I was about to give a talk to a society of businesswomen in Atlanta one winter. One of the organizers took me by the hand and made a heartfelt plea: "Please don't talk to us about living in balance. No one does. Even space shuttles veer off course during the trip, and they have computers to guide them. Just teach us how to be better jugglers."
She had a good point. One of the ubiquitous polls on how Americans live revealed that a mere 2 percent of us believe that our lives are in balance. The problem is not so much that they aren't, but that we think they should be. The belief that there's a way to organize our time so that everything stays in balance can lead to the conclusion that there's something desperately wrong with our unbalanced ways. Perhaps a more livable truth is that we're jugglers rather than tightrope artists. From that perspective, we can accept that some things will always be up in the air. Outer balance isn't always possible. The trick is to keep our eye on the balls, and to manage their perpetual flight with grace and inner balance.
Juggling is a familiar metaphor. The late Yale psychologist and author Daniel Levinson, who wrote about the passages in men's and women's lives, interviewed people at different times in the life cycle. Many of the 40-something women who both worked and had children commented on the disheartening myth of the Superwoman. By 40, you realize that there is no Superwoman, they concluded irritably. Who can keep all the demands of life in balance? The best you can do is keep juggling. Almost all of the women planned to do more for themselves in the second half of life than they had in the first. The mistake that many of us make, I think, is waiting until we're 40 to do that.
Juggling requires maintaining your center. The idea is to stop managing life so much, and begin managing yourself. Long ago I learned that it's better to prepare the speaker than the speech, particularly when I'm well acquainted with the subject matter. If I meticulously outline a lecture, rehearsing the points as I get ready to begin, I'm likely to lose my center. But if I chat with the audience first, put myself at ease, or take a few minutes for some deep breathing, the talk always goes more smoothly.
When I'm centered, it's easier to respond to people, to catch the nuances of their attention, and to let inspiration flow. Thinking of myself as an instrument that life plays, rather than the source of the melody, has helped me be a better juggler. The instrument needs to be cleaned and polished, treated with care. When I'm in balance, the unbalanced hodgepodge of things on the to-do list are accomplished more effectively.
This week, review your priorities. If self-care is not one of them, think of an activity that you would really enjoy and add it to your to-do list. This may seem like it will make you even busier, but the truth is that it will actually generate more productive time. Feeding your soul with the things you love creates happiness and gives you energy. Taking the time to enjoy life is one of the most important secrets of staying sane in an insane world.