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Vivien Reid - Saper Vivere
Introduction to the book. Milano: San Paolo, 2010

One the most vivid memories I have of my (compulsory) military service is the assault course. You had to climb a wall, walk along a narrow beam over a trench, slither under barbed wire, jump across a stretch of water, trudge in the mud, climb over a hedge, and so on – in as short a time as possible. The image of the assault course impressed itself in my mind as a metaphor for everyday life: You have to fetch one child from school while the other is home sick with chicken pox; for some obscure reason your wife (or husband) is furious; the washing-machine is broken; your back aches; you must remember to pay the (overdue) bills. Or: you are stuck in traffic and late for an appointment; you are way behind in your emails; you have had an argument with a colleague; you left clothes on the line back at home and now it is pouring; you have to jump hoops to meet expenses – and all of this in various combinations. These are the exasperating vicissitudes of daily life. According to an American study, we run up against an average of 23 frustrations a day. I do not know how they discovered this, but the number is probably accurate.

There are, however, two important differences between the assault course and everyday life: in the first, you know more or less what you will be up against, while in the second the hitches are often a surprise. Moreover, the true challenge in our daily life is not merely to overcome obstacles, but to overcome them well, without compromising your health or ruining a relationship, without losing your job or falling into depression; on the contrary, staying healthy and centered, smiling at those you meet, and maybe keeping in mind that life is beautiful.

A tall order. Not all of us manage, but luckily there is help. We can learn to live better, thanks to certain kinds of guidance, given by traditional wisdom and, in these last few decades, also by psychology. One of these aids comes from the qualities or virtues. Easing and lighting our way, they are joy or harmony, warmth or patience, strength or peace – and many others. At times it is enough just to think of one of these qualities and our situation improves. Take the virtue of patience: I risk missing the train, and I think that, instead of getting uselessly worked up, I can face my predicament with equanimity. Surely I will feel better straightaway if I am able to conceive this virtue clearly and vividly, right there on the spot, while driving to the station.

The qualities or virtues are an ancient concept, and a central element of various spiritual traditions. In the Christian tradition, for example, we speak of the theological virtues – those that bring us closer to God: faith, hope and charity. The cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, strength and temperance – are the hinges on which our daily actions must swing. In the Buddhist tradition we find the paramis: the perfections, qualities such as patience, truthfulness or kindness. The virtues or perfections or qualities are a vital aid for us, because the Spirit is ineffable and thus inconceivable within our mental structures. We need some conceptual intermediary to translate the awesome reality of the Spirit into terms that can be anchored in human reality.

Virtues can teach and enlighten us. They are like pathfinders that show us the next step in our inner life. In olden times they were commonly personified and represented pictorially. Giotto's frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel are a fine example.

If you go to Padova and wish to visit this marvel, after you have bought your ticket you will wait for a quarter of an hour in a special room, where the dust that you have involuntarily brought from outside gradually falls off and your body temperature equalizes to that of the space you are about to enter. Even though the waiting time was conceived for the purpose of protecting the frescoes, it is also a useful buffer between the clamour and disorder of the outside world, and the inner sacredness of this place. When you enter, you will have another quarter of an hour to look at Giotto's work representing episodes of the Old and New Testament. After you have gazed up high and taken in this beauty, you will perhaps notice at about eye-level, figures representing the virtues on one side and the vices on the other. Naturally you are supposed to cultivate the virtues and avoid the vices. For instance, you need to shun the vice of inconstancy, shown as a woman sitting in precarious equilibrium on a wheel rolling backwards down a slope. The image immediately gives you an understanding of the inconstant person's mental state, the continuous anguish of living without stability and certitude.

On the opposite wall are the virtues, for example charity is shown as a woman who receives a gift from heaven with one hand and offers a plate of fruit and wheat with the other: the inspired generous spirit.

These images were once the only way for poor, illiterate people to learn the basics of morality and religion. In the case of the Giotts Chapel, they were conceived as a veritable guide to heaven. Now we see these very images under museum conditions for a short time, then we leave and meet a visual invasion: violence, sex, horror, movie stars, gadgets, fashion, faraway lands. And what about the virtues? Where have they gone?

These days psychologists study the virtues. The first ones to speak about the virtues were the saints and the poets. Then came the philosophers. Last were the psychologists. Their concern is much more prosaic. This is not to speak ill of psychology – the scientific method is slower and less spectacular, but it does offer the advantage of verification. Curiously, psychologists were at first only interested in anxiety, anguish, obsession, compulsions, phobias, panic attacks, death fantasies, delirium, sexual perversions, and so on. Only later did they look at positive emotions. One of the first to do so was an Italian psychiatrist, Roberto Assagioli, with whom I had the good fortune to study and collaborate. Assagioli was the first to bring psychoanalysis to Italy at the beginning of last century, but he disagreed with its over-emphasis on pathology. He founded psychosynthesis, a comprehensive approach with an emphasis on the will, our search for meaning, and our creative potential.

