, temperance, and simplicity. Each one gets a blog—one today, one next week, and one on New Year’s day.  Today’s reflection is on prudence.

Prudence was one of Aristotle’s private virtues, along with temperance. (His public virtues were courage and justice.) Prudence the quintessential economist’s virtue, wise use of resources and especially money, but also time and attention. So how do I want to use those resources in 2021 in ways that are wiser and more intentional?

I started with money, and I settled on the magic number three (since I started with three virtues).  What are the three most important things I want to do with my money in 2021? I divided this virtue also into three parts, body, mind, and spirit. For the body,  I want to save more, because I am approaching my 80th birthday and watching my friends experience the challenges of aging—even myself, although on a slower track so far.  I want to be sure that I have enough resources to ensure that I don’t burden my children with the cost of my long-term care should that become necessary.  I set a target figure for annual saving.

 Second, I want to travel again—I missed it so much last year. Travel is a treat for all three aspects of being, but especially the mind. I learn so much about other places and other cultures when I travel.

Third, I want to ensure that ten percent of my income goes to charity, an act of compassion that is an expression of spirit.  Most of it goes to organizations that help those in need and to my religious community, with a scattering of supporting the arts (like ETV) and, in even-numbered years, political candidates.  

With those three numbers engraved in stone, the rest of the budget, from electric bills and dog grooming to food and taxes—had to divvy up what was left. I know that as I get older, I will probably travel less and spend more on services that enable me to live at home as long as possible, but I’m not there yet, so this resolution will get an annual review.

What about the other resources of time and attention? Again, I want to spend my time on caring for body, mind and spirit  Each day has to satisfy three priorities—exercise and healthy eating for the body, reading and learning for the mind, contemplation and mindfulness for the spirit. Like the budget, the to-do list has to make those three items priorities.

British writer E.B. White once said that when he woke up in the morning, he couldn’t decide whether to enjoy the world or improve the world.  It made it hard to plan his day. It’s not either/or, it is both/and.  Some of that time and attention needs to be directed toward improving the world, making it more peaceful, compassionate, just, and sustainable.  The content of those improvements depends on making habits of  the other two virtues, temperance and simplicity.  To be continued. ..