My Magic Word is Balance

Thomas Merton said, “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm, and harmony.”

I suppose that those who master some skill or art – especially those who become the best at it – must devote the majority of their time and energy to doing so. Olympians probably don’t have a lot of time for Shenanigan’s pub quiz night or Downton Abbey. They need to pursue their goal with dogged determination. It takes a compulsive personality to reach peak performance in any one area.

Erin Gruwell is the real-life subject of the motivational film Freedom Writers, which tells the story of a teacher who makes a difference in the lives of her at-risk students. In the film, she battles an apathetic administration, and takes on a second job to afford books for her class. She gets so emotionally invested that the rare moment her husband actually sees her, she ends up just talking his ear off about her students. In the end, her once world-weary kids open up, Latinos have conversations with blacks (shock of shocks!) and everyone sheds a single tear. What the film doesn’t reveal is that Gruwell’s marriage lasted four years, which is also the number of years she lasted in the classroom. A four-year career exalted by Hollywood. Perhaps I’m unfairly simplifying (as the film did), but what you can’t argue is that her momentum, her compulsion for being Super Teacher, was unsustainable, and in order to even maintain it for the time that she did, she had to sacrifice other parts of her life.

For me, I do have a compulsive personality, but my compulsion is toward balance. I am compulsive about not being compulsive. Seriously. I have checks and balances to such an extent that my order could be perceived as a disorder. Examples:

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I write a To-Do List every day. Nothing wrong there. It’s a habit of many successful people. But rather than keep a running list of things I could never possibly hope to accomplish in a day, I write an entire mini-legal pad of To-Do lists a month or more in advance with obtainable goals for each day. There are some things that appear daily: work out, take a photo, read to Micah, etc. But then I space out those extra things, the kinds of things I mean to do but can’t ever seem to find the time/energy for: clip Nalu’s nails, wash the car, add to Micah’s baby book, etc. I feel wonderful when I can cross everything off my list in a day, and I don’t like to set myself up for failure by having more on my list than I know I can realistically complete. However, I often spend an inordinate amount of time writing, referring to, and freaking out over misplaced lists.

I try to read a book a week. Again, nothing too weird there. But the type of book is on a five week rotation. Classic, non-fiction, contemporary, YA/professional development, memoir/Hawaiiana. Why not just read what I feel like when I feel like it? Because that would risk sending my life spiraling out of balance. I know, I’m rolling my eyes too.

I do the same thing with working out. Rotation of run, yoga, dance, general work out. Keeps it interesting. Also gives me something to look forward to, even if it’s just making it to the other side of an Insanity Day. I’m currently out of my typical routine, and trying to get back into running shape. Of course I can’t just be straightforward and go for a run. I have to invent a system around it. I have to forgive myself by starting where I’m at (an abysmal three minutes) and increase a minute a day until I’m up to 30. (I’m currently up to 17 minutes.) I haven’t figured out the new system once I reach 30, but I’m pretty confident there will be one.

My classroom lessons follow a structure – within the structure there is creativity and freedom, but it’s within the confines of a predictable format. A week can’t go by without a Family Day. There’s photo-a-day, and ten-a-day (minutes of cleaning), and even a system to getting this writing done. My life is full of all kinds of OCD tricks and habits for getting shit done. And I feel wonderful at the end of the day when I’ve gotten shit done.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Virtue is the best preservative of health, as it prescribes temperance and such a regulation of our passions as is most conducive to the well-being of the animal economy, so that it is at the same time the only true happiness of the mind and the best means of preserving the health of the body.” Benjamin Franklin was also quite OCD when it came to regimenting his life, giving himself clear rules to live by, and scheduling out his hours. I wonder if he ever put his list aside if, say, one of his buddies suggested a spontaneous game of blind man’s bluff. Would he have ever indulged in reading the hot new book of poems on bible study day?

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For all my list-checking and cramming all that I can into each little day, sometimes I need to just allow myself to linger on swinging Micah around like a little monkey and tickling him till he squeals. I need to forgive myself if something REALLY IMPORTANT doesn’t get crossed off (like floss or read a book to Micah) and remember that it gets crossed 9 out of 10 days. Tomorrow we’re going camping overnight in Waianapanapa. It wasn’t on the list, and the list can stay home. My magic word is balance, and all that calculated goal-setting needs a rush of spontaneity – the yin to the yang.

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