THE ENEMIES OF POISE
The enemies of poise are many and of different origins, both of feeling
and of impulse.
They all tend, however, toward the same result, the cessation of effort
under pretexts more or less specious.
It is of no use deceiving ourselves. Lack of poise has its roots deep in
all the faults which are caused by apathy and purposeless variety.
We have learned in the previous chapter ho
greatly the vice of lack of
confidence in oneself can retard the development of the quality we are
Balanced between the desire to succeed and the fear of failure, the
timid man leads a miserable existence, tortured by unavailing regrets
and by no less useless aspirations, which torment him like the worm that
Little by little the habit of physical inaction engenders a moral
inertia and the victim learns to fly from every opportunity of escaping
from his bondage.
Very soon an habitual state of idleness takes possession of him and
causes him to avoid everything that tends to make action necessary.
The dread of responsibility that might devolve upon him turns him aside
from every sort of endeavor, and he passes his life in a hopeless and
sluggish inaction, from a fear of drawing down upon himself reproaches
to which he might have to make answer or of being compelled to take part
in discussions which would involve the disturbing of his indolent
Are we to suppose then that he finds real happiness in such a state of
Certainly not, for this negative existence weighs upon him with all the
burden of a monotony that he feels powerless to throw off. His own
mediocrity enrages him while the success of others fills him with
Nevertheless his weakness of character allows the hate of action to
speak more loudly to him than legitimate ambition, and keeps him in a
state of obvious inferiority that of itself gives birth to numberless
new enemies, who end by destroying him utterly.
He is first attacked by slowness of comprehension, the inevitable
consequence of that idleness that causes the cowardly to shun the
Rather than combat influences from without he allows them daily to
assume a more prominent and a more definite place in his thoughts.
His hatred of action says no to all initiative and he considers that he
has accomplished his whole duty toward society and toward himself when
he says: "What's the use of undertaking this or that? I haven't a chance
of succeeding and it is therefore idle to invite defeat!"
So quickly does the change work that his mind, from lack of proper
exercise, rapidly reaches the condition where it can not voluntarily
comprehend any but the most simple affairs and goes to pieces when
confronted with occasions that call for reflection or reasoning, which
he considers as the hardest kind of work.
It is hardly a matter for astonishment, therefore, that under these
conditions effeminacy should take possession of a soul that has become
the sport of all the weaknesses that are born of a desire to avoid
We do not care to draw the picture of that case too often encountered in
which this moral defeat becomes changed into envy, the feeling of
bitterness against all men, the veritable hell of the man who has not
the power to make the effort that shall free him.
Mental instability is the inevitable consequence of this state of
All brain-activity being regarded as a useless toil, the man of timidity
never understands the depth of the questions he has not the courage to
discuss. If he does talk of them, it is with a bias rendered all the
more prejudiced by the fact that, instead of expressing his ideas, he
takes refuge in fortifying his heresies with arguments of which the
smallest discussion would demonstrate the worthlessness.
This unwillingness to discuss conditions gives rise among people who are
deficient in poise to a special form of reasoning, which causes them to
summarize in the most hurried fashion even the gravest events, upon the
sole consideration that they are not asked to take part in them. If, by
any chance, they are forced to be actors in these events the least
little incident assumes for them the most formidable proportions.
It seems probable that this tendency to exaggerate everything with which
they come in contact is due solely to egoism. It is certain at any rate
that egoism plays a large part in it, but some portion of it is due to
the lack of observation that characterizes all people of timidity.
The mental idleness and the instability of mind that we have already
considered render such people less inclined to consider with any degree
of care those things which do not touch them directly.
At this stage, it is no longer possible for them to feign ignorance in
order to avoid the trouble of thinking, and they are only touched, even
by the most personal matters, to the extent that circumstances impose
upon them the necessity of thinking or of acting with reference to the
subject under consideration.
