the seduction of balance, part 2

i wrote an article on balance for the journal of student ministries a number of months ago, and have been waiting an appropriate time before i can post it here also. seems it’s been long enough.

in part 1, i wrote about “theologizing balance” and “teeter-totter balance”.

here’s part two:

the seduction of balance

Discipleship as Edge-Craft

Three books in particular have shaped my thinking on this:

Purple Cow
In Seth Godin’s easy-to-read, brilliant book about marketing, Purple Cow, he makes a case for the fringe. All good ideas, says Godin, come from the fringe, from the edges. This term, by the way, comes from the business-development world where “edge-crafting” has become a buzzword.

Godin builds his case on a silly little experience: He was driving in England, and saw a field of black-and-white cows. He thought they were beautiful, and, as it wasn’t a scene he saw everyday, something to behold. But as he drove, he saw more and more of these fields, filled with more and more of the same kind of cows. They grew boring in their sameness.

As he continued to drive, he wondered what might catch his attention amidst the myriad black-and-white cows. The image that came to mind was that of a purple-and-white cow. Whether it was off on its own, or right in the middle of one of the herds, that would be something to notice!

Godin goes on to apply this simple insight to the worlds of business and marketing. In our world of overwhelming data, only the truly unique stands out and gets noticed.

We’ve made the gospel—even Jesus—a black-and-white cow. Our obsessions with balance and sameness (which, while different, are closely related) truncate the uniqueness of a passionate, consuming, unordinary life of discipleship. Shoot, look at Scripture: God has always been with those on the edge, those on the fringes.

The Medici Effect
The second book deals with creative idea generation and is called The Medici Effect. This intriguing little book argues that truly inventive ideas come from the intersections of seemingly unrelated fields of study. The concept is fascinating. Refining a particular field of thought, taking it an additional step, doesn’t often lead to breakthroughs in thinking, technology, solutions, or other areas of ideation. True breakthroughs are made when different fields of study intersect and cause us to think about things completely differently that we had previously.

Our traditional thinking on balance is incremental: Constantly tweak the various aspects of my life, priorities, and responsibilities, with little nudges toward a perfectly balanced wheel. That might work in the back room of a bike shop, but it’s not a reflection of real life (which is more is like the see-saw).

The Drunkard’s Walk
Finally, I recently read The Drunkard’s Walk, a heavy-lifting book about randomness. An extensive section of the book talks about Normal Distribution (what we commonly call “the bell curve”). The author writes quite a bit about social entropy that pushes us to value the middle of the curve, as if it has more value. He also writes extensively about how things that we tend to think of as aberrant, or truly unique and odd (even “chance”, or “unrepeatable”) still fall within the predictable, normal distribution.

There are implications for us to notice here, in our discussion of balance. The pull toward the center (toward normal) is more mathematical than it is biblical. You might counter: “But doesn’t that just show that mathematics supports God’s design?” Well, yes; and, no.

Normal Distribution is a thing of beauty, in a way, and a reflection of God’s design. But we err when we overlay value on the curve, as if the more-populous middle is better, and the less-populous edges are bad. (Back to the platypus, for instance—is the platypus bad?)

The Normal Distribution shows us that the whole thing—the whole stinkin’ bell curve—is normal! In other words, the edges are just as predictable as the middle, which means our definition of “normal”—if thought of only as the center of that curve—is actually flawed!
Piece all these ideas together, along with a good look at the life of Christ and an honest appraisal of ourselves, and I believe we have a picture of discipleship as edge-craft, not a balanced wheel.

(I wonder if our spiritualization of the center of the normal distribution is why the church – and the evangelical church, in particular – has struggled with artists for so long. Artists value the edges, the unique, the different. This is inherently at odds and threatening to the social value system of churchianity. I’ve noticed, through the years, that artsy folk – musicians, painters, dancers – have often felt more at home in charismatic churches. Maybe that’s because my charismatic brothers and sisters have a built-in appreciation for unique experience, rather than normalization.)

Values vs. Balance

There’s still a reality I have to face: Sometimes unbalance sucks. When I was traveling too much—a clear indictor of unbalance—everything in my life suffered because of it. My family didn’t get enough of my time and presence, and felt I didn’t value them. My co-workers hardly saw me, and I wasn’t part of the daily mix on a regular basis. And my own workload suffered, there weren’t enough “normal” days to catch up.

