Some say there are two kinds of people in the world: those who say there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who do not. I am of the latter persuasion. The popular, timeworn, static polarities of day and night, male and female, good and evil – each one of them resist the healing, whole-making dynamics of an engaged life lived well. The opposing stances of the static nouns that name day and night become mitigated by the active verbs that name morning and evening, and turn the wheel that brings them together.
We are all quite different from one another, in extraordinary ways. And yet at heart we are all doing the same thing: wanting to understand this world and our place within it, and to make the most we can of this life we have. When we notice our differences, we can become fascinated by what gets our attention – what attracts or repels, inspires or frightens us – all of which depends more upon our attitude toward it, rather than what it happens to be. What we once thought was cute in the person we married may become in time what annoys us, although that may not have changed as much as has our opinion.
I am absolutely not an absolutist, but more generally a generalist. The problem I find with the illusion of polarities, such as black and white, is that they do not admit to a resolution within the range that they bracket – the fifty shades of grey, you might say – that move back and forth between them. The original sin may simply have been a belief in the illusion of good versus evil. Rather than contend with one another, however, these opposites account for one another; they provide one another context, as God’s conversation with Satan demonstrates in the Book of Job. I was told long ago that good and evil are simply the training wheels that we may remove, when we’ve found our own balance.
This balance must be found within us, and gradually, at a personal, fundamental center – not out there in a world filled with diversity and distraction. Taking the time to find this balance develops three qualities of the mind that are indicated by the Sanskrit term kshanti: patience, forbearance and forgiveness. Developing them, we gain a condition of equanimity that can tolerate an otherwise dazzling, overwhelming world, and a condition of resilience and recovery as we remain aware of ourselves in addition to what is happening – yet without indifference, because we care.
Life always brings crises – sudden crossroads that require our measured consideration, rather than an offhand, spastic reaction. The severity of such an event can seem abrupt and acute, and we may feel dismayed and unsure of ourselves in what seems an ambiguous and dangerous situation. The severity of the situation will usually conceal from us its meaning: its causes and its possibilities. It can also distract us from what we know of ourselves, our opinions and our values, and the tempered equanimity of our self-confidence.
Temper is an important word here: a tempered scale is finely tuned, and tempered steel is made resilient – and to lose our temper is to become brittle. To know what to do in any situation means we must know who we are as well as what is taking place: what we believe, feel, and think – and why. Life asks us to learn its many characteristics – its challenges and its opportunities – and to know ourselves in terms of them, and in response to them. This is responsibility. There is no certainty in this inconstant world, but as we find our sea-legs, an apprehensive stance regarding external situations will give way to a certain wellness that wells up from within.
A few days ago I posted a video of Uruguay’s José Mujica, well known as the world’s poorest president, on Facebook, where I hang out with friends and grandchildren that I can’t visit otherwise. In that interview he said, “Either you’re happy with very little, free of all that extra luggage, because you have happiness inside, or you don’t get anywhere! I am not advocating poverty, I am advocating sobriety.” This sobriety is another word for equanimity, and the self-confident balance that it can bring to the life we will encounter, out of the life we have lived so far.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.