The idea that they can no longer avoid the resolutions which must be
made and their fear of the consequences which may result from these
affect them to such a profound extent that the most insignificant of
occurrences immediately assumes for them an altogether incommensurate
This state of mind is a notable foe of poise. It is practically
impossible for a person under such conditions to believe that any
considerable effort he has made can have passed unperceived.
This propensity to assign an exaggerated importance to personal affairs
develops egoism, the avowed enemy of poise. An egoist necessarily
assumes that the rest of the world attributes to his acts the importance
he himself assigns to them.
This preoccupation does not fail to upset him. It increases his
embarrassment and the fear of not appearing in the light in which he
wishes to be seen paralyzes him, while the dread of what other people
may think prevents him from being himself.
To this cause many otherwise inexplicable defeats must be assigned, the
result of which is a renewed resentment against the world at large and
an ardent desire to avoid any further exposure to the chance of failure.
A case in point is the man who becomes nervous while making a speech,
starts to stammer, and makes a lamentable failure of what began well
enough, because he imagines that persons in the audience are making fun
He has overheard a word, or surprized a look, neither of which had any
relation to him, but so great is his egoism that he does not dream that
any one in the audience can be so lacking in taste as to be concerned
with anything but himself.
Had this man, in spite of his egoism, been endowed with poise, he would
have gone along calmly, simply forcing himself to ignore all criticism
and to impress his very critics by his attitude and his eloquence. But
his distrust of himself, his mental instability, his habitual weakness
of reasoning, all these enemies of poise league themselves together to
inflict upon him a defeat, of which the memory will only aggravate his
nervousness and his desire never to repeat such an unpleasant
For the man who has no poise there is no snatching victory from defeat.
His feeble will-power is completely routed, and the effort involved in
stemming the tide of adverse opinion is to him an impossibility.
From dread of being carried away by the current, and feeling himself
incapable of struggling against it, he prefers to hide himself in the
caves along the shore, rather than to make one desperate effort to cross
But the very isolation he seeks, in depriving him of moral support,
increases his embarrassment.
"It is not good for man to be alone," says Holy Writ. It is certainly
deplorable, for one who desires to make his way, to find himself without
a prop, without a counselor, and without a guide.
This is the case of those timid persons who do not understand how to
make friends for themselves.
Poise, on the other hand, invites sympathy. It aids men to expand. It
creates friends when needed, and weaves the bonds of comradeship and of
protection without which our social fabric could not hold together.
Educators should seek for inspiration in the lessons that the exigencies
of modern life offer to the view of the observer. Excessive modesty,
sworn enemy of poise, is, socially speaking, a fault from which young
minds should be carefully guarded.
It is the open door to all the feeblenesses which interfere with the
development of poise.
It is a mistake that it has so long been considered as a virtue.
In any case, the day of extreme humility is past. This detachment from
oneself is contrary to all the laws of progress.
It is opposed to all the principles of evolution and of growth which
should be the study of all our contemporaries, whatever their station or
the class to which they may happen to belong.
No man has the right to withdraw himself from the battle and to shirk
his duties, while watching other people fighting to maintain the social
equilibrium and seeking to achieve the position to which their talents
and their attainments render them worthy to aspire.
That which is too easily honored with the title of modesty is generally
nothing more than a screen behind which conscious ineptitude conceals
It is a very easy thing to strike a disdainful attitude and to exclaim:
"I didn't care to compete!"
Do not forget that a defeat after a sanguinary combat is infinitely more
honorable than a retreat in which not a blow is struck.
Moreover, the combats of the mind temper the soul, just as those of the
body fortify the flesh, by making both fit for the victory that is to
It is then against the enemies of poise that we must go forth to war.
Cowardice must be hunted down, wherever we encounter it, because its
victims are thrown into the struggle of life burdened with an undeniable
Even if they are worth while no one will be found to observe it, since
their lack of poise always turns them back upon themselves, and very few
people have the wit to discover what is so sedulously concealed.
Deception is the necessary corollary of this, and one that very soon
becomes changed into spite. The disappointment of being misunderstood
must inevitably lead us to condemn those who do not comprehend us. Our
shyness will be increased at this and we shall end by disbelieving
ourselves in the qualities that we find other people ignoring in us.
