Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Balance and Stress

There’s a ton of talk lately about work-life balance.  Which is a good thing, of course.  We’ve collectively recognized that working too much, and not paying attention to things that fill us up—family, friends, silence, thinking, being alone—can make us crappy and crazy.  I’ve thought about it myself, especially when I decide to return an email rather than invest in my relationship with a friend, look my son in the eye as he talks at me, or play another round of CandyLand with my daughter.  (Okay…. Fine.  A round.  I don’t think I’ve ever played CandyLand with her.  I hate that game.)

Lately, though, I’ve noticed the “balance” conversation sometimes turns into a lament about the effort it takes to do good work. We say we want balance, but we might actually mean that we don’t want to work so hard.  We want to be relaxed. We want to feel perpetually energetic, well rested, and inspired.  We want endless, expendable leisure time.  And fun.  We want lots of fun. 

But that’s a different conversation.  Right?  It’s not a “balance” conversation.

Author and psychologist Nienke Wijnants says that the word “balance” has lost its real meaning.  “It’s become a catch-all.  ‘My life’s not in balance’ can mean so many things:  ‘I’m not happy; I work too hard; I don’t have enough free time.’ “

That’s what I notice, for sure, now that so many of us are talking about balance.   A lot of talk about balance is really about workload.  We don’t want to work so hard.  But do we mean it? 

A few years ago, I had a surgery that kept me home for a couple weeks.  I felt too badly to leave the house, so I just stayed home, mostly lying on the couch and drifting in and out of sleep.  When I was better, several friends asked me how I’d done with the sitting and resting.  “It was fabulous,” I gushed.  “I could do it all the time.  Every day.  Quit my job and just stay home and chill.  Forever.”

My friends scoffed, as they should have; they knew, and I knew, that the reason it had been blissful is because I was so dulled by pain meds (and pain) that I couldn’t muster up the energy or desire to go out and hustle at anything.  Now that I was healthy and feeling good again, they told me, “There’s no way you’d make it, just lounging at home.”

And that’s true.  I like to bang around in this world with my wings on fire.  I like working my ass off.  I like the feeling that comes with a productive and exhaustive day.  Sure, my muscles ache from the hustle—but I find pleasure in the exhaustion, too. 

Most of us are like that, by nature.  Wijnants says, “In essence, we are all worker bees.  The best thing we can do for our mental health is to work on something that is attainable but challenging.”  Doing work—whatever kind it is—makes us feel like we matter.  Like we have worth.  Like there was a reason to get up and go.

So:  we work.  It’s good for us.  And with work comes stress—which is another tentacle to the “balance” thing.  When we’re stressed—and that word means a whole host of things, depending on how we want to think about it—that’s when we lament that we need more balance.  What we mean, of course, is that we want less stress.

But stress--?  Just like hard work, stress is another really good thing.  In The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal points out that to try to avoid stress, you’d have to “live in a kind of bubble that excludes all those things that actually give life meaning, including deep relationships, challenging work and opportunities for growth and development.”  She says, succinctly, that stress is an engagement with life.

Thinking about all of this makes me understand that when we seek balance, we’re missing the point.  Life isn’t about finding perfect balance—because it probably doesn’t exist, for one thing, but because balance isn’t really the point at all. Life is about unbalance.  Unbalance is what makes our lives interesting, rich, difficult, horrible, and amazing… in equal, balanced measure. 


Time for credit where it’s due:

I’ve quoted the thinking of a couple people in this post; I encourage you to seek out their work if this is stuff you’ve been thinking about.  There’s another one, too:  A book titled Life Balance is Fiction by Jerry Porras, Stewart Emery and Mark Thompson.  It’s good stuff.  They talk about how detrimental it can be to try to order your life in a perfect, balanced place.  If nothing else, there is comfort in that.

I also got a lot of inspiration from Issue 13 of Flow magazine, which is just flat-out terrific.  Flow is always terrific.  I always get inspiration, reading it.  It’s not cheap, but like anything else, you really get what you pay for.  Seriously, I adore this thing.  When it arrives, I devour it, slowly and over the course of a week or two.  Seriously.  Try it.  And thanks to Brenda at Choice Literacy for gifting it to me.  

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