Prudence for Dim Places

Most of us struggle with putting things off. To be human is to procrastinate, it seems. As children we brushed responsibilities aside casually. “Oh, I’ll do it later,” we would say. Being the wiser ones, our parents discouraged delays. According to Paul McCartney, his father’s advice would be, “Do it now.” Gradually, as we learned to be our own advisers, we became more independent in doing what we should when we should. That mattered; yet many of us still fret about unfinished tasks and unreached goals.

Overcoming our internal barriers to action may be difficult, but finding advice for doing so is easy. Paul McCartney delivers it gently in his winsome ditty “Do It Now.” McCartney imagines an invitation to take a journey. His advice to himself — and to us — is to seize the moment. “If you leave it too late,” McCartney sings, “it could all disappear. So do it now.” For activities we feel too cautious to try, this nudge to cast apprehension aside and “seize the day” can help. For unappealing tasks, strategies as varied as creating habits by starting with a first step or launching ourselves with the surge of dopamine generated by a cold shower might strengthen our character or intensify our motivation.

Such strategies may be helpful, but some barriers to action lie beyond their reach. Take, as an example, those of the best-known procrastinator in English literature, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the first scene of the play, Hamlet, a prince of Denmark, swears to avenge the recent murder of his father, the king. His target is his uncle, a man who not only killed Hamlet’s father, but also married the queen and, thereby, stole the throne. Despite his oath, Hamlet cannot bring himself to act. Aspiring to be a man of honour — a loyal son and a virtuous prince — he despises his own hesitation. “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” he cries.

Hamlet’s procrastination is a puzzle, and each generation of readers produces its own set of explanations. In Hamlet, I see a young man in a dim place, a place where few things can be seen for certain. He believes that the king is guilty, but facts are hard to establish. He does not want responsibility, but he is the prince of a realm in peril. He discovers that his friends are collaborating with the king to spy on him, but he misreads their motives. He must act, but rash action may do as much harm as good — as a play ending with bodies strewn across the stage more than illustrates. Facing obscure problems where action is needed, but how to act wisely is unclear — who would not hesitate?

Most of us have hesitated in situations where the thing that should be done is dishearteningly unclear. Advice like “do it now,” fails us there. Instead, we need to be guided by something like prudence. Prudence is a virtue aimed at making each of our actions the best that it can be. To be prudent is to align our actions with our values, to consider the situation we are addressing with great attention, and to carefully weigh the possible things we might do, choosing the means that best addresses the situation and best reflects our values.

Prudent action starts with this kind of reflection, but it finishes with a final step — the action itself. Because we cannot control its outcome, action is a step that requires courage. Nevertheless, unless we act, our reflection profits no one. After all, as we have been taught, there are situations in which evil will triumph if good people do nothing.

Lloyd Den Boer is a former educator living with his wife in Edmonton where together they marvel at the unfinished tasks that pile up, even in retirement.