From this condition of discouragement to that of mental inertia it is
but a step, and many worthy people who lack poise have rapidly traveled
this road to plunge themselves into the obscurity of renunciation.
They are like paralytics. Like these poor creatures they have limbs
which are of no service to them and which from habitual lack of
functioning end by becoming permanently useless.
If their nature is a bad one they will have still more reason to
complain of this lack of poise, with its train of inconveniences of
which we have been treating, that will leave them weakened and a prey to
all sorts of mental excesses which will be the more serious in their
effects for the fact that their existence is known to no one but the
Instead of admitting that their lack of poise-due to the various faults
of character we have been discussing--is the sole cause of the apparent
ostracism from which they suffer, they indulge in accusations against
fate, against the world, against circumstances, and grow to hate all
those who have succeeded, without being willing to acknowledge that they
have never seriously made the attempt themselves.
Only those return home with the spoils who have taken part in the
battle, have paid with their blood and risked their lives.
The man who remains in hiding behind the walls of his house can hardly
be astonished that such honors do not come his way.
Life is a battle, and victory is always to the strong. The timid are
never called upon to take their share of the booty. It becomes the
property of those who have had the force to win it, either by sheer
courage or by cautious strategy, for real bravery is not always that
which calls for the easy applause of the crowd.
It is found just as much among those who have the will-power to keep
silent as to their plans and to resist the temptation to actions which,
while satisfying their desire for energetic measures may destroy the
edifice that they have so carefully constructed.
It is for this reason that enthusiasm may be considered with justice as
an enemy of poise.
Those who act under the domination of an impulse born of a too-vivid
impression are rarely in a state of mind that can be depended upon to
judge sanely and impartially. They nearly always overshoot the mark at
which they aim. They are like runners dashing forward at such a high
speed that they can not bring themselves to a sudden stop. Habitual
enthusiasm is also the enemy of reflection. It is an obstacle to that
reason from which proceed strong resolves, and one is often impelled, in
observing people who are fired with too great an ardor, to thoughts of
the fable of the burning straw.
A teacher, who inclined to the methods that consist of object lessons,
one day asked two children to make a choice between two piles, one of
straw, the other of wood. It is hardly necessary to add that while the
size of the pile of straw was great that of the wood was hardly
one-tenth of the volume.
The first child, when told to make his choice, took the mass of straw,
which he set on fire easily enough, warming himself first from a
respectful distance and then at close range, in proportion as the heat
of the fire grew less.
In so doing he made great sport of his companion, who struggled
meanwhile to set alight the pile of wood. But what was the outcome?
The huge mass of straw was soon burned out, while the wood, once lit,
furnished a tranquil and steady flame, which the first child watched
with envy while seated by the mass of cinders that alone remained of the
vanished pile that he had chosen.
The man of real poise is like the child who, disclaiming the transitory
blaze of the straw, prefers to work patiently at building a fire whose
moderate heat will afford him a durable and useful warmth.
Let us then beware of sudden unreasoning enthusiasms. After the
ephemeral flame of their first ardor has burned itself out we shall but
find ourselves seated by the mass of ashes formed of our mistakes and
our dead energies.
The rock on which so many abortive attempts are wrecked in the effort to
achieve poise is a type of sentimentality peculiar to certain natures.
This state of mind is characterized by a craving for expansion, which is
all the more irritating since the timidity of the person concerned
prevents it from being satisfied.
In place of relying upon themselves, feeling their disabilities and the
lack of poise which prevents them from proper expression, such people
try to make themselves understood by those who do not appreciate their
feelings, without stopping to think that they have done nothing to make
clear what they really need.
Such a chaotic state of mind, based on errors of judgment, is a very
serious obstacle to the acquisition of poise.
This anxiety to communicate their feelings, always rendered ineffective
by the difficulty of making the effort involved, gives rise in the long
run to a species of misanthropy.
