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Our Lives Are a Balancing Act

By Karen Stewart, MA

Karen Stewart, MA

Our lives are a balancing act. In times of high stress, we can feel like one of those jugglers who manage to keep a bunch of plates spinning on tall sticks. They run from plate to plate making sure that each is spinning fast enough, because as they slow, the plates begin to wobble and will eventually fall.

Jugglers are successful when they are very grounded, present, and focused. When their attention wanes, the plates begin to wobble. The best jugglers decide when they are done and pick the plates off of the sticks.

We are all jugglers. We have our ‘essential plates’ in the air: work, child care, cooking, grocery shopping, house and yard chores, errands to run, perhaps responsibilities for other family members. Just as important are more ‘optional plates’: exercise, time to play with our families and friends, simple down-time to read, relax, nap, daydream, go for a walk.

While the ‘essential plates’ are necessary for us to live, the ‘optional plates’ go a long way to make life worth living.

As I contemplate the many aspects of life that we all try to balance, my thoughts begin to spin like the plates! Should I look at the aspect of balancing physical needs? Balancing time? Balancing competing needs? Perhaps most problematic for all of us is the necessity of balancing our needs with the needs of others: our children, our parents, our employers, our community.

The task is dizzying, until we look at what makes the juggler successful. They are grounded in their bodies, fully present in the moment and focused on only one thing. In order to be successful jugglers, we need a centering belief that helps us put everything into sharper focus, makes our priorities clear and helps us find the right place and time for the various elements of our lives.

A Personal “Mission Statement”

This grounding or centering belief can come from one of any number of perspectives. We might use a spiritual perspective, or one based on our values, or a personal mission statement that we write for ourselves. This unifying principle can help us figure out how we allocate our precious resources of time and energy.

Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, remains an important resource in this search for an organizing principle. He suggests starting with our epitaph, what do we want inscribed on our gravestone? How do we want people to remember us? Our epitaph is the overriding message that we want our lives to convey. Our fictional obituary should reflect our lifelong values and help us formulate our priorities now.
The next step is the hardest because it involves taking a clear unemotional look at how we actually spend our time. We need to take a step back and examine whether or not we are actually living our lives in a way that reflects what we hold most dear.

Finally, we take a look at all of the competing needs and actually try to fit them into a schedule that is realistic and reflects how/who we want to be.
A number of years ago, when I had small children, I took the time to do this process. When I examined how I was actually living my life I was appalled to realize how much emphasis I placed on efficiency! Efficiency was not even on my list of conscious values. Efficiency took precedence over my needs and interfered with my ability to be fully present and aware. I am not dismissing how helpful it is to be efficient, but there are far more important values.

Reflecting on Priorities

As I thought about how to order my priorities, I imagined a triangle, like the food pyramid. At the base of the pyramid was my belief in divine love and my wish to be a channel of that love in the world. With that desire at the base, everything else fell into place. First, if I do not take good care of my physical needs for food, exercise and sleep, I am a poor channel of love! I am cranky and irritable and have nothing to give. Next, if I don’t balance work and play, I radiate resentment not love. Finally, if I don’t balance my needs with those of others, I wind up being burned out and of no use to anyone.

While that is the overall picture, it is one that must be worked on every day. One way to do this is to take a few moments first thing in the morning and reflect on what we want for that day—how we want the day to go. We can think of the trait that we want to embody: Calmness? Peace? Focus? Mindfulness? Taking the time to set an intention for the day is a concrete step towards being who we want to be.

The goal is to live our lives consciously, not on automatic pilot with more plates in the air than we can manage. When we are at death’s door we don’t want to look back with regret. I know I do not want “She was a really efficient person” as my epitaph.