“Children don’t get weary till your work is done.” That line from the traditional gospel blues song we just heard was likely directed at enslaved people way back when, but I could imagine it being sung to our always-busy, overworked, overworking people in America today.
The phrase “Work-Life balance” is everywhere lately. Working from home during the pandemic blurred the boundaries that were already challenged by an over emphasis on work. For so many working people, work can take over their lives at the expense of time with family, time for self-care, recreation, exercise, friendships—even church. We want to do it all, but there aren’t enough hours in the day. How to decide how much time to devote to work, how much to relationships, how much to other pursuits? It’s not easy, and the trick is finding the right balance.
Some time ago, I realized that everything in life, at least everything important, is about balance. Whether it’s the balance between work and the rest of life, or a balanced diet, or a balance between alone time or time with others, or balance within relationships, it’s all about balance.
Do you remember learning to ride a bicycle? You might start with training wheels, because the hardest thing to master is the balance that keeps you from falling to one side or the other. When the training wheels come off, the balance is found in a dynamic imbalance: push this side, then that side, but moving forward.
Now imagine riding a unicycle! The balance isn’t just side to side, but forwards and backwards—all the while propelling forward. It’s something I was long wanting to try, but not anymore.
A tightrope walker is balancing their whole body on a thin rope or wire as they move forward. It helps to hold the arms out or use a pole to distribute weight more.
Feeling out of Balance
When you feel out of balance, is there a pole you can reach for? Is there a person, a practice, an object that helps you find your balance again? One quote I read suggests that “A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your step as you walk the tightrope of life.” (William A Ward)
In today’s story for all ages, the kid finds balance on his skate board because his friend who taught him said, “It’s all about balance, and balance is all about knowing where your center is.” Your center may be your center of gravity, as when balancing on a skateboard or a tightrope. In the more metaphorical sense, I think it has something to do with drive or purpose.
Think about it—what keeps you upright on a bicycle? It’s the forward motion. Tightrope walkers don’t just stand there, they move. What keeps you moving forward? What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?
There’s a famous quote by E. B. White that goes,
“It’s hard to know when to respond to the seductiveness of the world and when to respond to its challenge. If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between the desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
The point is, of course, that it’s not an either/or, it’s a matter of finding the right balance. And the right balance might differ based on any number of factors, like what’s going on in your life, what’s going on in the world, what the weather is like—you name it. Balancing is not ever finished; it’s something we do every day.
Priorities in need of Balance
In the reading, Chris Buice names a few polarities: between firmness and flexibility, realism and hope, charity and empowerment.
The last is exemplified in this congregation by the two teams we have that help make a difference in the world. Compassionate Service focusses on charity—on directly helping those who need it by providing food or other necessities. Systemic Change focusses on addressing the issues and systems that lead to people needing such assistance. Both are necessary, and by addressing both, this congregation has a good balance in its justice work.
Finding a balance between hope and despair is somewhat more difficult. Author Elizabeth Berg writes, “But it seemed to me that this was the way we all lived: full to the brim with gratitude and joy one day, wrecked on the rocks the next. Finding the balance between the two was the art and the salvation.” Facing the situations in the world or in our lives that seem hopeless can lead to despair if we’re not fortifying ourselves with a practice of gratitude. Maintaining a happy outlook by avoiding the news or the challenges of life also needs to be tempered by a little dose of realism.
And there are times we need to be firm and times we need to be flexible, whether with children, with our diet, or with our rules.
A website on mental health says,
“A big part of balance is deciding what tasks or activities are priorities and what tasks or activities aren’t important or can wait. Of course, there are things that we really must do—our bosses, teachers, and professors expect us to complete work on time, and we need to eat and maintain a home to stay healthy, and we may provide care for others. The problem is that we often spend so much time on things we think that we must do that we neglect the things that make us feel happy and well.” (Here to Help)
Life depends on balance, and balance is all about knowing where your center is.
How do we find our center?