It is a matter of common knowledge that misanthropy urges those who
suffer from it to fall back upon themselves, and from this state to that
of active hostility toward others the road is short, and timid people
are rarely able to pull up before they have traversed it.
There comes to them from this intellectual solitude an unhappiness so
profound that they are glad to be able to attribute to the mental
inferiority of others the condition of moral isolation in which they
To insist that they are misunderstood, and to pride themselves upon the
fact, is the inevitable fate of those who never can summon up courage to
undertake a battle against themselves.
It seems to them a thousand times easier to say: "These minds are too
gross to comprehend mine," than to seek for a means of establishing an
understanding with those whom they tax with ignorance and insensibility.
They might, perhaps, be convinced of the utility to them of divulging
their feelings, could they be forced into a position where they had to
defend their ideas or were compelled to put up a fight on behalf of
In the ranks of the enemies of poise sullenness most certainly finds a
It is the fault of the feeble-spirited who have not the energy to affirm
their sentiments or to make a plain statement of their convictions that
they become incensed with those who oppose them.
In their case a good deal of false pride is present. They know
themselves to be beaten and to be incapable of fighting, yet they are
too vain to accept defeat. They refuse the sympathy that wounds them,
and suffer the more from their inability to yield themselves to that
good-will which would aid and comfort them.
From this mental conflict is born an irritation that manifests itself in
the form of obstinate sullenness.
In other cases the same state of mind may produce radically different
Always obsessed by the fear of appearing ridiculous and by the no less
vivid dread of seeming to be an object of sympathy, such people are
often driven through lack of poise into extreme boastfulness.
No man who has poise will ever fall a victim to this misfortune.
He knows exactly what his capabilities are and he has no need to
exaggerate his own abilities to impress his friends.
Poise calls for action, when this becomes necessary; but the man of
resolve, being always prepared to do what is needful, considers mere
boasting and bravado as something quite unworthy of him.
There are, however, certain extenuating circumstances in the cases of
those timid people who take refuge in boasting. They are almost
invariably the dupes of their own fancies, and for the moment really
believe themselves to be capable of endeavors beset by difficulties, of
the surmounting of which they understand nothing.
Nothing looks easier to duplicate than certain movements which are
performed with apparent ease by experts.
Which of us has not been profoundly astonished at the enormous
difficulty experienced in accomplishing some simple act of manual toil
that we see performed without the least effort by a workman trained to
this particular task?
What looks easier, for instance, than to plane a piece of wood or to dig
up the ground?
Is it possible that the laborer, wheeling a barrow, really has to be
possest of skill or strength?
It hardly seems so. And yet the man who takes a plane in his hands for
the first time will be astounded at the difficulty he experiences in
approximating to the regularity and lightness of stroke that comes
naturally to the carpenter.
The man who essays to dig a piece of ground or to wheel a barrow, will
find himself making irregular ditches and traveling in zigzags, and all
this at the expense of a hundred times the energy put forth by the
workman who is accustomed to these particular forms of labor.
The person of timidity who boasts of his remarkable exploits is
actuated, as a general rule, by sheer lack of experience.
His peculiar fault keeps him always in the background and prevents him
from accomplishing any public action, and for this reason those efforts
appear easy to him that he has never thought of attempting.
Further than this, aided by his false pride, he considers that his
merits are easily greater than those of the people who are not able to
understand him, and he is acting in perfect good faith when he professes
to be able to accomplish what they can not.
Is it necessary to add that the ironical reception given to such
exhibitions of boastfulness rouse in him a feeling of irritation which
is all the greater for the fact that he does not openly show it?
The man of resolve will never experience these unpleasant emotions.
He knows exactly what he wants and what he can do. So we see him
marching ahead steadily, his eyes fixt upon the goal he has worked out
for himself, paying no heed whatever to misleading suggestions, which
cripple his breadth of soul and would in the end deprive him of that
essential energy which is vital to him if he would preserve his even
poise, the foundation of mental balance and the source of every real
success in life.