Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Is the Balanced Life a Myth?

Someone recently showed me an article entitled, "The Myth of the Balanced Life" (by Jack Fortin, in The Lutheran, January 2007). The author writes eloquently about how we are overwhelmed by the fragmented complexity of our lives. He believes that a balanced life is unattainable. He believes that the desire for it is an anxiety-based impulse to control what is ultimately not really ours to control. He argues on behalf of a faith-filled life as the appropriate response. We must have the humility to accept that we are never going to feel fully on top of things, and we must learn to forgive ourselves for this, and strive instead to do our best to live in faithfulness.

But what does this really mean? How exactly do we do this?

What I realize in my own life is that I can fall into moods in which I start to think that I can only have peace if I do X, Y, and Z. (Sadly, X and Y are usually some immediate tasks that I'm rather afraid of, and Z usually is "and everything else on my To Do list!") For me, then, the notion of a balanced life is conditioned upon finally feeling on top of everything. And, surprise, surprise, I never get there!

So the key is to reconceptualize the notion of a balanced life. Instead of making it conditioned upon getting the externals of your life right, it is better to define it as an inner state that is not dependent on the externals being right.

When I do have my moments of transcendent peace and clarity, it is not because I am all caught up and all of my problems are resolved and nothing frightening looms. These moments happen in spite of the continuing unresolved messiness of my life.

In fact, when I am feeling most daunted by all that I have to do, it is usually best not to plunge right into getting things done in the hope that "catching up" will restore peace and confidence. It is better to try to regain the state of transcendent peace and clarity, because then from that state it is easier to face what needs to be done. Not only is it easier to face things, but I feel more capable of handling the challenging tasks well.

With this as the kind of balanced life I really seek, I do not think that it is a myth after all. But I still agree with Fortin that too often our concept of the balanced life is an anxiety-based desire for control, and achieving this kind of control is not really possible. I agree that a huge part of finding the different sense of balance that comes from a life of faithfulness requires a great deal of letting go of ways we want to control what goes on around us.

But how do we find this state of consciousness?

This is what spiritual disciplines are for. They help bring us back to this state of being, largely by reminding us of what is important.

For me, I am finding that what I need is a certain sense of who I am and what my life is all about. While this sounds self-centered instead of God-centered, it isn't really, because by "finding who I truly am," I look to regain a sense of myself as a child of God, instead of an ego-driven sense of self. And by looking for the "true meaning of my life," I try to regain the spiritual sense of my life's meaning, instead of getting distracted by how others might judge the "success" of my life at the moment.

When I am in this good place of peace and clarity, I don't even think of myself because I am living from my true center. And from this place, I am outwardly focused, viewing the world with compassion.

But when I am in a state of anxiety, I am very distracted by myself (my own imperfections), and the world outside me distorts so that those features which are anxiety-provoking are exaggerated, and the rest mostly fades away.

This image that is clarifying for me today of conquering the anxiety before resuming work seems to me to be an important spiritual discipline unto itself.

I can hear the objection (from myself in some future anxious state?): "But I don't have time to figure out how to get back to a centered state of being! This has to get done now!"

Reply: Trying to get something important done from within a state of anxiety probably takes twice as long as it would to take a little time out to re-center and then do the task with the greater efficiency that peace and clarity bring.


  1. I didn't read the article that inspired this post but my impression is that I can partially agree with it. Modern life is so stressful that people feel out of control. So they often resolve to change their lives and "get control of things." We do need to recognize that we are very small finite beings in a very large world and hence will never be in control. Accident, disease and the unexpected free choices of other people will periodically introduce sudden unwelcome changes in our lives. Accepting our finitude is essential.

    But we should not underestimate our own ability to get out of control lives under control. Quakers have appreciated the value of making conscious choices to simplify our lives. Let your yea be yea and more importantly let your nay be nay when it comes to all the tasks that demand our time and attention. There is great value in learning to say a clear and polite "No, I cannot commit to this project/paper/committee etc."

    I would say the same to anyone in this general way but to you, CS! You have just admitted to having a four page typed to-do list. Bravo to you for compressing it to two pages but "Thou hast let thyself become encumbered with too much worldly business, Friend." Just had to say that.

  2. Oooh, I have been eldered! And rightly so!

    Thank you, Friend!

    :-\ :-)

  3. Thank you for this inspiring post. I have a long to-do list at the moment myself, having committed to deliver six, count them, conference papers between Feb. and July and then getting a last minute teaching opportunity at the local California State University campus I couldn't turn down. I am spending this week trying to get the scholarly work under control while awaiting my desk copies, and was anxious yesterday evening because I hadn't added to the new draft of one of the conference papers. I read your post and it led me to stop, breathe, light a candle and seek some guidance. I was immediately inspired to write a page and a half on the draft, and then returned to the quiet for some more extended prayer with a grateful and peaceful heart. My goal in returning to the classroom after an extended maternity/dissertation completion/relocation for spouse's job leave is to be a holy and contemplative scholar in balance with all my other vocations. And I really appreciate getting support from kindred spirits out there.



  4. You wrote: "It is better to try to regain the state of transcendent peace and clarity, because then from that state it is easier to face what needs to be done."

    Oh, yes! Every time I remember to do this at my nonprofit job, it goes so much better. I manage to say little prayers, most days, and even that helps. When I can truly stop and reflect, I usually return to "the world" with a much better perspective on what's most important for that moment or that day.

    -- Chris M.

  5. If this is a duplicate post, I apologize...

    Hi! A few things. First, I haven't been feeling well either and it's rather strange. I'm prone to sinus problems and I have the worst symptoms of a sinus infection, but none of the basic. It's rather confusing. I'm blaming the weather.

    Second, and somewhat related to this post: the universe seems to operate in such a way that things are always working at achieving or maintaining balance (I can't decide which one). Either way, a type of work is implied, as is the threat or actualization of imbalance. What I'm getting at is simply that the natural ontological state seems to be the drive to achieve or maintain balance. Balance, however, differs from person to person and it seems to me that our cultures (perhaps in maintaining their own ends) seem to stress a specific type of balanced life, thus creating anxiety and such.

    I think that's it!

  6. For some reason, when I saw this, I thought of you. Not prescriptively, just a little link.

  7. Wow, thanks for all of these comments! Mother Laura, welcome! I'm glad that my words have been helpful! I really appreciate finding kindred spirits too -- I hope that we will be able to support each other on our journeys!

    And Chris M., thank you for your affirmation too! I feel so cheered knowing that others do find this really does work -- it helps me to keep trying during those times when it doesn't seem to work immediately!

    T., your thoughts about the ontological state of naturally seeking balance also inspires me. And, yes, it is important to keep questioning what balance really means, and which kinds are the healthy kinds!

    And Johan, wow! I came here to write my next posting, and saw your comment and this link, and well, when I finish my next posting, you'll see why I was amazed!