In 2010, I had foot surgery. It was supposed to be a 6-week recovery, but we moved countries, and I missed physio-therapy. All in all, it was more like 10-12 weeks until I could walk without wincing.
Anyone who has learned how to walk (which is to say: all of us) should remember the immense humility in learning how to balance in the face of other forces. For small children, it is the swaying back and forth against the pull of gravity, enlisting sturdy supports to hold them until they can hold themselves. For the rest of us, it might be something we learn and relearn due to injury, physical tasks, surfing, or exercises for sports.
This is not a lesson we apply once and then forget.
This is a lesson in balancing: work with life; family with personal space; what we want to do with what we need to temporarily prioritise. Balance is a constant negotiation: with gravity, with external forces, and – perhaps most significantly – with ourselves.
How are you walking, right now?
Direct this question to yourself, and don’t apply it literally. In the process of your life, how are you walking? Are there trips and stumbles? Is something pulling you in a certain direction? You only have to walk on a mountaintop once to fully understand the persuasion of wind.
Are you walking to get somewhere? We all go through phases of immense purpose wherein certain themes, actions, or circumstances will eclipse out our other interests. I’ve put many things on hold to get a book off the ground. Sometimes balance actually means taking the most direct route.
Are you walking alone, or with others? Collaboration has its own brand of balance, which is to say: you can negotiate for what the team needs, as well as what each person might want. Often, when we lose ground on our own expectations, we gain opportunities for our team to work as a cohesive whole.
What catches your attention while you’re walking? Balance is not always a conscious exercise. Let your life speak. What is asking for more room, more attention, a larger portion of your energy and awareness? I don’t mean give in to demands. I mean: is there a need that is sitting by the sidelines and asking for your time in a very quiet, unimposing voice?
Balance can look a lot like amplifying the aspects in our lives that have been tasked with patience for too long.
It’s all well and good to share attention between two options, but what about the further-reaching web of competing priorities?
How do we balance the immense complexities of who we are?
Like any good English major, I have lines from Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ embedded in my veins:
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
The problem is: I’m not just an English major. None of us are. We all live in the intersections between multiple domains (yes, even the specialists).
In middle school, I started performing in musicals. I loved English, I was good at math, I sang in choir, and I liked history. I played the flute in band. I remember one day telling my father about each of my activities. His response was, “That’s great, Emma. But one day, you’ll have to pick one.”
Middle school was also the first time classrooms became designated by topic. No more general studies, no more connections between math and writing. Science has its own room, Band has its own practice time. There are new teachers, streams of focus, and everything is a lesson in segmentation.
(Side note: I just Googled “What do you call it when you put parts of your life into boxes?”)
From middle school through to college, we are taught to compartmentalize. It’s where most of the high school tropes come from (jock, geek, band nerd, drama kid). It’s where our identity begins to form, coalescing around what we do, what we’re good at, and what we enjoy.
This seeps into the way we approach our interests, it influences how we build relationships, and it also shapes what we seek out, how we learn, and what ideas we pursue.
Depending on each person’s experience, university can be an antidote (if you attend a liberal-arts-style institution that encourages you to reach outside of your expertise), or it can cement the one-track focus into your style of living.
What do you do?
I built my own website to become a living CV because I was tired of having to explain to my business client, for example, why I sing opera. When people ask me what I do, it can be hard to pull together all of the threads.
I have wide-ranging interests. We’re talking: things that span both sides of a college campus. Writing, philosophy, physics, math, science, psychology, personal development, astronomy. Too many things to list.
We all have interests that may not follow a single theme, so we tend to customize which ones we present – and to whom. And yet: they all connect, because they all come together in you.
Some days I’m a singer who writes. Other days, I’m an editor who strategizes.
Some days, I need space to be none of these things.
We don’t often talk about this side of balance: the negotiation between doing, not doing, and just being.
Balance is not a tightrope. It’s not a state of perpetual activity and movement, no matter how slow and steady (like slackliners walking across a rope in shaky, but consistent, progress). It’s also not going to look the same each day, for each person, in every area of life.
Balance requires: reflection. Self-care. Self-knowing. The ability to ask for what you need, and the ability to give it to yourself.
Balance is not about equality, or attaining a perfect state of equilibrium. It’s a situation in which different elements are in the correct proportions.
I’ve started asking myself a few daily questions in order to assess, reflect, and find patterns around my own sense of balance.
What went well today?
What did I need more of?
What did I need less of?
What threads do I want to carry into tomorrow?
Sometimes my answers will be the same for multiple questions.
What do I need more of? People.
What do I need less of? People.
And frequently, if I’m very honest, I find myself holding directly opposing views:
I know that I can’t do it all.
I know I will always want to do more.
But at the end of the day, here’s the best part: the tension between opposing forces is what lays the ground for balance.
Emma Sedlak is a Scottish-American writer-singer-poet (which means she would have been great as a minstrel or scribe a few hundred years ago!). Currently a communications designer in Sydney, Australia, she helps people create deep, intuitive content and narratives. On the web, she lives at here. When she's not keeping the postal service in business, she also spouts poetry on Twitter.
Love to write?
Every month we select at few writers to help us explore what it means to live a life of reflection and intention. Reach out to Helen, our editor at Helen.W@holstee.com to learn more