middot equanimity daily living being even tempered

being even tempered

Written by  rabbi michael schiffman

art-kindness-mattersWith the pressures of the modern world, Equanimity, or even-temperedness is a rare commodity among people. In Jewish life, it is a virtue, because it is an issue of character.

While no one is perfect, even-tempered people are the one’s we tend to like being around on a regular basis. People with explosive personalities may be interesting and creative, but that only lasts until they vent their frustrations on you.

Probably the most high pressure job in America is that of a Junior High School teacher. It’s a difficult time for kids going through all kinds of changes and a worse time for their teachers. When I was in seventh grade, I had a math teacher who was a severe looking angry woman in her mid 30's, who yelled at us every day. She wasn’t always angry, but she was like “Old Faithful,” the geyser that erupts on a regular basis. I’m not saying we didn’t deserve it, but it was a stressful hour of instruction for us, and part of it was because of our teacher’s attitude of dealing with us.

In eighth grade, I had a different math teacher. She was a woman in her late 50's, who smiled at us all the time and treated us as if we were all latent geniuses that needed nurturing toward brilliance. The subject matter was the same. The difference was the kindness with which she treated us. On the rare occasion she got angry, it got our attention because it was so uncommon, and also because we didn’t want to upset someone who was an emotional oasis of peace in the otherwise hostile world of Junior High. We worked hard to fulfill her expectations of us.

I think that’s the real value of equanimity. When you are a person of even-temperedness, people want to be around you, and want to please you. They are more apt to open themselves to you and let you have a productive impact on their lives. People with explosive temperaments may seem more interesting until they explode on you, and then they are not so interesting anymore. It’s hard for people to open themselves to you when they have to “watch their backs” around you. People with more volatile personalities tend to have people avoid them more than even-tempered folk.

The reason equanimity is a virtue in Jewish values is because we are supposed to be people who have a positive effect on one another. You can’t have a positive effect on people if you are scaring them off, or if your presence makes them defensive. I learned equanimity from my teacher, Reb Yitzhak. One year on Christmas day, we were going into his store, which was open, as were all the Orthodox owned stores on the Lower East Side of New York. There was a mentally unbalanced man known as “crazy Joshua” who was off his medication, standing outside with Tzitzit, a long straggly beard, and a big wooden cross going into all the stores to tell everyone they needed to accept Jesus. I watched as he went from store to store, being thrown out by storekeepers with yelling and cursing. When he came to our store, Yitzhak just looked at him and smiled. He said “Joshua? You are working on Yontiff?” He told Yitzhak he needed to accept Jesus. Yitzhak thanked him and said not today. When I asked Yitzhak why he didn’t throw him out like everyone else, he said Joshua was mentally ill, and you can’t get mad at someone who is sick. I observed his even-tempered approach to people time after time. He is one of the most approachable people I know.

The thing a person needs to ask himself is this: What effect do you want to have on the people who know you? You can scare them away, or draw them to yourself. When you draw people to you, what do you have to give them? Proverbs 19:22 says, “That which makes a man to be desired is his kindness. A poor man is better than a liar.”

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