Last week I wrote a short essay in praise of equanimity, the quality of mind that is unruffled by external conditions. As I’m sure you noticed, however, the essay begged at least two important questions:
Why does this quality of mind matter?
And how can it be achieved and maintained?
I’d like to address these two questions today. But, first, I should say something about the value of equanimity in the history of Christian thought.
There are many who have argued that this frame of mind is a legitimate end in itself, in need of no additional commentary. They may be right. But it seems also true to me that equanimity provides such benefits to people engaged actively in the world, that we may benefit from thinking more fully about it.
There was no personal characteristic more highly prized among many early Christians than what they called equanimity. Whether the early Christian in question was Basil of Caesarea who strode the corridors of fourth-century Byzantine ecclesiastical power amid the landscape of shifting political alliances and court intrigue, or whether the Christian in question was Basil’s contemporary, the former court chaplain Evagrius Ponticus, who fled the Imperial power center after some sort of sexual imbroglio to spend the remainder of his life as a solitary monk in the deserts of Egypt, equanimity was seen as the essential equipment required to live at peace with oneself.
This quality of mind and spirit was especially valued in perilous times. And, we should remember, most times in human history have been perilous.
I, for one, tend to look back to my childhood as a peculiarly peaceful stable era. But adults, like my parents, who were navigating the 1950s and 1960s, from the endless hunt for Communists to the fears over nuclear annihilation, from the struggle for fundamental civil rights for our Black citizens to the divisions in our country over the Vietnam War, doubtless had a very different experience of this era. And I remember the 1970s for the delights of college, lots of afternoon-long picnics at the lake, the joys of marriage, and my first experiences of graduate school. But it was also a period of crisis in the political world, international danger and shame, and economic hardship.
Every age has its dangers, toils and snares.
Our early Christian forebears lived through the years when Christianity was virtually outlawed (a period, incidentally, of astronomical growth for the church) to the era when Christianity was sanctioned as the official religion of the Empire (a devastating development, by the way, in the eyes of many early Christians and Church historians). The world in which Christianity was born and took its first toddling steps was as red in tooth and claw as any other.
Barbarism among the Goths was only barely less brutal and capricious than barbarism among the denizens of the declining a Roman Empire. This was the time when the first monks appeared, ragged men and women inhabiting desert places, praying incessantly for the future of the world. Personally, I don’t think they fled the world so much as took the sanctity of God’s reign with them into the wilderness so that it might be cultivated and nurtured for future generations. We could say much the same of the communal monastic movement that soon after would bear the name of Saint Benedict, and even a bit later of the monastic foundations following his example who saved civilization, philosophy and faith for the future in places like Ireland, Iona and Northumbria during the darkest of the Dark Ages.
These early Christians knew that no desert refuge and no monastic enclosure was strong enough to guarantee safety, security, comfort, and hope. Thus they worked and prayed and studied to cultivate a faith that could sustain them in the midst of life’s dangers. This faith was neither theoretical nor propositional, but a personal trust and confidence in God that would nourish the spirit of equanimity.
1. Why? Why did all these early generations of Christians value equanimity?
Because they knew that equanimity alone provides the necessary frame of mind for rational thinking and living.
Fear and anxiety, and their cousins hatred and violence, do not provide what is needed to act rationally or faithfully in this world.
Revolutions may ride the dragon’s back, but revolutions rarely, if ever, end well. Usually, however lofty the ideals and fervent the zeal of the revolutionaries, they result in one complacent class being replaced by another, which soon falls to its own sins of excess and complacency. Eras of peace and justice following hard upon the heals of revolution are much less common in history than are reigns of terror and the turmoils of endless cycles of revolution.
Equanimity proceeds from an inner peace, an inner calm, a sense that “all will be well, and all manner of things will be well,” neither because progress is inevitable (it isn’t!), nor because we are so smart or so good (we aren’t), but because God holds us and all history in his hands. Equanimity rests in the confidence that God calls upon us to act with justice, mercy, equity, compassion, and to leave the outcomes to the One who has and ever will be faithful in the outworking of his purposes for creation.
There is in the outworking of such equanimity not the merest shade of complacency or quietism, but a deep wisdom that God calls us to do our part but not to imagine that the ends depend on us alone. Each of us and all of us are called to a stewardship that receives a garden we did not plant, but for which we are responsible until we hand it on to others.
2. Equanimity is achieved by faith, not belief about a set of propositions or adherence to doctrines, but personal trust in the providence and love of God. And, therefore, equanimity is maintained by certain practices of faith.
One of the frustrations I’ve had with Stoicism has been this: its assertions, though often true, are supported by very little in the way of practices. In other words, I’ve often resonated to the wisdom of developing that inner citadel of the heart which life cannot shake, but Stoicism itself offered me little help in achieving and maintaining this frame of mind.
Both Christianity and Buddhism have done much better in developing practices of faith that help us sustain equanimity.
Anyone who has used the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola will be able to bear witness to how well these regular practices have opened their eyes spiritually and spoken to their hearts emotionally.
Those who have given themselves over to the regular and disciplined practices of Mindfulness and Mindful Meditation can bear witness to the manner in which these practices have changed their orientation toward life, toward its fragility and its changeability.
In contrast to the “name and shame” school of Social Justice which is so prominent today, those who possess equanimity are much more likely to see the “offender” as another side of themselves, as someone human, someone redeemable, someone suffering, someone who should be heard and loved, however difficult that may be, if we wish together to grow toward human maturity.
In contrast to the disciples of hatred and glorifiers of violence who intimidate and bully others for their own short-term private interests or out of a sort of tribal fear of the other, those who possess equanimity are more likely to be able to see beyond the others they oppose to a vision of a fair and just and good society that allows all people the chance to flourish and to learn from one another.
Rationality is not the enemy of faith, not if faith is trust in the goodness and love of the Just and Merciful God we Christians believe is shown to us in Jesus of Nazareth. Trust in this God and this God’s “end game” can sustain in us that unruffled equanimity that is better able to see clearly the field of options we have before us.
I have come to believe that most of the problems we face in this society really are problems. That’s good news.
Problems, no matter how tangled and entrenched, ultimately can be unraveled and solved. But they will not be solved unless and until there is a critical mass of people who possess the equanimity to help us solve them.
There will remain many predicaments in our world too, and predicaments cannot be solved. Equanimity helps us with them too, because a predicament cannot be solved, only borne with patience and understanding. This too is good news.
I hope that one day we’ll be wise enough to own the name of our species: Homo sapiens. Human beings have so much unrealized promise.