I mentioned this book in my Facebook status yesterday. I’ve been reading it for a book discussion panel I’ll be part of next week, and growing frustrated with the author. In my status update, I asked this question: “Is balance something we can’t define, but we know it when we don’t see it?”
To my surprise, this question provoked a brief but intense shower of comments–quite a good dialogue, in fact. But the stand-out thread was the assumed definition of “balance” by nearly everyone who wrote: their comments indicated that they thought of balance as equality, as in spending “equal time” doing various things. “Balance is overrated,” said one person. “Jesus’ life wasn’t balanced,” pointed out another. “Nor the apostle Paul’s life.”
I repeatedly pointed out the necessity of a definition we could all agree on, and stated that the biggest problem I have with this book is that Dr. Swenson’s first job was to define his term…and he never got around to it. He used many illustrations, but since he’s looking at what he thinks of as “balance” in every facet of life, it’s a slippery commodity he’s trying to pin down, and his success is partial at best.
The implied understanding of “balance” as equality is easy to grasp. We at once picture an old-fashioned set of scales in a shop, where a one-pound weight tells us whether we’re buying a pound of potatoes. Elementary math sometimes uses the graphic of a scale to picture an equation–by definition, both sides have to be equal, so a pair of scales is a good illustration to teach that concept.
But there are other, more subtle, variations on the idea of balance. We want to balance our budgets–home, business, government. But it isn’t as simple as “this is our income and this is our expense.” We scrutinize how much we’re spending in each category. Experts tell us that we should try to keep our housing cost to about 25% of our total month expense: If I make $2,000 a month, I shouldn’t pay more than $500 for my rent or mortgage. If I am routinely spending over $1,000 for housing, that spending may be rightly said to be out of balance with my income and other expenses.
“Balance” has many synonyms, and Dr. Swenson uses all of them, at times interchangeably. We have equilibrium, homeostasis, constancy, stability, consistency, sustained harmony, etc. The many statistics and anecdotes he employs lead me to this definition: Balance is the maintenance of all the elements in a system within an acceptable range of normal, which keeps every element in correct proportion so that the functions of the system as a whole can be performed optimally.
I know this definition is unwieldy, but it’s what I’m working with at the moment. The example I used in my Facebook conversation was the electrolytes in our bodies. Sodium is a critical component in cell functioning. Its optimal range should be 135 to 145 millimoles per liter. Both excess sodium and inadequate sodium levels will create serious or even fatal problems in our bodies. Potassium, another major player, should be present in the optimal range of 3.6 to 5.1 millimoles per liter. The fact that we need only a fraction as much potassium as we do sodium doesn’t imply anything about its importance to our health and well-being. The critical fact is that there is a specific level which much be maintained.
Of course there are myriad elements in our bodies which must be kept in balance. We speak of “chemical imbalances” in the brain, of hormone imbalances, or of vitamin deficiencies. Most of us are not so naive that we think every part must be equal. And not every part is “equally” important…our bodies can adjust to varying levels of almost any component, compensating for excess or deficit in remarkable ways. But if our goal is optimal health and performance, we ignore these balances at our peril.