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Balance: The Possible Impossible Dream

It’s trendy to be a bomb-thrower regarding balance. “Destructive,” says one Christian author. “A myth,” claims an inspirational speaker. Impossible, undesirable, unrealistic, and unattainable are other accusations hurled in the balance direction. The business magazine Fast Company ran an article headlined “Balance is Bunk!”

by Richard A. Swenson, MD
Today's Christian Doctor - Fall 2010

It’s trendy to be a bomb-thrower regarding balance. “Destructive,” says one Christian author. “A myth,” claims an inspirational speaker. Impossible, undesirable, unrealistic, and unattainable are other accusations hurled in the balance direction. The business magazine Fast Company ran an article headlined “Balance is Bunk!”

The global economy is antibalance . . . . Someday, all of us will have to become workaholics, happy or not, just to get by. . . . Great leaders, serial innovators, even top sales reps may be driven by a kind of inner demon. . . . anxiety is a central part of our existence. . . . Can any couple facing two full-time jobs, kids, aging parents, groceries, the dog, the bills, and telemarketers at dinnertime expect anything but all stress, all the time? Successful professionals [find] ways to switch the focus of their full attention with lightning speed . . . an exercise in continuous redesign, in adapting to ever-changing circumstances and priorities. For couples, this also requires constant rebalancing of roles and responsibilities. . . . They don’t make decisions once or twice, but all the time.1

“Accept the craziness of your life,” says a leadership trainer in the Harvard Management Update. So, balance is now an impossible, destructive, bunk of an excuse for being a bum — and craziness is the new normal.

Somehow we’ve lapsed into the casual opinion that our post-modern world should also be post-balance. It’s a natural accommodation to an obvious fact, perhaps like Europe being post-faith or post-family. But can we really afford to throw balance and other important principles away so easily, to define them away so matter-of-factly?

Let’s make the same point from a different direction. A recent eighteen-year study “Adherence to Healthy Lifestyle Habits”2 in The American Journal of Medicine examined five health habits and reported steadily worsening behaviors: those with overweight body mass increased eight percent, those with moderate alcohol use increased eleven percent, those achieving appropriate physical activity decreased ten percent, and those meeting target fruit-andvegetable consumption decreased sixteen percent. The only habit that did not worsen was cigarette smoking, holding at twenty-six percent. Should we deduce from this study — and nearly every other study on this topic — that it is impossible for people to comply with healthy lifestyle habits and therefore we should all quit trying? Since we live in a post-Healthy Lifestyle Habits world, let’s just cozy up on the sofa with our chips and watch another movie marathon.

Among healthcare professionals, such a scorning of balance is a longstanding attitude. We’ve never taken balance seriously — not on a personal, professional, or spiritual level. Doctors are preselected for high levels of productivity and stoicism (let the record show: I approve of productivity and stoicism), while those interested in balance are shuffled into the humanities.

On one level this is understandable — our professions are rigorous and demanding. But as seen from another perspective, such an attitude is inconsistent with both science and faith. We are surrounded continuously by the requirement of balance throughout the created order.

Balance and the Created Order

Nowhere is this principle more evident than in the human body itself. We’d better hope our bodies never join the post-balance chorus. That, in short order, would turn out the lights on the human race. Hyper and hypo are expensive and painful modifiers, and an uncorrected failure of homeostasis (Greek: “staying the same”) is often fatal.

“If an organism is to survive, every activity within it must in some way be part of the effort,” writes Yale surgeon Sherwin B. Nuland in How We Live. “The essence of success is the dynamism that allows each cell to respond instantaneously to even the most minor threat to its integrity and therefore to the integrity of the entire organism. . . . A high degree of radical readiness . . . is required to allow the immediate change that corrects a tendency toward imbalance. . . . There can be no chemical complacency.”

