In a time when incivility, rudeness, extremism, intolerance, and self-righteousness dominate in the media and on the street, David Brooks pleas for equipoise (“In Praise of Equipoise,” The New York Times, September 1, 2017).
Huh? Equipoise? What’s that? Equal poise across situations. The concept appears to have originated in the East. Something like Buddhist non-attachment. Civil engineer and writer Dr. Krishna Murari Soni, in his Lord Krishna and his Leadership (Diamond Pocket Books Pvt Ltd, 2015), writes, if somewhat stumblingly: “Kind hearted person equipoise to friends and enemies, neutral and mediating persons, envious and saintly persons, and well wishers and sinners, is a great person (equipoise to all). Brooks smooths this baffling language this way: “It’s the ability to move gracefully through your identities—to have the passions, blessings and hurts of one balanced by the passions, blessings and hurts of several others. The person with equipoise doesn’t find attachments less powerful but weaves several deep allegiances into one symphony.”
As a 20-something in graduate school, I found small patches of leisure to make chamber music with three professors—harpsichord, violin, ‘cello, and recorder (me). My linguistics professor hosted the sessions—he owned and played the harpsichord. We reveled in Bach, Telemann, Handel, Vivaldi, and Loeillet. Beginning around 7:00 on a Saturday evening, we would play until about 9, then pack up. Why no longer? The harpsichordist was a toper, and by mid evening he’d passed out. It was good while it lasted, then we other three retired to continue our evenings soberly, alone, at our various homes, with a good book. When I shared this narrative with an associate, he was astonished. “How could you use someone like that? That’s immoral. You know you’re enabling his alcoholism?! You only play with him because he owns a harpsichord! If he didn’t, you wouldn’t give him the time of day.”
I wish I had known about equipoise 50 years ago! Practicing equipoise in relationships means knowing that each of us has many different personas, roles, passions, or hats we wear. Some of our hats are noble (I volunteer), some are aesthetic (I make music), some are physical (I walk), some are intellectual (I read), some are entrepreneurial (I create products), some are political (I support sustainability candidates), some are unmentionable (sh-h-h-h-h!!!)…. I could go on. In order to have me as a friend, you do not have to enjoy or approve of all of my passions, but you do have to accept them. Once you begin judging one of my roles, you’ve begun judging the whole me. The same is true of me toward others: To have someone as a friend, I must be able to accept all of their passions—even the ones that I personally disagree with, disapprove of, or find distasteful. If you’re a wine connoisseur, I’ll go along (but not build a cellar). If you like rock and roll, I’ll go along (but not attend). If you like science fiction, I’ll listen to your occasional enthusiastic book review without judging (but not go buy the book). If you like Scriabin, I’ll not laugh behind your back. Practicing equipoise means treating others as if they were a symphony orchestra, but not necessarily an orchestra comprised of your favorite instruments. I don’t care for saxophones, but I won’t find fault if you listen to Gershwin. Having a friend is accepting all their passions without making all of them your own. A pastor friend of mine quotes his Princeton professor: “Love is the non-possessive delight in the particularity of the other.”
I have a friend who went to prison. Must I discontinue the friendship because I disapprove of one (illegal) role he has played? I have a friend who supports a political candidate I think is evil. Must I terminate my association?
During the first day an exchange student from France was getting to know our family, the French teenager said she loved the music of Prince, while our daughter opposed that choice by preferring the music of Michael Jackson. They immediately judged each other as unlikeable—locked horns, as it were. They were unable to accept each other’s assortment of orchestral instruments because of one difference.
A corollary of accepting all of an individual’s qualities is not identifying that same individual by any single quality. My friend is a composite, not a piece, just as my orchestra is a set of instruments, not just a bassoon. To identify an individual by one quality, or passion, and to ignore their other qualities, is opening the door to prejudice. A person is more than their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, their gender, their handicap, their kind and level of intelligence, their career choice, their sport, their car, their special abilities, their clothes, their weakness(es), their hobby. One of my favorite words is synecdoche—referring to something by one of its parts. “Look at those wheels!” refers to a car. “Look at that blonde!” refers to a whole person.
From my 76 years of reading philosophy, living life, sitting through sermons, sharing late night wine and wisdom with friends, auditing pundits, and reading the world’s great (and not-so-great) literature, I conclude that one can take a stand with society by being judgmental, activist, outspoken—with violence as a last resort. Sometimes war is necessary in the face of implacable evil. But friends are not society at large. One must make a personal decision as to whether one can compartmentalize the ugly part of a friend and embrace the remarkable remainder, or whether one must shun the friend for their warts.A college friend, Knox Abernethy, is now Brother John in an isolated Greek Orthodox monastery off the coast of Greece. He once quipped that, “Tolerance is the virtue of people who don’t believe in anything.” This was during the days of the Freedom Riders and Sit-Ins in the South. This was a time to take a stand. What would Knox, or Brother John, say about equipoise. I don’t know and can’t find out—he has taken a vow not to communicate with the outside world.
