practicing balance.

24 Mar

Tightrope Walking
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on March 24, 2013

Our opening hymn this morning was #128, For All That Is Our Life. It was originally going to be what is printed in your order of service (#352, Find A Stillness) but as I was working on the service, I kept singing “for work and its rewards, for hours of rest and love.” I realized that I needed to incorporate this hymn because this is what we are talking about today – balancing work and its rewards, hours of rest and love, time for our, hearts, minds, and bodies. Like the life mobiles that the Middle Schoolers made in their RE class a few weeks ago using hangers, with “work” and “play” and “family” and “friends” dangling from them, moving the various components around to achieve a balance. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Let’s refresh our memories. What were the four principles that we pointed out with the kids, about what it takes to balance on something, like when you are learning to ride a bike?

  1. Sometimes we need help – like someone to hold the seat as we pedal like crazy.
  2. We have to be willing to risk falling down – its going to happen. It might hurt a little at first, but the rewards will be worth it.
  3. It can change – when you learn on one bike, it can be difficult the first time you try it on another bike, and riding on the road is different than riding on the grass.
  4. It takes practice – did any of you hop on a bike and ride it like a pro the first time? It takes practice, and as we practice we need to keep the previous 3 principles in mind – Go back to #1 start over each time.

As I shared with the kids, it turns out that these principles of balance are the same whether we are talking about concrete, physical things (like riding a bike or learning to walk the tightrope) or more abstract things (like leading a balanced life or learning to be spiritually balanced.)

Leading a balanced life? How many of you feel that you lead a balanced life? Many of us probably wonder what leading a balanced life even looks like! If we consider a Balanced Life to be a stool – what are the legs? I believe it takes a balance between work, family time and self-care to lead a truly balanced life. Let me explain. If one of the 3 legs of the stool is overly long, or is too short, the entire balance of the stool is off. And when the balance is off, it negatively effects our families, our physical and mental health, our productivity, and more. We end up sitting on the floor with a bruised tailbone!

Let’s take a look at the legs of the Balanced Life stool in more detail, starting with the one that, for most of us (whether we are paid or not, work outside the home or inside) probably takes up the vast majority of our time: our jobs. If we are employed, with today’s economy the way it is, the more our jobs demand from us the more we feel we have to sacrifice in order to keep them. Americans work more and more each year, to the point where we work more than any other developed country. In fact, outside the US, people have seen their work hours cut back. But not us industrious Americans with our overdeveloped work ethic! And the higher our pay, the more we work. In 2008, Sociologist Dalton Conley asserted that higher-income Americans worked longer hours than lower-income Americans. For those of us who work as homemakers or stay-at-home parents, the increasing hours that our partners work effects us, too: we may find ourselves having to pull even more weight around household and parenting duties. Working as much as many of us do causes our Balanced Life stool to be off-kilter.

The family leg of the stool is often next in our priorities. And by family, I mean those people whose relationships we value – it might be family by blood, or family by choice, or a tight circle of supportive friends. After work, these types of relationships are often what get the next amount of time on our parts. But they often don’t get enough: more than 2/3 of American parents who work outside the home say they don’t get enough time with their children. And what time they do get is neither quality time nor quantity time. Thankfully, I am beginning to see a shift in our culture in regards to this leg. At the South-by-Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, TX earlier this month, there was a panel discussion between Chris Anderson (former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine) and Elon Musk (founder of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX). It was apparently a fabulous discussion and the audience listened with rapt attention. At one point in the conversation, Anderson asked Musk about his family life. Musk replied, “Kids are awesome, you guys should all have kids. Kids are great…I don’t see mine enough actually. What I find is I’m able to be with them and still be on e-mail. I can be with them and still be working at the same time.” And apparently, the audience shifted. Shifted! The audience noticed that there was something wrong with this picture. With an increasing number of us in the sandwich generation, taking care of our aging parents and our children at the same time, society is slowly beginning to realize that in order for our Balanced Life stool to be solid and stable, we need to make tending this leg a higher priority.

Finally, there is the third leg of the Balanced Life stool: ourselves. We often do the exact opposite of what they recommend when you are on an airline and the flight attendant is giving instructions as to what to do if the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling. Rather than taking care of ourselves and then our companions, we put ourselves as last (if we make the list at all.) This is especially true if we are women with children. Women today are less happy than they have been in the past 40 years. In part, this is because we have watched our amount of free time just disappear. Women still do the vast majority of chores and parenting, even if we work full-time. It does not give us much time to take care of ourselves. But if the saying “when mamma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” is true, then we have a whole lot of unhappiness going around.

I know I struggle with this piece in particular as a working mother with 2 kids. Some of you may recall that two years ago today, the service was on one way that I was taking care of myself – by skating with the Derby City Roller Girls. Some of my teammates came and helped me out. The local news featured it a few months later. It was quite a service.

