The Balanced Life

The Balanced LifeRecently I have had the dubious privilege of possessing a set of school photographs taken of me during the mid 1970s.

For many, the mere mention of that decade evokes memories of bad hair, fashion and music, along with a general drift as to the country’s focus and direction. For me, gazing at the photos, I am utterly dismayed by the epitome of geekdom I see. Hair growing like wild weeds along the side of a mountain…a shirt with cutesy little drawings on it…glasses that had been held together by some version of 70s duct tape…overall, just horror, horror, horror.

When I look at the picture, I am reminded of a general lack of intentionality and organization that characterized my adolescence and youth. I didn’t have much cohesion in terms of thinking through my appearance, goals, motives, philosophy of life, and so forth. I had lots of passions, but lacked a framework through which they could be most effectively expressed.

I gradually became more intentional about things, but especially so when I became a full-time newspaper journalist at age 23 and had to be organized in order to offer quality—and keep my job! I was assigned to cover county government near Daytona Beach, Fla., and had to keep track of important officials, issues, and trends. It required lots of files, lots of follow-up, lots of planning.

I found that I thrived in these areas of intentionality—it was as though I uncovered some latent potential and let it soar to the surface of my daily life. I realized the freedom and joy that I could experience by having a structure that made sense of life and work.

This flair for organization only intensified as the years passed, and it perhaps hit its critical mass when I attended Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. I mapped out my desired courses before I even arrived on campus, although thankfully I was flexible enough along the way to make some changes. I sought to integrate all of my reading into my theology and practical vision for church ministry. I created an A-Z subject file in my computer where I entered key things I had read or quotes I had gathered, to be quickly retrieved when I was writing an article or giving a sermon or talk. I was in the intentional zone!

I even went so far as to craft a “checklist” for my journal. This list included the key areas of my life: God, family, church, work, friends, exercise, fun, culture, and so forth. Each night as I wrote in my journal, I’d check off the key areas on the list to make sure I wasn’t getting out of balance in my life. It worked—I’d figured out the system. I had life on automatic pilot.

Then came parenthood, and the disintegration of all known reality and paradigms.

My daughter Alexandra was born in July 2000, just two months after I graduated from the seminary and just a month after I became a full-time pastor for the first time. The checklist was replaced by a tube of Desitin diaper ointment. Reading was replaced by whatever sleep I could salvage on an hour to hour basis. Life morphed into “survival mode,” where you do the bare minimum just to get through each day.

As if this was not enough, we were fortunate to have the blessing of colic added to the mix. Who came up with this one? Colic is also known as C.O.L.I.C., which can be translated as CRIES OVER LITTLE INSIGNIFICANT CIRCUMSTANCES.

Essentially, starting at about four p.m. each day, Alexandra would cry for, say, five hours straight. My wife Jenna would call me at work, begging above the din of the child’s yelping for me to come home and relieve her. I’d hold the phone away from my ear, pulling a Jerry Seinfeld imitation by asking, “Who is this?”

The only relief we could find was through that ancient device of child calming, the vacuum cleaner. I would hold Alexandra in the rocking chair and move as fast as I could while Jenna flipped on the vacuum and the white noise would send the infant into a gaze.Pretty soon her tiny eyelids got heavier and heavier, and she was out. I’d gently get up and walk her over to the crib, praying with all my might that she wouldn’t stir as I set her down and then fell into bed so I could look at my checklist (not).

This entire experience caused me to give some thought to reexamining my diehard attitudes about balance and integration. More specifically, I realized that one could thrive even more with a framework that also called for flexibility and adaptation!

Having this schooled mindset in place, I gradually found my groove again in terms of reading, exercise, social life, friends, and so forth. Things weren’t like they were before, but they were not supposed to be. Life is about change, and rolling through it well and becoming stronger as a result.

Balance by Eric NeedleFor two years, there was almost what could be called normal in terms of having the right proportion of activities in my life. Then, I decided to again uproot my career and location—and family—as we decided to make a move from full-time church ministry to full-time in the corporate world. The first five months of 2004 were more culture shock, chaos, and lack of time for the things that feed the soul and exercise the body.

In the midst of this, I realized there were some timeless principles I could lean on and continue to apply, and perhaps share with others. Hence was born the traveling “Life of Balance” talk, in which I share the common challenge we all face in keeping our lives integrated with enough of what matters the most. This short talk led to several others, which combined have evolved into a seminar called The Intentional Life.

Face it—no matter our age, vocation or socio-economic status, we are busy people:

1. Work—we’ve got more to do and less time to do it in an information age becoming more complicated and technological.
2. Retirement—are you not busier than ever if you’ve retired? How did you ever find time to work beforehand?
3. Family—if you have young children, you may feel like the endless chauffeur. If you have grown children, you may feel like the endless checkbook.
4. Exercise—without it the plumbing breaks down and the mind gets overtired…but we’re already too tired to even know where to begin sometimes.
5. Finances—failing to plan all most ensures failing to reach our dreams and goals and results in lots of stress and, often, debt.

All of these areas must be carefully allocated and re-balanced from time to time, so that none of them consumes an unhealthy amount of our time or requires us to be reactive rather than proactive. It’s an intentional process that requires a disciplined spirit. And it’s not put into place overnight.

To make the bridge from the ideal to the practical for you and me, here’s a few key intangibles that transcend time and circumstances…action steps that I’ve learned can help me to recalibrate when I’ve gone off-kilter…in order to have a realistic life of integrated balance, an Intentional Life.

First, it is essential that no matter what it takes, we must make time for the people and things that we love—whether golf or gardening, Oprah or opera, reading or recreation, traveling or time at home with family. When we build enough of what feeds our souls into our schedules, we’re less likely to find ourselves starving for balance very often.

I think we must pursue our passions with every bit of health and resources that are available! To do anything less is to embrace mediocrity, which is unthinkable for human beings engineered for excellence.

The second intentional choice is to refuse to miss life going by. We need to hit the pause button, rewind, take a second look at some of the scenes. We must write and reflect, perhaps with a journal, or record and reflect, perhaps with a tape recorder.
When you take permission to get away by yourself to see the big picture and understand why you feel what you feel–and where you want this journey of life to take you—it helps us to listen.

We must learn to listen to our lives. Learn to listen and you catch all the nuances. You taste all the flavors. And you discover that your life (yes, even your life) is terribly interesting—that your story that is ever unfolding is an amazing one that must first be told to you—if you will hear it

Author Fredrick Buechner writes, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

The best life is the contemplative life. Contemplation and productivity do not have to be mutually exclusive; they can be held in dynamic tension. We can be joyfully active, because when we’re intentional about balance and integration, we lose that sense of somehow feeling like we’re being cheated, like we’re missing out.

It makes us less agitated, less argumentative, more fun to be around. We like ourselves, others like us…and life is not perfect but it is very good. It is full of grace.

Finally: Be flexible! Don’t make an idol out of integration and balance—because then you defeat the purpose and get all uptight anyway! An idol is anything that improperly takes the place of something healthy and normal. If keeping in balance becomes more important than relationships and responsibilities, something has gone astray.

In the film Chariots of Fire, Olympic athlete Eric Liddell explains why he must run. He tells his sister, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

Running made him feel most alive. What makes you feel most alive?

Don’t settle for mere existence—embrace the grace of the story you’ve been given to live. Strive to see that all you do is integrated and balanced into a cohesive, intentional whole, but along the way don’t forget to be relaxed about it.