I’m having a beer for dinner right now. My wife and my dogs are arranged around me, quietly dozing. It’s a good night.
In peaceful moments, I like to reflect on what I’m hoping will come out of the next few years. It’s a bit of daydreaming, a bit of planning. Lately though, that internal conversation becomes more and more about who I want to become. I started reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius recently1, and a lot of his meditations revolve around his own character.
So, if you’ll allow me, I’m going to do the same. Let’s pretend you asked me about a character trait I wished I had.
“David, what’s a character trait you wish you had?”
If there’s one character flaw that bugs me more than the rest of them, it’s my poor way of keeping my cool. I’m a naturally emotive person; my colleagues describe my body language as “aggressively social,” and I’ve picked up a reputation for loudly (and often) dying on strange hills. A lot of that is playing around, but it reflects a very real tendency to make my feelings clear all the time2.
But lately, I’ve found that this trait doesn’t always serve me well. For one thing, having my emotions constantly at the surface means I’m always causing trouble for someone. I’ve stopped being surprised when I learn that I’ve hurt someone’s feelings or stepped on someone’s toes by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person—even if I mean well. To be clear, I still feel terrible about accidentally putting my foot in my mouth, but I’m less shocked by it now.
There’s been more than a few times where I’ve hurt a friend because my feelings were at a simmer and I should’ve maybe not let myself out of the house. Or at least let myself process those feelings before leaving home. And that’s the key—because of the way I am, even trying to withhold or compartmentalize my feelings creates this tense atmosphere around me. I fidget when I’m excited, I pace when I’m impatient, I walk aggressively when I’m upset.
Maybe it keeps me honest, but man, sometimes you just want to keep your feelings to yourself, you know? It’s like my volume is always turned up really high, and I don’t know where the knob to turn myself down is.
Now, if I were an easygoing person, none of this would be a problem. But internally, I’m also prone to overreacting, jumping to conclusions, and letting my feelings set the pace. I’m a strong thinker, but I’m an excellent overthinker. If getting ahead of myself was an Olympic sport, my picture would be on all kinds of cereal boxes, I tell you what. This tendency also makes me exceptionally petty sometimes, and that’s my least favorite trait.
Petty. Even the word makes your mouth sneer a little.
I consider pettiness the cousin of jealousy and the opposite of poise (more on that below). Jealousy is resentment for someone who you perceive to be above you. This is why admitting jealousy is so hard for jealous people—it’s admitting, on some level, that you do recognize someone’s skill/means/quality being above yours. It’s also why people like accusing others of being jealous of them.
Pettiness is resentment of people you perceive to be at or below your level. It’s a different kind of resentment. It’s in part an inability to let things go, to have an especially malicious and sticky exterior. You cut in front of me in line once? I’ll remember it forever, and everything you ever do will be colored by that one incident.
Pettiness diminishes the human spirit, like pouring water on an unfinished clay sculpture. You’re still standing, but there’s less of you somehow. You’ve sagged a little in your heart. Pettiness is letting small things weigh you down, turning pebbles into boulders and scrapes into wounds.
I read somewhere that you can judge the size of a person by the enemy they choose for themselves. Pettiness turns every small moment into enmity, shriveling and tensing your spirit bit by bit. That’s why I think pettiness is the worst part of my worst flaw: I don’t chill out. I simply don’t let things go. I hang on to things way longer than I should, and in the end I’m the only one weighed down by it.
Someone I knew once said something to me that was slightly condescending, and I remembered that moment for years. That guy later got a little humbled by life, and I’m ashamed to say that part of me felt like my favorite sports team had won. Only the sports team was the crushing weight of existence and entropy, and the opposing team was just a regular dude who probably didn’t even remember me.
Like I said, not my best.
At my best, I make room for others. I recognize that I’m not perfect, that who I am is a work in progress, and I share that truth with everyone else on the planet. I’m not often at my best. When I am, though, what I try to embody is poise.
Up until a couple years ago, I thought poise was that thing where you put some books on your head like in those movies where the character has to go to etiquette training3. The dictionary defines poise as the following:
- Graceful and elegant bearing in a person.
- (Archaic) Balance and equilibrium
Coach John Wooden of UCLA defined poise this way:
“Don’t pretend to be what you are not. Don’t get rattled, thrown off or unbalanced regardless of the circumstance or situation. Leaders with Poise do not panic under pressure. Poise means holding fast to your principles and beliefs and acting in accordance with them regardless of how bad (or good) the situation may be. Know who you are and be true to yourself.”
Poise is steadiness. It’s moving like water: never under or overreacting, always just moving with events and moving past them and through them without effort or force. Just gliding. Poise is being guided by something more powerful and long-lasting than whatever you’re facing in the moment. People who think the ends justify the means will eventually allow the means to descend—people with poise recognize that the ends and the means are not so separated. Method and results are inexorably tied together. “Who are you” and “where are you going” are the same question.
Part of me still acts like poise is aesthetic—I imagine poise is embodied by someone who is quiet or reserved, who never raises their voice. In truth, poise is character. Someone who is loud and emotive may still be living according to their principles. I have poise when I decide that what I am committed to is more important than convenience or ego. I have poise when I don’t let a frustrating situation make me frustrated, or a scary situation turn me into a coward.
Pettiness makes me the center of the world, changing the way I see others to suit my self-importance; it makes me the final result of all creation, as though everything was made to suit me. Poise puts me in the proper part of the equation—not as the answer, but as a part of the question. How can my presence, my thoughts, my actions affect this situation? Knowing what I believe and knowing who I am, how can I make this tiny corner of the world better?
And how do I make room for others in that corner?
- I realize that might sound like a brag, but the translation by Gregory Hays is, like, an eighth grader’s reading level. I recommend it, if only because it’s interesting to read someone else’s thoughts from 2,000 years ago. ↩
- I am, quite naturally, an external processor. If you’ve read any of the sixty-one(!) blogs I’ve written since July 2018, you’ve probably picked up on that. ↩
- As it turns out, The Princess Diaries is not a good teacher. ↩