Equanimity

I’m continuing to post my weekly contributions for http://www.rivertonmussar.org right here at Divine Reversal. We just completed a cycle of 13 middot, or character traits, and are starting over at the first one again. You never stop growing. . .


Beloved . . . this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Messiah Yeshua. (Phil. 3:13–14)

Without balance any virtue can become a vice. Humility can become annoying self-effacement or avoidance of real opportunities because they might lead to recognition. Righteousness can become self-righteousness; order can become obsessiveness. And equanimity is no exception. Rabbi Mendel defines it as rising above events, both good and bad, that have the power to disturb our inner poise and peace. But this quality can become an imbalanced detachment from events, an other-worldliness that would contradict the spirit of Mussar.

In this light, let’s consider Rav Shaul’s key to equanimity—to forget the past and focus on what lies ahead. Life will inevitably hand us reversals, many of which we could have avoided with more foresight or better judgment. But we add to the problem when we indulge in thoughts of regret—what we should have done or could have done differently—and lose our equanimity.

I had the opportunity to experience this first-hand recently. I needed to trim a huge branch off the big mulberry tree in our front yard. After weighing several options, I decided to take the whole branch down in one cut near the trunk, which was safer than getting on a ladder or climbing the tree to make the main cut further out on the branch. My only concern was that the branch might damage the house in some way as it came down, but I eyeballed it, and it looked like it would clear the house when it fell. I thought about trimming off the ends of the branch with a pole saw before making the main cut, but trying to cut through a branch that would sway at every stroke with a saw attached to a 12-foot pole didn’t appeal to me. So, I made the cut, the branch fell—and one of its tips broke a bedroom window. I overcame my initial shock quickly enough and started kicking myself: “That was really dumb—you should have trimmed the tips before cutting down the whole branch!” “You were afraid this would happen—you should have paid attention to your own better judgment.” “If you’d only taken a half-hour of really annoying pole-sawing, you could have avoided two or three hours of work to repair this window!”

Equanimity required that I resist all such thoughts, firmly putting them aside as they arose in my consciousness. It helped that might wife, Jane, didn’t voice any of them at all, and just got into helping me fix the window. Equanimity means refraining from 20-20 hindsight and focusing on the task at hand—even if we brought it upon ourselves.

The balance in equanimity, though, is that we still learn from the mistake. Forgetting the past, as Rav Shaul recommends, doesn’t mean that we cannot learn from the past. In fact, one secret to gaining equanimity is seeing a mistake as an opportunity to learn. With balanced equanimity, we derive whatever lesson the disaster affords, tuck it away safely in our consciousness, and toss out the rest of the package. My broken window taught me that it’s easier to take additional steps to avert a problem than it is to clean up after we’ve created one. With that lesson in hand, I was ready to rise above the event itself and fix my window in peace.


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