I abhor balance.
Life necessarily involves tension, contradiction, battles. Men particularly struggle with these tensions as we lead, teach, and grow. We need to be be productive, but we need to be reflective. Life demands that we be serious, but life also requires a sense of levity. We want our jobs to produce a great (even luxurious) living for our family, but we want our work to be meaningful.
These paradoxes produce grave challenges, the working out of which has real and significant consequences for our lives. Some of these paradoxes work out smoothly–the ends of the spectrum merge together, maybe even without effort on our part (but usually not). In such cases, an apparent contradiction of values turns out to be no contradiction at all; instead, it was a failure of perspective, an inability to see the world–and our place in it–as it actually is.
But today I am not concerned with those cases. I am concerned with the inescapable tension: the conflicts between values that ever frustrate men.
Let me give an example to clarify my point. Suppose a man–called Hypothetical Him–makes a hefty salary. As a result, he has a great deal of disposable income. What should he do with it? On one hand, he knows that giving is part of his identity. He wants to support his favorite charity, contribute to the ministries at his church, provide for the individual needs of his family and friends–and even strangers–as they pop up. On the other hand, he wishes he had season tickets to every local pro sports team; he wants the best fishing tackle money can buy; he’d love to travel domestically and internationally, and with frequency.
What to do? How to work out the conflict between values? In what way can he find meaning and pleasure, all while avoiding a plaguing kind of guilt?
The typical answer–the refrain I’ve heard innumerable times–from friends, elders, colleagues, key note speakers, wise people all, is an answer I’ve come to disdain: “balance.”
You’ve heard it too, I’m sure. Maybe, like me, you’ve even given that answer, despite your guttural instinct to the contrary. “The key is balance”, they/we all say.
Our example would hear the same thing: “Just find a good balance.”
To our Hypothetical Him, and to myself, and to anyone else struggling to confront a baffling dilemma, I say to heck with that.
Jump in the Deep End
Instead, I say “Dive into the extreme.” Don’t seek balance. Seek passion. Seek excellence.
Anchoring ourselves in our deepest, truest, most fundamental values produces meaningful life, produces Real Men. And these values have the merit to produce radical action because we have arrived at them through no easy or convenient or trivial manner. We have wrestled, reflected, striven, even anguished over these values. How can we reconcile them with mere “balance”? If our Hypothetical Him accepts such a solution, I believe he is lost. I see “balance” as a synonym for hovering and for equivocating, for floating.
Instead, I desperately want (but often desperately fail, still) to act on those costly values. And I want to do so in extreme ways because “balance” cannot satisfy, neither us nor whom (or Whom) we serve. I admire–and the world is drawn to–people who live radically. The minimalist who lives with less than 100 things. The teacher who opens his classroom on weekends so students can finish their research papers. The lawyer who crusades for civil rights. The husband who gives up his free time–totally, unequivocally–so his wife can return to school. The coach who refuses to yell. The people who have no reservations about committing to a singular purpose.
I am well aware of the pitfalls of such an approach to life. At worst, we might become myopic lunatics, deranged and nonsensical (if not insane). Not as graphic but just as unfortunate are those who become either oblivious or irrational. And least insidious but most common are those whose single-mindedness renders them impractical. I know these results happen because of radicalism. But such consequences are not the result of passion, focus, or anchoring in a value. They are the result of forgetting what is at the root of any such value that drives the kind of conflict which initiated this reflection: human beings. Passion must be moderated by a consideration that real lives are being affected by my “diving into the deep end”. The abstract is not supreme.
I realize this post is kind of radical (or at least I hope it is coming across that way). Another difficulty of radicalism is that it can alienate. But the converse is that it can inspire. When I think of the Real Men who are my role models, I see among them several common strains. As you might guess, one of them is the singularity of purpose I’ve described today: the ability to discern a value, eschew balance, and drop the anchor of their desire right into that value. They are the kind of man for whom “balance”, in the way I’ve described it today, is a hindrance to a meaningful life. They are the kind of man I want to be.