Virginia Woolf’s authoritative understanding of words came to mind as I contemplated a particular word that had been banished to the shadows of modern life.
“…words, are full of echoes, of associations – They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind.”
We taste a sliver of the true essence of a word and then it slips away like the river running to sea. Cultures and words are forged by the merging of multiple languages and generations in ways that connect, enlighten, confuse, confound, or offend us. Words capture and hold us. To take a word and claim ownership of it, to announce to the universe that we hold the true meaning of that word is an act of folly. So please forgive me as I teeter on the edge of folly attempting to unpick a word from the shadows of modern life…
Perched on the second-floor seat of the bus, I contemplated Virginia Woolf’s relationship with words and a particular word which placed me precariously close to the edge of folly. Two young women sat on the bus a few rows ahead. They were laughing, chatting and plotting their day out in the city. One of the women held up her phone taking multiple pictures of herself. She surveyed each new photo on her phone, assured herself that it was agreeable and then sent her pixilated image out into the world. Her phone was held up as though she were looking into a mirror and in doing so asked, “what does the world think of me?” She was looking through the image of herself to the world beyond. The phone in her thoughtless hand was a reminder of the word that kept turning over in my mind. The young woman on the bus cast the form of the word I was seeking but not its substance. The bus came to a stop in Oxford’s crowded city centre. The passengers scattered like the pigeons flying above. The echoes and shadows of words and spires swirled around me.
The elusive word I was attempting to drag into the light of day was one whose popularity in the English-speaking world had plummeted since the 1850s. A word misused by financial and religious institutions that span the globe. A word manhandled and manipulated to elevate and subjugate women. A word whose essence is what we search for in the defining moments of adversity. When fear of the future and shadows from the past, leave us at a loss to form the present. A word whose classically feminine attributes were an excuse to excuse her from the steps of our court houses, public institutions, private corporations and rightful place at our tables. A word that we ignore at our own peril.
Prudence is a whisper of a word that rarely casts her shadow on modern life. We barely stop to take even a sideways glance at her. Prudence has been tarred and feathered as cautious and excused as old fashioned. Prudence has the musty smell of an old church or the memory of our grandmother’s apron.
But what if Prudence wasn’t who we thought she was? What if she is the silent figure in every room we have ever entered, seeing everything and saying nothing. Only in desperation do we seek her out when the questions of conscience (Greek: suneidesis or heart) wake us at 3am. The hard questions that trigger us to hide in our work, scroll down the endless page, scrub the floors, pop the pill, or point the finger.
Prudence (Latin:Prudentia / Greek:forethought / French:providere, to see ahead) was conjured by ancient philosophers and artists to capture the essence of what it means to know thyself. She is the cause, measure and form of all choices made for good. In allegorical form she appears as a woman holding a mirror which reflects her present and her past in the light of truth. The metaphorical word who the ancients paired with Justice (Latin: Justitia). Justice without Prudence is blind, just as she appears in front of court houses that dot the country, missing her partner in crime.
Prudence is the woman who holds a mirror up to herself with the intention of seeing the truth in the past. The mirror clearly reflects past deeds just over her shoulder, as they truly are, not as she wishes them to be. In looking to the past with honesty she better understands the present which illuminates her future. This woman, this word, this figure isn’t the wallflower we thought she was.
She dares to look at her past deeds and present stance with honest appraisal so that future choices may be made with better insight. Setting aside principle and prejudice, she descends into the particular. She looks and listens carefully with daring honesty and humility. She demands stillness and time. Prudence isn’t cautious unless she sees that caution is the wisest choice. Prudence is surprisingly audacious, and she compels us to look at ourselves honestly in order that we may become better people and in turn better leaders and citizens.
As I walked down Turl Street my disdain at the thoughtless young woman on the bus turned to contemplation. How easy it is to blindly judge. Was I really that different than her? Often when faced with difficult choices, the first question I ask is how my choices will appear to others. I had come to the mirror seeking approval and pondering how I appeared to the world beyond. I was guilty of looking into the life of things and the mirror and asking the wrong questions.
We often come to the mirror asking questions of ourselves. How do we look and how does the world see us? But what happens when we are daring enough to ask the harder questions. Who do we want to be? What is our true intention? What is the good to be found and for what purpose? The questions that perennially strike at the conscience (heart).
The sun was setting on our day in the city as I ascended the bus that pointed towards home. As I sat down on the bus Prudence was drowned out by the wave of things that must be done and lists that must be ticked. But as the word slipped from my mind her figure cast a shadow over me. The ancient allegorical young woman holding a mirror up to herself, willing to ask hard questions in the light of day and the darkness of night. I wanted to capture her.
I held a picture of her in my mind and heart. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry as the sun set. I had been searching for Prudence my whole life. Looking for her in teachers, preachers, polls or podcasts, and in high and holy places. I mistakenly thought, what I sought was across an ocean, around the corner or on the next page, but Prudence was there all along just waiting for me to see her. She is always with us if we’re brave enough to stop and look up.
I alighted from the bus and walked down the drive which led to home. The young woman on the bus and the frantic noise of the city were a distant memory in the glow of our front porch light. I turned the key unlocking the door as Prudence and Virginia Woolf’s voice entered my imagination once more,
“Finally, and most emphatically, words, like ourselves, in order to live at their ease, need privacy.”
I shut the door behind me.