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The Philosophy of Good Character.
Being elegant is a way of moving through the world. It’s not just stylish clothing or a well-designed home – it’s also a system of deep values that define the way you act and inter-act with others.
I’ve spend a lot of time learning about elegance as a lifestyle. Some of the greatest men and women in history wrote extensively about the things that gave them their air of class and grace, and a few elements have stood out over time.
Here are some of the qualities that go more than skin-deep, taking one’s style and persona to the highest levels of poise.
Integrity is, in short, a guiding sense of morality and principles. It’s not quite so simple in practice, however. To be a person of integrity is to place the higher self – the conscience – before every other consideration.
This is not easy to do.
No matter how firm your principles, the world and society will always challenge you to budge on them. Whether it is the classic artists’ conflict of passion vs. profit or the politician’s need to pursue their office as well as perform their duties, all of us face numerous challenges to our integrity each and every day.
To develop integrity is to cultivate a sense of self-awareness. You can’t stick to your principles if you don’t know what they are, after all. Yet most people simply take their own conscience for granted, assuming that they will act on it naturally and without any real conscious thought.
History and human nature have shown that this isn’t the case. People who have truly exemplified integrity have had to work hard at it! There is nothing natural about choosing a more difficult path in the name of things you can’t see or touch – but that’s exactly what integrity means.
If you were stuck between a rock and a hard place, and you could choose either to pick the easiest option at the cost of one of your values or opt to endure pain, difficulty, and possibly ridicule for that same value, do you truly know which option you would choose?
Reflecting on your day-today life and visualizing scenarios that might challenge your integrity is the best way to cultivate this most important of qualities. By imagining yourself sticking to your morals, you make it all the more likely that you will do so in real life.
Many people equate elegance with pride, and pride with things like arrogance or haughtiness. This could not be further from reality!
Humility doesn’t mean subservience, and pride doesn’t mean conceit. In fact, pride and humility often go hand in hand. That’s because true humility confers dignity to the people who embrace it, and dignity is the most valuable thing you have as a human being. It is where true pride comes from.
Having humility means bowing to the many forces beyond your control while maintaining a clear awareness of your place in the world. No man or woman is an island – all of us are connected to each other, and all of us are connected to the wider world. All of us live for the simple fact that others do, and we are all helping each other in one way or another.
There are always going to be challenges to our ways of thinking or acting. It’s extremely easy, even natural, to feel threatened by those challenges and to react defensively. Humility is the ability to step back, to “occupy the space between stimulus and response” as Viktor Frankl put it, and check that defensiveness before it can impact your decisions.
This is very hard to learn. From what I’ve seen, it’s possibly the hardest thing you can learn, because it’s something that has to be practiced constantly and for life. Most of our reactions are conditioned and scripted – this means that humility, for most of us, is an ongoing battle against our own instincts.
It’s worth it, however. Great leaders are generally the leaders who are humble. You can simply look to almost every spiritual tradition on Earth to see how true that statement is! The same goes for the majority of the most successful and influential revolutionaries throughout history.
The great leader and Emperor Marcus Aurelius said, “Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility [will]; to treat this person as he should be treated [action]; [and] to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in [perception].” His wise words, some of the many contained in Meditations, have been a guiding force for a number of the most successful and fulfilled people in the entire world.
Humility allows space for poise and dignity to occupy, and this can transform not only your life, but also the lives of the people around you.
One of the scions of elegance, Audrey Hepburn, gave us a quote that has always stuck with me:
“For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.”
This kind of sentiment is often dismissed as cliche or idealistic in our fast-paced and frankly ruthless modern world. Compassion is often looked at as something which is nice in concept, but which is not a value most people can truly define or afford to act upon.
And yet, compassion remains the single greatest display of strength which human beings are capable of. I stand by that – and I’ll tell you why.
We live ensconced in our own lives so firmly that it’s a miracle we have the time or wherewithal to look outside of ourselves at all. Most other animals do not, at least not in the way that we do. We, as humans, are able to push aside our own instincts and truly see others as an integral part of our world.
Altruism is an adaptation, but it is often a costly one – compassion is a truly amazing quality for any living thing to have. It isn’t something you’re simply made with. Although the potential for compassion rests within all of us, it has to be nurtured and cultivated to truly emerge.
Think of it as a muscle. By frequently reflecting on the feelings and struggles of the people around you, you are strengthening that muscle bit by bit. Your capacity for empathy is enhanced.
This is important to remember, because feeling compassion and empathy is actually quite painful for many of us. Our world is more connected than ever, and we are able to see and learn about unimaginable levels of suffering on a daily basis. To feel compassion for every bit of this suffering is beyond human ability, I’m afraid.
To be elegant and filled with grace, you must learn to focus your compassion on the lives you are truly able to impact. You can sympathize with everybody, but to feel true compassion is another level of human experience altogether.
Cultivate compassion, and the world will look back at you with the same eyes.
All of the other values are tied into this one. Principles are made over time, not forged in a day. By reflecting on your own self – your daily actions, thoughts, and feelings – you can become so aware of your guiding compass that you act in accordance with it instinctively.
This isn’t something they teach us in school. How can they? Introspection is an intensely personal and intimate exercise that takes a great deal of willpower to accomplish.
It can’t be performed haphazardly. It has to be a regular, dependable practice you engage in through things like journaling, speaking openly with trusted loved ones, and meditation. Every experience in your life offers an opportunity for introspection.
True power is self-knowledge, and self-knowledge can’t be found in a book or a video tutorial. It has to be uncovered bit by bit through your own habits and behaviors. Introspection is a lifelong skill that will pay back more dividends than you can imagine if it is cultivated.
By knowing yourself, you will know more fully your goals, aspirations, motivations, and values. Success in all of these areas – and countless others – will flow naturally from that awareness.
Most of us live the majority of our lives on autopilot, to some extent. I certainly do. Introspection takes more energy than most of us feel we have to give. This is largely due to the fact that we fail to see how much energy and strength introspection gives back to us.
By self-reflecting, you become a more dignified, centered, and respected presence in the universe. This is the core of true elegance and lasting poise.
In Conclusion – Life Is About Principles, And Principles Must Be Nurtured.
There is a pervasive assumption that the best qualities in people are simply inherent. We think that you simply are honest, trustworthy, compassionate, generous, etc.
Most of the wisdom literature written throughout human existence would disagree. True strength of character is built brick by brick over the course of decades and lifetimes, and it takes a singular kind of devotion to achieve.
You can achieve it. Everything that makes you human also makes you capable of ascending to the height of poise, grace, and dignity. All of your intelligence is adapted to help you accomplish these qualities and skills!
So reflect, consider, and share your thoughts. Together we are able to do even more than we dare to dream of.
Stay lovely, dears, and I’ll talk to you soon!