For my friends who have a passion I cannot approve of, I can respond with equipoise or discounting, with concern or with contempt, with curiosity or judgment. I can engage or disengage. How do I respond to a friend’s passion when I feel a need to disapprove, discourage, or warn against, while still communicating acceptance, even love?
Examples of equipoise:
“Have you considered the consequences of this way of thinking/behaving? On yourself, your family, on our relationship?”
“What has led you to think the way you do?”
“Aren’t differences among us interesting? It would be interesting to know which ones are more genetically or more environmentally influenced.”
“What are other ways of thinking about this issue you have considered? How could you modify your thinking to soften its consequences?”
“What are other options for you to accomplish your goal/meet your need in this area?”
“What are you doing to educate yourself in this area?”
“I resonate to your love of good food, your book choices, your love of classical music, the time you spend at the homeless shelter, and your sense of humor. I overlook your enthusiasm for the Forum—our relationship will be all the smoother for that topic not coming up—with others, fine, but not with me!”
“I love you like a brother, because you are my brother! But are you aware of the current research on sugar in the diet?”
Examples of discounting that are absent of poise and risky for the relationship:
“You are disgusting! You can’t really believe this is pleasurable/helpful/productive.”
“I’m embarrassed to be seen with you. You’ve brought shame to our group.”
“How can you be so savvy in other areas but so ignorant and misguided in this one?”
“How could you stoop so low?”
“That’s a really naïve thing to say?”
“My IQ is so much higher than yours! I have the highest IQ of all. You’re so sad.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself—offering sugar to your children.”
“When are you going to outgrow your taste for pulp novels?”
“Why aren’t you more like me?”
And then there was James Houlik, one-time saxophone instructor at N. C. School of the Arts, who kept the notoriously argumentative Phillip Hanes at bay by quipping, “I refuse to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man.” While amusing, such insults are the absence of equipoise and are used when one does not wish to continue a relationship.
George Fox (1624-1691), founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers), is credited with the assertion that there is “…that of God in everyone.” (Actually, every “man,” but equipoise suggests the broader term.) Two centuries later on this side of the pond, philosopher/poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) wrote that “Every individual nature has its own beauty.” (Nature, 1836) Both statements stem from eastern thought and have at their core the notion of appreciating the finer aspect of a person (or animal, or season of the year) and accepting (if possible) the warts.
Mohammad said it in several ways, under the subject of compassion:
- “A kind word or even a smile is a form of charity.”
- “Allah has no mercy for him who has no mercy for his fellows.”
- “’I have ten sons and have never kissed any of them.’ The Holy Prophet looked at him and said: ‘He who has no compassion will receive none.’”
Fox, Emerson, and Mohammad are all speaking variations of the Golden Rule (or Silver Rule—“Don’t treat others the way you don’t want to be treated.”), or reciprocity in relationships.
Equipoise is not just about relationships. It is about an attitude toward oneself—accepting one’s symphony of attributes, even though some suffer by comparison to others. My late sister Nancy once thought less of herself because she lacked the musical, literary, artistic, athletic, and business talents of her siblings. Searching for her strength, she dubbed herself “The Responsible One.” And so became the glue that held the family together.
I have a friend who is a climate change denier. Apart from that view, she is a force for good in the world: loving mother, civil servant, savvy attorney, pillar of the church, velvet-throated singer, graceful with words, engaging sense of humor. I don’t want to lose her friendship, but I cannot let her think that I approve of her denial (it is not just a river in Egypt!). How could I maintain the friendship while nudging her toward sanity, climate wise? As though in answer to my dilemma, I received in the mail my enrollment gift from having joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science—a high-tech water bottle emblazoned on one side with “I am a force for science.” Bordering on the passive-aggressive, I now take this water bottle with me when in meetings that we both attend, and I subtly aim my message toward her. Nothing said—just a silent nudge. [My wife read this and commented that my behavior in this instance is not equipoise. Hmm… What do you think?]
David Brooks concluded his op ed plea for equipoise with this challenge to leaders: “Show me a person who can gracefully balance six fervent and unexpectedly diverse commitments, and that will be the one who is ready to lead in this new world.”