I think I’d used my distaste for the spiritualization of balance as an excuse to live a horribly unbalanced life. I was spiritualizing (or at least justifying) my choices just as much as someone obsessed with the center of the bell curve. I had to make some changes to bring my life (and use of time) into alignment with my values.

And that’s when it struck me: Balance can be just another idol. On the other hand, values should be the driving force of our choices in life. I’m not all that interested in balance, really. Instead, I want to live a life (and have those around me experience my life in a way) that is in alignment with my values. This is a very different motivator than wheel tuning. This is a motivation, and practice, that says, “Based on Scripture, responsibilities, personal preferences and wiring, the input of my community, and calling, what values are the drivers in my life?”

For me, this was an acknowledgement that being in close connection with my wife and kids is a higher value to me than, say, speaking to groups of teenagers in other states. And, likewise, spending time with the staff of Youth Specialties is a higher value to me than spending time with others talking about Youth Specialties. With those acknowledgements (and others), it only made sense to significantly trim back on the (good) things begging for me to travel.

Those are my biggies, but here are a few more:

I tend to like “fast.” But “slow” is actually a higher value to me than fast. So I need to be extremely intentional about slowing down.

I like to talk more than listen. I tend to think I have good ideas that everyone else needs to hear. But, I have a higher value on collaboration than I do on getting my ideas adopted by everyone. So I need to be intentional about listening.

I really like stuff. I like to buy music, drive a fun car, eat at nice restaurants, and go on cool vacations. But I also want my kids to attend their expensive private school—and I don’t want to live beyond my means or be controlled by materialism. So Jeannie and I listed our house for sale recently and are planning on downsizing to a house half the size, because I have a higher value on being present in the place God has us than on buying lots of stuff.

You know, if I’m being really honest, many of these “higher values” are still aspirational for me. But I’m choosing to bring my actions into alignment with them in the hope that they’ll become fully realized values.

Cautiously Re-Embracing Balance

Some time ago, after my decade-and-a-half fight with balance, a parallel dawned on me: Holiness and balance have something in common. I’m not holy, but I’m called to holiness. I don’t expect to become perfectly holy, but I’m still striving toward and hoping for holiness.

It’s the same with balance. I’m never going to be balanced, and I’m not sure I want to be. I don’t think it aligns with the passionate life of Christ. I think it naturalizes and diminishes grace. And I think it’s the enemy of creativity. But, that said—sigh—a bit more balance in my life wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

So, I need to live in this tension: I can live toward and in hope of more balance, with an acknowledgement that I’ll never fully achieve it. No, I haven’t come full-circle. But I’m on speaking terms with balance these days. I keep my boundaries strong so she doesn’t become an idol or start to tease with me with her flirty, seductive ways again. I respect her, and I ask her to respect me in my place of unbalance.

And, frankly, being a bit unbalanced is just all right with me.

4 thoughts on “the seduction of balance, part 2”

  1. I enjoyed your blog. And I completely agree about the Medici Effect. In fact, the inspiration for a children’s book I wrote (Emily Sweet & the Counting Sheep)was from an art exhibit. It was a sculpture of a woman in front of a mirror with an open fashion magazine beside her. Such a normal scene until you saw the knife in her hand slicing through part of her side, an attempt to match the image in the magazine. Doesn’t really sound like material for a young children’s book, but in God’s hands the idea of diminishing who we are to fit someone else’s ideas of perfection became a children’s story.
    I particularly enjoyed your varied tastes in literature with a focus on ideas and how they relate to our service to Christ. Most people’s eyes glaze over if I talk about fractals or Shroedinger’s Cat. But God is the source of all truth and all pure creativity. Jesus used parables that involved the physical world around to illustrate complex spiritual principles and related them to the every day life and work experiences of the people.
    For me, one of the greatest insights that I still carry came in science class about the properties of light. Light is both a particle and a wave. It’s not one or the other, but both and… God has chosen, through His word, to describe Himself as the God of Light (1Jn 1:5) and in so doing I believe He gives us a glimpse of another aspect of His character. In many situations, such as you are finding in your search for Christ-like balance, the answer is often both and…

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  3. this is really, really, really, really good stuff, marko

    there is a bruce cockburn lyric that goes (paraphrase):

    i don’t believe in balance, I try to live in tension

    Rosemary Radford Ruether, a feminist Catholic theologian, has written a great deal on how dualism manifests itself in our lives in balance constructs. She points out that Jesus beckons us to liberty, to freedom – something that shifts the weights we use to measure balance.

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