In A Perfect World
Remember your favorite playground as a kid? A central attraction there may have been the seesaw. It was exhilarating to fly up and down in perfect balance with your partner.
The downside, of course, was that you needed a partner. Not only that, but your partner had to be more-or-less your size, or at least your weight. Otherwise, one of you will not be flying. You’ll be sitting disgruntled on the surface of the playground, wings clipped.
Ever see those amazing human pyramids, where a group of acrobatically inclined performers stand on each other’s shoulders in decreasing numbers, until the final one perches triumphantly at the top? Every single member of that pyramid needs to be in perfect balance with every other one, to ensure that the whole structure doesn’t topple. Endless practice is needed to achieve and maintain that balance, because the consequences of even one component of the pyramid losing his balance can be dire.
You could say that all of life is a balancing act. And that the consequences of losing one’s balance can be just as dire.
I recently spent time in the hospital with a loved one, and something that struck me forcefully as the doctors did their rounds was the way they had to carefully calculate the effects and side effects of each medication, to ensure that none the patient’s organs would be unfavorably impacted by the regimen they prescribed. One medication, for example, might produce wonderful results for the heart, while posing a threat to the kidneys. Another, just the thing for hypertension, could have a deleterious effect on the liver. And so on.
“It’s a balancing act,” the doctors explained repeatedly.
And so it is in every area of life.
Let’s start with family dynamics. As parents, we are constantly challenged to spend the right amount of our limited time, energy, and resources on each of our children. In line with the tried-and-true axiom that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, the “problem child” is often the one who extracts the maximum from the parents, leaving his or her siblings openly or secretly resentful because they are not getting their proper share. The ratio has become unbalanced.
Other relationships are equally susceptible. Even the most understanding husband can feel a pang if his wife devotes herself too fully to the children or her job, while neglecting her relationship with him. Ditto for the wife whose spouse apportions too little time and attention to the home front. The garden of marriage does not thrive on neglect. It requires a great deal of sunshine and a steady hand on the watering can.
It’s sad but true: losing our balance within the family structure can lead to dysfunction, or worse.
The New Normal
It’s not always easy to get it right. If something pulls us emotionally in a certain direction, the insistent tug can overpower the sensible voice in our head that tries to guide us toward temperance and balance.
That “something” can be external to us, or it can live deep inside. A positive force or a negative one. For example, a needy child who calls out to the nurturer in our soul… or the kid who pushes all of our buttons. We can be unbalanced by a powerful need to be in control, or by a sense of being overwhelmed by the myriad demands on our time and patience. Ditto for a pull toward excessive socializing, or shopping, or solitude, or plain old laziness. Any of these, and a million other things, can be a factor in throwing us out of whack.
Once you lose your balance, getting it back can be tricky.
First, because you may not even be fully cognizant of the fact that your life has become unbalanced, let alone be able to figure out why. You just know that something’s not working.
You need to be able to recognize what a well-balanced family looks like before you can create one. Someone who was not fortunate enough to grow up in a high-functioning family may not possess that instinctive recognition. Sadly, this blind spot can lead her to make the wrong choice of friends or spouse. Not knowing what it feels like to be in a healthy, balanced relationship, she has nothing to compare this one with.
The damage caused by an unbalanced relationship or family structure is not always easily repaired. The reason is simple: Whatever prompted the unbalanced behavior in the first place is going to resist change with all of its might.
We are creatures of habit. Once those unhealthy patterns have been established, they quickly become etched in stone. You may not like dysfunction, but you feel comfortable with it. You know what to expect. Even feeling miserable can be comforting when it is familiar.
There is a certain inertia that arises. A resigned acceptance of the status quo. A stoic sense of “This is my life and I need to bear it. I’ll solace myself with small pleasures to help me get through.” Inertia and comfort-seeking are the twin motors that propel so much of human behavior.
Which is why it’s so unwise to let the situation deteriorate until it reaches a point of unhealthy unbalance. We don’t want to reach a place where dysfunction feels like the new normal.
Only a healthy dose of self-awareness can help identify the hidden emotional culprit, so that we can coax it into the light and deal with it. Achieving that awareness can be long and arduous, though it is ultimately the most rewarding journey there is.
Center of Gravity
The good news is that a temporary unbalance in the family can be just that—temporary.
To one degree or another, bringing home a new baby will inevitably throw even the most smooth-running family out of whack for a while. Similarly, a big move or career change can throw a monkey wrench into the works. Even the joyous responsibility of making a simcha upsets routine and places additional stress on the family system.
The trick is getting balance back as quickly and as smoothly as possible. For that to happen, the parents in the system need to have a strong inner balance as well as a strong relationship balance. And, as everyone knows, the only way to achieve good balance is to have a strong center of gravity. To be centered.
That kind of centeredness comes from a secure and solid upbringing. Having that fortunate background gives us an instinctive sense of where to plant our feet on the human pyramid of the family we are building, and how to keep ourselves and our loved ones from falling onto our faces.
Failing such a background, centeredness comes from hard work. The work of getting rid of all the emotional baggage that may have piled up over the years, so that we can discover who we really are and what we really value. The first way provides a natural foundation of solid rock. The second way may be harder-earned and more roundabout, but it can ultimately provide an equally sound platform on which to build.
Our strongest and most faithful center of gravity comes, of course, from the presence of Hakadosh Boruch Hu in our lives. When the winds of chaos or privation or inner doubt come along to rock our balance, He is the center that steadies us. It is our faith in His unshakeable love and goodness that helps us keep our balance.
Because if the center holds, the whole structure will be able to stand tall and steady and proud!