Monday over Coffee: The Middle

The Middle

When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it. 

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
 

Long ago I tried a couple of lawsuits with a fellow who was an excellent lawyer, but he had one troublesome flaw. If we had a good day in trial—for instance, if he made some effective points in cross-examining an important witness—he’d become ebullient, certain we were going to win the case. However, if the next day, one of our own witnesses tanked on the stand, he’d become so downtrodden that he was sure all was lost. On our good days, he got too high and on our bad ones, he got too low. While there are always ups and down in the courtroom—I felt them myself—the magnitude of his swings from exuberance and brash confidence to gloomy despair and doubt in the course of short periods was unsettling, especially in the context of a profession in which poise and level-headedness are so crucial. 

 

The fact is that we all experience emotional vicissitudes in life, and it’s in our very nature to respond emotionally to what’s happening in the present moment over and above all else. I certainly see this in myself. When something bad happens, I tend to initially over-estimate its effect. However, after some “baking in” time in which I’ve processed the emotionally-charged news or experience, I most often realize maybe it wasn’t quite as dreadful as I’d first thought. Once I’ve absorbed my initial emotional response a little, I begin to fold its potential effects into the wider narrative of life in a more reasonable and accurate way.

 

Everyone has a cute little internet video clip they return to from time to time because it brings out a laugh or perhaps just reminds us of something important in a compelling way. Mine is linked here. It shows a little girl named Tienna whose parents are apparently arguing or perhaps even divorcing and she’s precociously giving her mother some sage advice. She couches it gently, indicating she’s not trying to be a “bully,” but just wants her mom to hear her out. Tienna then urges everyone involved—her mother, her father, herself—to maintain that all-important steadiness, neither too high nor too low—to stay, as she says, in “the middle.” Watch it. It’s adorable, poignant, wise, and memorable all at once.  
 

If this little girl, in the midst of what appears to be a terribly emotionally-charged situation, knows the importance of staying in the middle, of maintaining equanimity, of not getting too high or too low, perhaps we should too.

 

Brian Johnson is a philosopher who values and cultivates a Stoic outlook on life and the world. In his writings, he refers to something he calls the Equanimity Game. Here’s the idea—first, become more aware of when you’ve been knocked off-balance by some emotional event or experience. Notice it, then as soon as you catch yourself, see how quickly you can re-balance— bringing yourself back to a state of equanimity. Or, as Tienna would call it, the middle. 

 

Emotional setbacks, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius acknowledges in his Meditations, can’t be avoided in the world. Our aim therefore should be to recognize they will occur, then to train ourselves to recover our balance more quickly when they do—to return to the middle as smoothly as possible. That is to say, he and other Stoic philosophers don’t suggest that we can or even want to wholly prevent our emotional reactions to the events in our lives, but rather they urge us to work on not over-reacting to them and to swiftly recover our reasoning capacity to respond well to the circumstances at hand. 

 

Here’s another idea—a sort of trick I utilize on occasion—that seems to help: when an emotionally-charged event occurs, perhaps picture three judges like the kind who score an athlete in a diving meet or an ice skating competition. As the three judges hold up their scores suggesting how hot or cold my emotional response to the event should be on a scale of 1-10, I consider doing what they do in the Olympics—they throw out the highest and lowest scores and keep the one in the middle. Look, I’m not trying to be a bully—just try it.

 

God—Help me to stay balanced and steady as events swirl and circumstances change. “Help me to be the best in my heart—nothing else than that…my heart is something and everyone else’s heart is something too.”

Amen.


—Greg Funderburk


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