I’ve driven hundreds of miles this week, in every kind of weather. I’ve worked hospital shifts and presided over meetings, wrestled with personnel problems that tremble between the freakish and the chilling, run 17 miles, passed an economics midterm, hired a new person, rented a room to my ex-husband and celebrated National IPA Day while watching the first Republican debate. Between the early alarms and exhausted nights, I’ve warmed myself for all-too-brief moments at the banked fires of the long-distance love affair that has occupied the best part of the last year. It’s been an exhausting, exhilarating, confounding week, and I’m coming out the end of it feeling like every nerve has been touched, every part of my brain fully awake and put to work.
While physical objects can be exquisitely balanced, I am deeply skeptical of the notion that emotions and lives can ever truthfully be called balanced, even when they are at their best. Balance, as a physical phenomenon, depends on weight being evenly distributed in such a way that there is no motion, where competing but perfectly complementary physical forces essentially paralyze an object so that it rests as easily in equipoise as if it were entirely on the ground.
Emotions and lives, on the other hand, are not at their best in stasis. They blossom in motion, in growth, in changes of direction. This fluidity and dynamism are the essence of having feelings, of being creatures of affection, fear, jealousy and anger. Put our emotional lives in the equivalent of balance and we have no dance, no motion, no constant delicate adjustments to ensure that one renegade horse doesn’t pull our chariot too far into the weeds. Our thoughts, not as fully reined-in by intellect as we might like to think, are as likely as our emotions to ebb and flow in patterns that shift under the guidance of half-veiled history, temperament and instinct. Do we really want the music of our souls to be any less vibrant and mobile than the music we hear with our outward ears? I have to say no.
We are bombarded with exhortations to seek “balance” and to arrange our lives so as to remain “balanced.” We are taught by books and magazines and the Internet that we must look at ourselves with a kind of judgy objectivism, evaluate ourselves to see if the weight of our career is tipping the scale to create an imbalance against the weight of family, or fitness or that elusive pastime known as “me time.” We read about and watch videos of people who have it all and who make it seem effortless, and we pore over their tips about how to stay organized, rested, refreshed like they are. We allow ourselves to feel intimidated by those who make life look easy. We cast ourselves as inadequate beside people whose lives we only see on the outside, telling ourselves that their performance has nothing to do with the crazy multifaceted experience of our lives.
I’m not convinced that balance is really what I want. I don’t think I want to keep an eye on myself that way. I’ve paid an unpleasant price for judging myself by standards that didn’t fit, and I think I’m done with all that. I am more interested in my own internal interplay of desires and fears and ambitions and dreams than in what an outside judgment of them might be. My job is to observe myself and try to understand the melody of my own internal music, so as to align my life with it as closely as possible. I have already proved that I can maintain the basic standards: pay bills, meet deadlines, keep my house habitable and my car serviced and stay employed. I have helped to raise intelligent, articulate, sensitive children and seen them launch into their own trajectories of young adulthood. I have no one to please but myself now, and I can tell more about myself by observing myself from the inside than by seeking to measure up to some external standard of balance based on someone else’s formula.
I think the allure of this notion of balance is that it suggests the possibility of peace. If we draw back enough, if we rein in our curiosity and passion from pursuing the dreams that energize us, maybe we will find peace. If we do less of what we don’t want to do, maybe we can lay down that frustration at the job that chafes our freedom, or the school committee that sucks our soul and peace will come. But how is that balance? Isn’t that just realizing that we are too old to be spending our precious energy and will doing things we hate?
We need to stop trying to force ourselves into an imagined state of equipoise and start looking at the raw materials that we’re made of. We need to look at our own strengths and our own passions, see where they lead us and see what barriers may have been holding us back. So many of those barriers are ones we’ve built ourselves. The search for “balance” is a search for relief from pain, exhaustion, confusion. We need to figure out why we’ve allowed ourselves to be barricaded inside ourselves by those things, and break them down. Why are we letting ourselves get so tired? What do we fear so much that we are willing to crush ourselves to avoid it? We don’t need balance as much as we need joy, confidence, nurturing. Tighter self-governance and harsher self-judgment won’t bring us peace; peace comes from knowing we’re in the right place, giving ourselves to what we love best and providing ourselves with the fuel to keep right on doing it. Peace is in the music, in the dance that makes us who we are, complete with all our reckless enthusiasms and painful defeats. Peace is in knowing ourselves, in realizing that our imperfections and our mistakes are as important pieces of the orchestra as our strengths and our gifts. We are most at peace when we are most fully ourselves, fully alive. Our inner music is never going to be balanced like a teeter-totter on a fulcrum. It will soar in different directions and with different intensities as our inner dynamics dictate, and peace will be the name we give the stillness at its core.
©Mary Braden 2016