In Praise of Phlegmatics

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June 25, 2013 by lucieromarin

I suppose this post should have been entitled, ‘In Praise of Phlegmatics of Good Character.’ Why? Because – if I could just borrow someone else’s definitions for a moment – temperament is the pattern of inclinations which flow from the physiological structure, whereas character is the pattern of habits which are the result of education, personal effort, environmental factors, and the action of grace.

In other words, your temperament is the way you’re biologically set up to react to stimuli, whereas your character is what you make of yourself (or what circumstances make of you, if you don’t put any effort in.) This being so, a predominantly phelgmatic individual might not necessarily end up a pillar of the community; he could end up as a couch potato.

Today, while looking at the rain through the bus window, I found myself remembering those times during which my community has faced a shock or grief together, and the image that played and replayed before my mind’s eye was that of two men and one woman in prayer. The three were all, to varying degrees, phelgmatic, and they prayed differently to the rest of us. See, phlegmatics experiences slow reactions to stimuli, which leave only a faint impression upon them. This means that they are less susceptible than others to sudden eruptions of emotion. They’re not easily destabilised. They’re not easily shocked. And I remembered how, when the rest of us were shaken – some of us weeping, some of us babbling – the phelgmatics, saying nothing, emoting nothing, just took themselves quietly to the feet of Our Lady, knelt, looked up at her, and…just…were. Each time, I saw them, this way, and… well, perhaps it sounds ridiculous, but truly, they seemed to be glowing. That steadiness of temperament had become a steadiness of faith, which, turned into prayer, was like a light. I’m sure I didn’t imagine it – I’m also sure that it’s there all the time, but I only noticed it then, because it never occurred to me at other times to pay attention. I suppose it takes the sense of having been undone by shock to notice, and to value, the stability of those who have not been undone.

The rest of us have our virtues and uses. It is helpful to have a supportive choleric at hand when you’re feeling nervous, or when everyone’s running about madly with no one to direct them; it’s a real blessing to have a sympathetic melancholic beside you when you need a listener – one who understands the struggle for self-expression and who doesn’t try to put words in your mouth. However, if you feel your universe collapsing around you, it’s a blessing to see your phelgmatic friend at prayer. At least, it is for me. Just by being himself, he reminds me that the feeling of collapse is just a feeling; that reality continues, that virtue continues, that the source of all strength remains the same, and remains strong.

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