I can’t stress enough the importance of a spiritual practice. Meditation, prayer, tai chi, walking in nature, journaling—there are many ways to engage with the center of our being. Mostly they involve removing ourselves from the demands of daily life for a moment, and quieting the monkey mind within. Only once we have achieved a stillness can we hear that still, small voice that comes from deep inside. That’s the voice that tells us everything we need to know. It’s where we find our purpose, our drive, our priorities, our values. Our ability to maintain balance comes from within us.
Relationships are all about balance. Even the most casual friendships—if I’m getting to know someone and want to spend time with them, I will only initiate contact so many times before I wait to see if they reciprocate. A relationship can’t be one-sided; it needs to be balanced.
Within relationships there are plenty of opportunities for imbalance. There is a fine line between caring enough and caring too much. Between needing others and needing to be independent. Between being too vulnerable and being unmovable.
My colleague Mary Katherine Morn writes about
“the delicate balance of maintaining good relationships and preserving our individual integrity . . . about what happens when we give too much of ourselves away. About how important it is to stop, before there is nothing left to give . . . about boundaries, about drawing lines—inside us and between us.”
She points out that “Sometimes we give to another person in such a way as to take away from ourselves. Sometimes a person with whom we are in relationship demands, or expects, that we will abandon ourselves (we might say extinguish ourselves) for the sake of the other. If relationship is the goal, this is never the way.
…Love does not demand the extinguishing of life for the sake of love. And yet, how often we allow it to happen. How often it is easier to deny little parts of ourselves. We don’t want conflict. We are afraid of losing the union, of being alone, and so mistakenly we deny who we truly are. We can tolerate a little bit of this kind of denial—but at some point, if we are lucky, we will see that we have given ourselves away. Sometimes this giving away, or extinguishing, results from our not knowing ourselves to begin with. Sometimes from fear. Sometimes from a mistaken notion about relationship. Whatever causes this diminishing, it is the work of relationship, of love, to find our way back, reclaim our integrity, so that we can engage from our wholeness with someone else.” (Harmony)
Balance on the edge
Sometimes balance is on a razor’s edge—like the tightrope, there is no leeway. One wrong step and you’re falling off. But luckily, more often balance is on a bowling lane—there’s a bit of room for error. Maybe we don’t bowl a strike every time, maybe we only get one pin—as long as the ball stays out of the gutter, we’re achieving something toward our goal. In Buddhist terms, it’s finding that Middle Way. Buice says, “By focusing my energies toward a central goal, I find a sense of precision and balance in my life.” He says “I find that my life becomes more centered with the Larger Life of which I am a part.” It’s that forward motion that keeps us balanced on the bike. The bowling ball is still moving forward, whether it finds the exact middle of the lane or not.
Another colleague, Michael Leuchtenberger, writes,
“Getting to the point of perfect balance and holding onto it may seem impossible – because it is impossible. Yet balance has to remain the goal despite the understanding that perfect balance can never be achieved, despite our awareness that perfect balance will never last. Such is the paradox of balance, the recognition that we are required to strive for what is impossible to achieve, and we are sure to lose at the end.” (The Paradox of Balance)
“Luckily,” he says, “many of the balancing acts we face each day are forgiving and don’t require perfect balance. They have margins of errors like bowling on a wide bowling lane. Nothing drastic will happen if we miss the point of balance by a little. If we stay awake for a few minutes after we get tired we will not suffer greatly. If we eat another spoonful after our body tells us we are full, we will not suffer noticeably. If the temperature is comfortable and we put on an extra pair of thin socks, we will probably be just fine.”
We can run into trouble, though, when we get complacent, and let the ball get too close to the gutter. If we throw gutter balls too many times, we can lose the game. Life becomes unbalanced, and there are consequences. Our bodies may suffer. Our relationships may suffer. Our work may suffer.
But if we can know where our center is, stay true to it, and keep upright on the skateboard or the bike or the tightrope, we can live a balanced life. It something worth striving for.
The best advice of all about balance comes from Dr. Seuss:
“You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.”