One hundred feet off the ground and juggling knives and burning torches, the tightrope walker inches across the rope, carefully placing each foot slowly and methodically one after the other, all the while precariously balancing himself, mindful of the potentially fatal disaster. This is not always how we think of ourselves as we move through our days, but in many ways, the image of the high tightrope walker is a fitting one to illustrate how we manage our day-to-day life.
How to achieve "balance" in life is a sub-set of the multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry of self-help. The same gurus who ten years ago were teaching us how to "have it all" are now teaching us "how to gain balance". There is nothing inherently wrong with this message. Indeed, given the ever increasing number of illnesses which can be directly traced to leading stressful lives, the concept of finding and achieving balance so that we are not as stressed or unhappy makes a lot of sense from the perspective of long-term health. It is also just a whole lot more appealing. Who wants to go through life stressed and unhappy?
Yet is balance really the panacea that self-help experts claim it is? Is balancing our careers and personal lives really a guaranteed recipe for happiness? Many of us have already achieved this supposed elusive balance and yet are still searching for fulfillment and contentment in our lives. Let's suppose you've heeded the expert advice and are allotting carefully measured amounts of time towards the various responsibilities and activities in your life. You've put your foot down with your boss regarding excessive overtime at the office and have come to an equitable arrangement that allows you more time for your family or yourself. Maybe you've also negotiated a new deal with your spouse that more fairly divides parental responsibilities and household chores giving you more personal time to unwind in the manner of your choosing. Or perhaps you are limiting the amount of time devoted to social obligations with family and friends. You've succeeded in establishing the ideal mix, more or less equal portions of work, family and friends with a healthy dash of time that's just for you. Presto, you've just prepared a healthy serving of happiness, inner peace and contentment - right? Well maybe so, but I doubt it.
The truth, in my humble opinion, is that there is no ideal balance to be struck, no sure-fire recipe or step-by-step instructions we can follow that will ensure, or even increase the odds of us finding personal fulfillment. As unique individuals, we must all determine what our personal approach will be based on our own responsibilities, priorities, interests and passions.
Some people thrive on stress, deadlines and being crazy-busy… they are actually happier when they are busy, and they do not experience stress in a negative way. Friends may regard them as workaholics and advise them to relax and enjoy some of life's other pleasures, but maybe ninety percent work and ten percent play is exactly the right mix for them. Or maybe you are one of those people who have little ambition in terms of career and spend the majority of your time just hanging out with friends or indulging in hobbies, while doing odd jobs to make ends meet. Your family and friends may shake their collective heads at your seeming lack of drive and worry about your financial future, but if you're happy with this blend, then who are they to judge? Perhaps you are one of those rare individuals who selflessly devote all their free time to helping others, whether it is volunteering at a hospital, becoming a big-brother or sister, or distributing meals to the elderly or shut-ins. As long as you are doing this for the right reasons, because you find it rewarding and a worthy way to spend your time (as opposed to trying to alleviate some deep-rooted sense of guilt), then more power to you, I say.
In the final analysis, only you can determine what will provide you with an enriching and happy life. To some degree it may always be partially elusive and constantly changing as our priorities evolve through our lives. The majority of us (if we have any degree of integrity) will find that they will always have to spend some of their time performing tasks and tending to responsibilities that are frequently unpleasant and sometimes painful. Happiness is not (as some would have you believe) a birthright. Nor is a lack of it a personality defect or character flaw. Beware the person who claims to have yet another new strategy for striking the perfect life balance guaranteed to create emotional bliss as well as clear your acne and balance your checkbook. They may be well intentioned, but more often than not, they have something they want to sell you. And sometimes what they have to sell you is nothing more than good old-fashioned common sense, served up with the latest flavor of the week.
In my opinion, it boils down to this. Life is short. Do whatever brings you pleasure and satisfaction as often as you can (as long as it does not bring harm to others). Do your best to meet your commitments and responsibilities…you'll feel lousy if you don't. Accept that life is sometimes beyond your control, and that there will be a mix of good and bad times. Move on from the bad and cherish the good.
If that little snippet of wisdom strikes you as simplistic, consider this…at least it was free. And I don't have anything to sell you.