Note: this post was first drafted back in October in light of a friends impending exam. It needed work and ended up consigned to “drafts” until I mustered the courage to grapple with it again.
Odds are good you know a person (or multiple people) who idealizes the notion of “balance.” Most people who do yoga fall into this category. They constantly strive to clean up errant corners of their personality, shave down excesses, and acquire an unshakable serenity in their thoughts and actions.
This idea of “balance” is accepted as a sort of unreachable goal which, once “achieved,” will result in peace, happiness, and a better life.
I’m one of those people, as are many (but not all) people I’m close to. I think it’s worth investigating this idea.
Let’s put aside human personalities for a moment, and turn to the notion of “balance” as it relates to physical bodies. A physical body in balance is still. It does not move through the world.
Taking a human being, we see that their movement, their locomotion, depends, fundamentally, on imbalance. Some humorous writer once noted that “walking is really controlled falling.” Further, running requires even more extreme imbalance; this generates the faster motion. But there are risks involved: walking and being off-balance increases the likelihood you might fall (trip over a stone, tumble off a cliff, lurch into traffic). The more momentum, the bigger the risks. But there are benefits also: the ability to go somewhere new, to get there faster, to scale new heights, to see new things.
From this we can see that imbalance gives birth to motion, which gives birth to discovery, progress, achievement.
Are there perhaps parallels in our personalities? A friend of mine, a smart and beautiful overachiever, lamented once (while trapped in the jaws of preparation for a ruthless standardized test) that she was never able to relax with her housemates and while away a lazy afternoon. This girl, a fellow balance-seeker, saw her efforts to exert an effect on the world (by excelling on her exam, thus getting a “boost” in her future, ultimately leading to a more impactful career) as an excess that she “should” be supplementing with lazy stretches of inactivity. Her drive was, to her, a problem to be addressed, instead of a talent to be nurtured. (All these thoughts, by the way, can be found in me as well).
For the last two months (at the time of this post’s drafting anyway. How time flies), I have been living on a kibbutz in Israel, a kind of socialist community with roots stretching back to Israel’s early 20th century pioneer days. I expected to come here and better understand the nature of collectives, to start to chart and measure the limits and possibilities of long-term socially-embedded structure in a post-industrial economy. I wanted to drop a coin into the depths of the human capacity for self-governance, and see how deep it went.
Now, I did that (at least a little bit–of course there’s a huge amount I still don’t understand), and it was great, but I did something else as well: found myself profoundly, troublingly bored. Bored to the extent that I felt smothered, the very oxygen sucked away by the absence of need. The kibbutz was a paradise, with the consequence that most of the people there don’t need to worry about too many things. Every day was a pleasant copy of the day before.
It took me a while to diagnose it, but I eventually realized that my personality requires large obstacles, noble ideals, camaraderie, and a certain independence of action. I can’t function well in the long-term without these things–I get anxious, irritated, bored, and fragile. I realized that this need is actually an imbalance on my part, a vacuum in personality that I need to keep filling with external substance.
An orthodox “balance seeker” would likely advise me to find the virtues in the absence, to stop dwelling on what isn’t there and start appreciating what is. They would encourage me to embrace the pleasant routine and to let go of my need to be constantly solving problems. They would tell me that I would find a new inner peace, once I free myself of my obsession with action. And they would be totally right, of course. But it’s the kind of “right” that is “right” in a small sense, taking into account only some factors.
What they fail to take into account is that these particular imbalances, these needs, they enable. They give us the momentum, energy, direction to do and accomplish things that those without them simply will not. These imbalances are what move us, give us the ability to want, pursue, dream, and achieve. They are the motive force that propels lives forward.
People fall into categories, as they tend to, of course, and there are themes. Here are two:
First, the amount of momentum in a person varies hugely. Some people have very little, beyond the human basics. Some have tremendous amounts, which put them in more danger of self-destruction, but also enable them to go further than others could hope to. Your imbalances are your gift and your curse, after a fashion. And there is something to be said for managing them: the skilled runner falls less frequently than the first-timer, and it takes more skill to keep control of more energy. Seeking balance can be recast as striving for control, which is ultimately as important as speed.
Second, although people’s imbalances can be similar, in the details, there is only you. There are things that only you are capable of doing because only you are set up to desire them, to stumble in that direction. If you strive for perfect balance, you–and humanity, through you–will never get there. There’s a glimmer of moral obligation, then, to follow your imbalances rather than fight them. That’s not to mean that your particular goal is necessarily “better” than anyone else’s, by however you measure such things. It might be fairly unwieldly, in fact. Luckily, with everyone else also careening into you and each other, we refine each other’s movements, average out the extremes, and wind up moving in a common direction, if slowly.
I eventually told my friend that while she might feel that she’s doing herself a disservice by sparring with the test rather than indulging her social animal, she was doing what would ultimately make her happy. She would feel worse, I realized, if she spent her time socializing than working: she would constantly feel that she was wasting time, that she could be doing things to cause impact in the world. The enjoyment she envisioned herself having, I started to believe would never end up materializing. She’s one of those people who are driven, and that will let her accomplish certain things in certain ways that those more capable of killing time will not be able to. While she should keep balance, and make sure her momentum doesn’t take her off her feet, she’s moving somewhere, and she should appreciate that.