One of Assagioli's leading ideas was to include spirituality as a legitimate field of psychological work and study. Contrary to Freud, who saw spiritual experiences as deriving from other levels of the psyche, Assagioli gave them independent status. For him spirituality is not an artifact or a defense mechanism, but a living reality and basic constituent of the inner life. For many years in Italy he mostly met with indifference – if not downright hostility. In 1938 the fascist regime arrested him for leading meditation groups on peace. Afterwards he was simply ignored. His work was recognized internationally only much later, in the Seventies, with the blossoming of the humanistic and transpersonal psychology of Abraham Maslow and with a growing interest in human potentialities. More recently still, from the Nineties on, we have seen a progression of scientific studies showing that certain qualities have beneficial effects on the body and the psyche: for example, a good mood brings physical well-being, kindness reinforces the immune system, trust promotes longevity, gratitude increases efficiency, and optimism improves athletic performance and political popularity .

These studies are necessary and interesting, but they only confirm what we already instinctively knew: the qualities help us to be well and to enrich our lives and relationships. And, even more important, they are an end in themselves; they have value independently of any psychophysical benefits they may offer.

This book is divided into ten qualities or virtues, the ones that can best aid us in our everyday life and give us clarity and calm. In life's haste and chaos, with all its frustrations, distractions and hindrances, we need to keep balanced and serene. We may even succeed in having a good influence on others – not in the sense of holding ourselves up as teachers, but simply because we might as well offer the best of ourselves.

The soul, said Tertullian, is "naturaliter christiana" – inherently Christian. The soul contains, at least potentially, all the virtues we have mentioned, and many others. They are not fabricated responses, but attitudes that can best help us express who we are. Our task is not to learn some self-imposed, unnatural behavior, but to find again our forgotten nucleus of wisdom and goodness. This is the same conclusion reached by humanistic and transpersonal psychology, and, later, by positive psychology. Spiritual qualities are not artificial additions, but authentic traits we already have and can develop.

Such a conception of the human being is vastly different to the one cultivated from the end of the nineteenth century: a creature in perpetual struggle with all others – aggressive, bullying, mean and selfish – struggling to survive. In that view, culture is no more than a thin veneer of rules extraneous to our true nature, rules we impose on ourselves for the sake of social coexistence: but beneath the surface layer we are savage and selfish. In recent times science has radically changed this exaggerated, unilateral image of the human being. We are now finding that it is precisely the possession of certain virtues, for example the ability to collaborate, care of others, and empathy, which have helped humans survive and evolve. Those who did not have these capacities became extinct.

This book talks about "spiritual etiquette". In the Italian language etiquette is commonly called "saper vivere", literally, "knowing how to live". The wording is meaningful. If there is such a thing as "knowing how to live", there must also be a "not knowing how to live": not knowing how to live with one's own emotions, and not knowing how to read those of others, not knowing how to handle everyday stress. And also not knowing how to understand and tolerate suffering, not knowing how to enjoy life, and not being able to stay centered in tough moments. So we need humbly to learn – and keep learning – how to live. And we can learn to live well.

Americans say that God is in the details (though perhaps the first to say it was Flaubert). This also means that great ideas and eternal principles may well be important, but it really boils down to how we manage them in daily life. There we show our true colours: how we treat our husband (or wife), how we react to frustration, how we drive, how we use money, how we dress, the tone of our voice, the way we treat objects, how we recycle our garbage. There's the rub.

An example: Some time ago I was early for a meeting, so I sat and waited on a park bench. Nearby were two men, both grandfathers looking after their grandchildren playing in the park. They were conversing: "Children are poetry", "Children are wonderful", "Children are a gift from God". They were singing praises to children. Then one of them had to leave. He brusquely called his grandchild, and went off, pulling her by her arm. The other granddad behaved in a similarly unpleasant fashion. Ah, but what happened to the beautiful ideas expressed a moment before? I think the two men were quite sincere: they just had not anchored their beliefs in real life. Thus people proclaim noble principles, wide-ranging visions, and soon betray them. This is where we need some spiritual etiquette.

Sometimes I think: What a relief it would be if we just learned ordinary good manners! People would not raise their voices; before eating they would wait till everyone was served; they would be on time, and polite on the phone; they would not put their feet up on the train or at the theatre; they would wait in a queue without trying to push in; and so forth.

Traditional etiquette is an expression of morality and respect for others. Actually, it has surprisingly deep roots and meanings. In our Age of Bad Manners we would do well to cultivate some good ones. But these are nevertheless formal rules imposed from the outside. It is even more urgent to assimilate the spiritual etiquette – that is, to learn the art of living in harmony with ourselves and others. If we could truly assimilate it, then our difficulties and pitfalls would become chances for us to grow stronger. There would be less struggle, less rage.

In good faith, I am not allowed to praise this book: it would be partial to do so, because the author is my wife. But I can safely say the subject is of huge importance, because if we want to change the world, we must start with small matters. When it comes to real life, we are forever sitting primary school exams – even if we are attending University.

To help us cope, we can let the beacon of spiritual qualities be our guide. Then the daily assault course will become a series of stepping stones towards wisdom and love.