The record God has written in the human body is that balance is commended as normative, the position of health and sustainability. Dr. Nuland repeatedly speaks to this theme using not only the terms balance and homeostasis but also equilibrating steadiness, constancy, order, integrated coordination, stability, sustained harmony, and consistency.3

Healthcare workers depend on this self-balancing design of Providence more than we realize. “Practical therapeutics,” Voltaire wrote, “is the art of keeping the patient entertained until nature effects a cure.” Actually, the sustainability of the entire created order is contingent on this same principle.

“In the various fields of physics and astrophysics, classical cosmology, quantum mechanics, and biochemistry, discoveries have repeatedly disclosed that intelligent carbon-based life on Earth requires a delicate balance of physical and cosmological quantities,” says William Lane Craig. “If any one of these quantities were slightly altered, the balance would be destroyed, and life would not exist.”4

If balance has been thus ordained throughout all creation, isn’t this an indication for us to similarly respect balance in our personal lives and social infrastructures? God is speaking not disorder to us, but order: Find the center and rest in it.

The Etiology of an Imbalance Epidemic

Having first maintained that balance is a fundamental principle pre-ordained by God throughout His created order, I now readily concede that balance has become a rapidly moving target. Why? The answer lies at the feet of our good friend, progress.

As I’ve written extensively elsewhere, progress works by giving us more and more of everything, faster and faster at exponential rates — always, automatically, and irreversibly. In addition, the processes that lie behind progress and its resultant profusion (the generalized phenomenon of more) have become hyper-dynamic. If profusion in the past was a trickle, today it is a torrent. Profusion is already exponential in the extreme, yet relentlessly accelerating.

Initially, we were thrilled by the more of progress. Profusion was exactly the kind of miracle that people expected from progress. We all wanted more, and it quickly became our definition of happiness: more than I have now. Eventually, however, it evolved into a different kind of more, the kind that leads to imbalance and overload.

All systems have limits, and humans have limits in time, finances, intellectual capacity, physical strength, and emotional energy. These limits, designed by God, are relatively fixed. As we have seen, however, progress is hyper-dynamic. This mismatch is the key to understanding the etiology of our epidemic. When this ever-accelerating progress first exploded through our static limits, it created a massive world-changing collision. Since that time, humans have been pushed ever deeper into imbalance and overload.

Going with the flow in this matter is dangerous. Depth, worship, gentleness, rest, patience, solitude, waiting, quiet, contemplation, relationship, and prayer are replaced by speed, stress, interruptions, noise, multitasking, clutter, alarms, advertisements, distractions, and twitching.

God designed the human body to function best within a range of tolerances, a kind of middle zone — the pace of faith. When we understand where the limits are and learn to stay within that range of tolerances, we thrive. This is the benefit of balance — to find and remain in the zone of health, sustainability, and priorities.

Guidelines for Restoring Balance

The task of restoring balance is daunting — but then, so is physical conditioning, or clinical competence, or Christ-likeness. It seems we’re surrounded by challenging demands requiring disciplined choices. The following guidelines will help us begin erecting a balance infrastructure supportive of our journey.

Focus on Timeless Priorities

Balance does not exist for balance’s sake. It exists to serve us, especially our priorities.

Each person has priorities, but they are increasingly a jumbled mess. Some are trivial, pure fluff. Others are temporary, easily dissipated by the tsunami of contemporary change. That leaves the timeless, determined by God and discovered by us.

The closer we come to the end of our lives, the more these eternal priorities will clarify. Our death bed sweeps away the confusion, clutter, and distraction of our busy day-to-day and replaces it with the transcendent.

It will be to our eternal benefit if we visit our death beds in advance and contemplate Jesus’s words in Luke 10: “Only one thing is needful.” Then, if we are wise, we’ll balance our lives in a stable orbit around this inviolable center.

Counter the Escalation of the Norm

We live in the age of escalation. For whatever reason, people want bigger, better, and fancier, without regard to cost, consequences, or contentment. Of course we’ve always had a tendency to grab upward — but never at the levels seen today. Its effect on balance has been devastating.

What we are experiencing is a continuous escalation of the norm followed by a normalization of the escalation that then becomes the new normal. Celebrations, rituals, holidays, sports, shopping, fashion, cars, houses, cameras, computers, healthcare — nothing is exempt.

