I saw a meme the other day which mentioned balance, and it occurred to me that “balance” is one of those words we use in spiritual and self-improvement circles without often knowing really what we mean by it. It’s not as if it has one clear definition or application, right? It’s a very general term, applied to tightropes and checkbooks in different ways.
So what do we really mean when we seek balance in our lives?
I think what most people – including the meme which got me started thinking, though I can’t remember exactly what it said, now – tend to think of life balance in terms of not letting any one thing have more weight than anything else. As if our lives can be compared to a set of scales, we want all the important aspects in our lives to get equal attention.
But that’s neither possible nor optimal. We all have priorities in our lives, which means that those things do or should get more attention than others. These priorities change over time, they come and go and take their turns, and that’s really how things should be. What’s important to me in terms of time and focus and effort and energy right now shouldn’t be pushed down in an effort to achieve balance with other lower priority things — that’s a path to feelings of unwarranted guilt — nor should they be forever enshrined in the top priority position — that’s a sure way to hold yourself back from personal growth.
What really drives us to think of balance this way is the feeling that we’re neglecting something important. I imagine we all feel that there are demands on our lives which prevent us from giving time and energy to things we care about on a personal level. We struggle to find time for family activities because of the demands of our careers. We let hobbies and passions fall into the cracks because we feel obligated to spend our time on family activities.
That’s not a problem of imbalance. It’s a problem of our priorities being exploited by others.
We live in a world which makes great demands on us, and the vast majority of us feel compelled to say yes to these demands for fear of consequences. We know where our own priorities lie, and in some cases we give into demands which put some of those priorities on the back burner simply because otherwise we’d struggle to stay afloat on a basic level. This is why we give so much time and effort and energy to jobs we hate in order to pay bills, to support our families, to keep the basic structure of our lives in place.
We don’t suffer from imbalance. What we feel is resentment and powerlessness.
We know exactly what our priorities are, and we’re right to put a great deal of importance on survival and stability. The root of the problem is the cost of achieving that stability and ensuring that survival. Most of us participate in a societal system where give more and more of ourselves for less and less actual return.
How we each deal with that is a far more complicated topic for many future discussions.
But putting more pressure on ourselves to somehow shoehorn more and more other stuff into our lives to “bring balance” and attempt to make up for the time and energy which our other obligations demand in ever-increasing amounts is a battle none of us will ever win. For some of us, the prerogative to say no to outside demands isn’t something we possess. And for those of us who can, actually, determine how our personal resources get distributed without jeopardizing our livelihoods, we often prove to be poor managers of those resources, overextending ourselves to try and do more than is possible with what we have.
And trying to achieve an equal balance doesn’t help. It distracts us from the real issue. It makes us blame ourselves for neglecting things instead of making us think critically and honestly about what it takes to satisfy our priorities.