The Paradox of Balance
The first time I came across one of those rock structures where oddly shaped rocks were meticulously balanced on one another, I was transfixed. Like many around me, I had a hard time taking my eyes away from an artist who defied the laws of physics (not to mention the laws of patience) to create these monuments of rock that were as impractical as they were mesmerizing. The urge to kick one of them over was great, but I resisted. One does not want to get in the way of an artist’s work, especially when that artist has the ability to suspend the laws of nature.
I came away curious to see if I had this gift of balance, so when I returned home I spent the next hour trying to balance an egg on its head. I succeeded (it stood for like two seconds, I swear) but I failed at my chores, giving attention to my wife, and pretty much everything else I should have been doing instead. In trying to achieve balance, I ended up neglecting the things that matter. I became both balanced and unbalanced at the same time.
This experience made it clear to me that a “balanced” life is a life wrought with contradictions. On the one hand, it is good to be balanced — we want our judges, our checkbooks, and our diets to be balanced — but on the other hand, we know that a balanced life is often a far cry from reality. Whether we stumble or are pushed, we regularly lose our balance and fall over. Like a balanced rock structure, we do not stand straight forever. The question is, is falling over a good thing or a bad thing?
The answer, paradoxically, is both. Sometimes it is good to fall, and other times it is bad to fall, which is why a balanced life is closer to being a paradox than a pursuit as we are often told.
Much of our contemporary understanding of balance comes from an Eastern religious ideal of balance. Many Eastern religions rest on the idea that individuals are responsible for the balance or harmony or “oneness” within nature and humanity. To be out of balance in one’s own life is to be out of sync with the cosmos and therefore out of touch with one’s purpose. What is required of us is to pursue balance in all areas of life: physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally.
To a certain extent this is good advice, but the problem is that living a balanced life for the sake of balance is self-referring and thus self-defeating. I always want to ask, by whose definition of balance are we orienting our lives toward? If the definition is different for each person, who is to say that one definition of balance is right and another wrong?
Balance is a characteristic of truth, not a criterion for truth.
According to the Christian tradition, we are not called to balance, we are called to surrender to the person of Jesus Christ
According to the Christian tradition we are not called to balance, we are called to surrender to the person of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that Christians are unbalanced, it means they seek a new kind of balance, a self-giving balance. If one looks at the life of Jesus, it is not possible to think that his life was balanced in our contemporary sense. Jesus was at the same time an object of praise and scorn and a symbol of restoration and insurrection. His life was characterized by suffering and abundance much more than it was by balance. Furthermore, it is not possible to look at the disciples, the early church, and all of church history and think that they too were balanced. They were told to deny themselves, to carry their cross, and to follow Jesus (Matt. 16:24; Luke 14:27), which for many meant becoming a martyr, and they were told to give all that their possessions to the poor (Matt. 19:21), which for many actually meant giving all they had to the poor (Acts 4, St. Francis of Assisi).
We are not called to live balanced lives for balance sake; we are called to live balanced lives for Christ’s sake. The paradox is that this balanced life in Christ is actually not very balanced at all, for many of the essential marks of a Christian life — suffering, abundance, charity, grace, mercy, forgiveness, love, faith — do not point toward a contemporary notion of balance. Christianity is much more drastic than that. Here is how C.S. Lewis describes the rather unbalanced demands of Christ:
‘The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says, “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked — the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.’
Surrendering our lives to Christ does not mean that we neglect ourselves or burn ourselves out – we should believe that Christ was telling the truth when he said his yoke is easy and his burden light — but it also does not mean that we live in a way where there is no chance of losing our balance. Sometimes we will fall, but this might be a good thing because, as we know, we cannot worship God on our knees if we remain standing.
Flickr photo (cc) AshtonPal