While driving recently in typical Friday afternoon traffic, and being dangerously cut off twice, I was cautioned not to lose my temper. That got me wondering what exactly I would be losing if I ‘lost my temper.’
It turns out that ‘temper’ is the measure in a piece of metal of where it is along a scale between rigid and flexible. Given any particular purpose for the metal, there will be an ideal point where it is not too flexible for the job, but also not too brittle. So ‘temper’ appears to be a wonderful expression for our own quest for that right degree of balance between being too flexible and too rigid in any particular situation.
The process by which a blacksmith achieves the desired temper in the metal he works with is by alternately heating and then quickly cooling it. This process of first expanding and then contracting the elements of the metal brings it to the optimum temper for its purpose. Again, this seems an appropriate metaphor for the experiences of expansion and contraction in our own lives that result in the varying quality of temper we exhibit.
Thus, we can see what an important injunction it is to be told not to lose our temper. To say that someone ‘has a temper’ actually means that they have a tendency to lose their proper temper, and ‘temperamental’ seems to mean about the same thing.
And, again, the example of temper in metal serves as an important reminder that there is not one ideal level of temper, some constant state of balance. Instead, the proper degree of flexibility or rigidity in the metal depends on the purpose for which it is meant at that time. So we should watch that we don’t get stuck at one level of temper that might have been appropriate in one situation, but clearly is not in another. Sometimes we need to be more flexible. At other times, greater firmness is called for. That is our appropriate temper for the moment, and we should be careful not to lose it.