Why Balance is an Unhelpful Ideal (Unless You Are a Gymnast or a Tightrope Walker)

Whenever I see a flyer for a workshop or talk on “Work/Life Balance,” I get a very bad feeling in my chest and my head starts to hurt.  Unless there will be someone at the workshop with a clipboard and a sign-up sheet for volunteers to come over and dust my floorboards, cook dinner for my family, buy the batteries at Walgreens that I keep forgetting, or clean out the box of stuff from when I moved my office last December, I can’t think of a single good reason to attend.  
My bottom line belief on work/life balance is this–it’s a hoax, and a dangerous one at that.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  Here’s David Whyte in his most recent book, The Three Marriages: Reexamining Work, Self and Relationship: “People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance.  Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another.  We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.” 

On August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit walked from the South Tower to the North Tower of the World Trade Center on a tightrope made of 450 pounds of cable.  He made EIGHT crossings between the towers and was up there for about 45 minutes.  And he didn’t just walk across–he laid down, letting one of his legs hang over, he knelt, and he waved to the people who were gathering a quarter of a mile below him on the sidewalks of Manhattan.  He saluted.  The movie Man on Wire (2008) tells Petit’s story, which is fascinating, terrifying and incredible. 

It’s an extraordinary story because the guy is so insane, and so passionate beyond all sense about what he is doing.  Which, ironically, I believe is the exact opposite of how the ideal of “balance” tries to encourage us to behave.  “Work/life balance” is indeed about what David Whyte describes: quantifying different parts of your life and then weighing one against the other–is this more important than that?  Does this matter more than that, and if so, how much more?  If I add this to one side of the scale, what should I take from the other side?   And when will I tip over? 

Balance is a static phenomenon, a quest for that perfect point when everything fits and nothing is out of control.  It’s the holding your breath, not moving a muscle mode of living.  It is an argument against passion, against giving yourself to something fully, against bringing your whole self into your whole life.  Against the risk of trying something extraordinary, even though you might fall down, sometimes very, very far down. 

The reason I said above that the hoax of balance was dangerous is because anything that sets you up for failure is dangerous.  Anything that erodes your sense of well-being by making you feel that you are failing at your own life, that you should be more, do more is dangerous.  This type of thinking is indeed collectively exhausting, but worse than that, it’s also unkind.

I don’t know the answer to this particular social conundrum, but luckily I have a poem that offers the possibility of one:  Mary Oliver’s “West Wind #2,” the poem that I read whenever I am afraid of something, or challenged by something, or really, really want to try something new but don’t know if I should.  It’s a poem that can save your life, or at least help you figure out how to live it with more fullness and love and less fear and withholding.  As Philippe Petit said, “It’s impossible, that’s sure.  So let’s start working it.”

West Wind #2 

You are young.  So you know everything.  You leap
into the boat and begin rowing.  But listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul.  Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and
your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me.  There is life without love.  It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe.  It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied.  When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable
pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life
toward it.

Mary Oliver

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