At some point, if we wish to regain balance — to say nothing of economic stability or common sense — we’ll need to confront this pattern. We can have escalation or we can have balance, but we can’t have both.

Do the Math

Math is our friend. The math is always right, always tells the truth, and always wins. If we apply it wisely, math will keep us balanced in our time and finances. In fact, good math will help keep us balanced in all our expenditures of energy and resources because our limits are essentially mathematical limits.

If we ignore the math, however, it will not ignore us. For example, if we buy a house three times larger than we can afford and then work eighty-hour weeks to pay for it, we’ve used up all our math. Our assets are locked up, and we have zero liquidity in our balance account.

One of my biggest concerns today is that on personal, professional, national, and international levels we are witnessing a massive abdication of the universal laws of mathematics on a truly cataclysmic scale. This will not only end in imbalance, it will end in tears.

Calculate the Opportunity Cost

Opportunity cost is the principle that whenever we spend time, money, or energy on something, we lose the opportunity to spend that same time, money, or energy on anything else. And it is lost forever. As compelling and commonsensical as this principle is, it’s still surprisingly overlooked on a large scale.

Balanced living requires that we bias our opportunity costs in the direction of the priorities that matter most. A Seattle man e-mailed me when offered an International VP position in his financial services firm. As a part of the job, he’d be required to answer his Blackberry within five minutes for any important message, 24/7/365. As he considered the honor and advantages of the promotion, he also thought about his family. Finally, with his children’s violins playing in the background, he turned it down. His balance would have been destroyed, and his time with the family would have suffered. The opportunity cost was just too high.

Obey God’s Decent Minimums

God is not shy about requiring “decent minimums.” He requires, for example, that a certain minimum of time, energy, and resources be devoted to work and finances. Likewise, we are to care for our families and other relationships, for our emotional lives, physical lies, and spiritual lives. We need a certain minimum of rest and leisure. Failure to balance these minimum requirements will lead to pain.

When God set up these non-optional areas of life, at that precise moment He required balance. It’s best not to insult His creation wisdom.

Own the (Uncomfortable) Zero Sum

Without factoring in the supernatural, life is essentially a zero-sum calculus: We only have so much to spread around. Our resources are limited. We can’t buy more time. We can’t hire someone to love our families. If we need to exercise or sleep, we must do it for ourselves.

Accepting limits is a sign of maturity, but many never get this far. We keep entertaining the fiction that life is elastic, that we can stretch it like spandex. Of course we can modify some of our resources, but using efficiencies, training, and technology will carry us only so far. Perhaps we might gain 20 percent more capacity, but then we’ll discover that we’ve simply relocated the threshold for zero-sum, and we must confront it all over again at the new level.

Progress is programmed to play its game of “more and more,” while we play our game of “increase our capacities.” But progress is much better at playing its game than we will ever be at playing ours. At some point, we need to declare that we’re not playing the “increasing more vs. increasing capacity” game any longer. We’re switching to the balance game.

This reality does not threaten God. He designed the entire system in such a way that we would need His power and wisdom. As Paul taught, the multiplication coefficient for our capacities is through the Spirit of God: “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

_________________________

Balance can direct us toward simplified lifestyles, anchored contentment, nourished relationships, reasonable expectations, and manageable work. Balance can model for us the pace of faith with its gentleness and goodwill. Balance can equip us with a gyroscope that stabilizes our orbit securely around our timeless priorities. And, in the end, it’s all about priorities.

Bibliography

1 Keith H. Hammonds, “Balance is Bunk!” Fast Company, December 19, 2007.

2 Dana E. King, MD, MS, et al., “Adherence to Healthy Lifestyle Habits in USD Adults, 1988-2006,” The American Journal of Medicine, vol.122, issue 6, June 2009, 528-534.

3 Sherwin B. Nuland, MD, How We Live (New York: Vintage Books — Random House, 1997), xviii, 30, 33, 41.

4 William Lane Craig, “Cosmos and Creator,” Origins & Design 17:2.

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