Last year, however, things shifted. My family needed me to be around more when my spouse unexpectedly ended up hospitalized briefly. After that, there were other changes in my family life that required more of my time and attention. And you may have heard that General Assembly is coming to Louisville, and although the UUA has wonderful staff and volunteers who know how to make this happen, it has taken more of my time than I ever thought it would. In the process of all these shifts, I am learning alternate ways to make sure the self-care leg of my Balanced Life stool is strong. Which leads me to another type of balance: Spiritual Balance.

Spiritual Balance turns out to be a three-legged stool just like the Balanced Life stool. By Spiritual Balance, I mean a balance between the heart, mind and body, because these are all ways in which we fill our spirits. As with Life Balance, if one of these legs gets too long, or too short, then we become lopsided. When we become lopsided and fall off the uneven stool, we are not as able to appreciate the beautiful moments in these precious, brief, wonderful and scary lives we have discovered ourselves in.

The heart leg of the Spiritual Balance stool is our emotional life. For some of us, our emotions rule our lives. Others of us bottle them up tight and would rather not feel them at all. Neither of these are healthy. We are not solely made up of our emotions, but they are a part of us. Our emotions give us the capacity to move from sympathy to empathy. Our emotions give us the ability to love, to cry, to laugh – sometimes all at the same time. We should not shut them off and become like unfeeling robots, but when they take over they can also cause problems. I tend to err on the “emotions taking over” side. I need to make sure I make time to tend this leg of my Spiritual Balance stool, by journaling or scheduling regular phone-calls with friends. At times when I can’t seem to process my emotions and they threaten to overwhelm me, I get help from a counselor or therapist.

Journalling also tends the second leg of my Spiritual Balance stool: my mind. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. It is our reason and our intellect that give us the capacity to examine, to look at things from various different directions, to puzzle out, to analyze, to question. Our minds allows us to get off the dance floor and up onto the balcony where we can better observe what is going on. I also try to read nonfiction regularly – my sermons would be pretty shallow if I were not stimulating my mind on a regular basis.

Sometimes, our mind leg gets too big in this stool. I think Unitarian Universalists probably become unbalanced this way more often than the other. We over-think. It reminds me of a scene in the Princess Bride movie, when Vizzini and the Man in Black engage in a battle of wits. Vizzini is supposed to choose which cup of wine does not have the Iocane powder in it, and in his choice displays a dizzying capacity for getting stuck in his head. I try to meditate for a few minutes every day to help even out this leg of my Spiritual Balance stool, but it is hard for me – I often feel like Vizzini, over-thinking even my meditating.

And then there is the last (but definitely not least!) leg of our Spiritual Balance stool: our bodies. We are embodied people. Our emotional and intellectual health effect our physical health, and vice-versa. If we are not taking care of our bodies, then our stool gets off balance. No pun intended. Taking care of and respecting our bodies can take many forms, from exercising and eating healthy, to thinking positive thoughts about our bodies, to getting a massage and much more.

I have found that if I don’t do some sort of psychical activity every day, then I fall apart. I have learned to start my day with a quick 15 minutes of yoga to help wake me up mentally and physically. I can skip meditating if I need to, but these 15 minutes of being in my body help set a tone for the rest of the day. Several times a week I try to get in something more strenuous.

Tending our Spiritual Balance stool is an important part of self-care, and it means paying attention to our hearts, our minds, and our bodies. I have mentioned a few of the things I try to do to take care of myself: Yoga, meditating, journalling, reading and exercising. I don’t think I have ever done all 5 of these in one day, but those days when I hit 3 out of 5, I feel pretty good. I feel more balanced internally. My spirit, and my self, feel cared for.

So tending our Spiritual Balance stool is an effective way to shore up the Self-Care leg of our Balanced Life stool.

“This is very interesting,” you may be thinking, “but how does this connect to those 4 principles of balance that you talked about with the children?” Excellent question!

First, sometimes we need help – we need reminders to slow down, to maybe not work so much. We need others to stand up with us for better working conditions and more reasonable hours. We need models who show us balance is possible. This is really important, because if we can imagine ourselves doing it, we have a much better chance of success! We need friends, colleagues, sometimes we need professionals to help us learn how to do something or help us process something. I reach out to every minister mother I possible can and talk about how she makes it work. We compare notes, and inspire each other, and, in the process, we don’t feel so alone.

Second, we have to be willing to risk falling down – to make mistakes. Sometimes, we may err by working too much, other times, we may err by spending too much time on our family, or on ourselves. Towards the end of my Derby involvement, I began to realize the toll that it was taking on my family. My self-care leg had grown out of proportion and my family-leg needed tending. Often-times these errors can teach us things and are part of the learning process. Sometimes we love to much, or think too much, or spend a weekend eating comfort food because life is too stressful. And that is okay. We fall down, and then we pick ourselves back up and try again.

Third, even if we think we have it down pat right now, it can change – life may well throw us a curve-ball. Our kids will enter a different stage of development, we might get a different job, or come down with an illness or disease. Something might happen totally outside of our control and it affects the conditions of our precarious balance. The techniques we previously learned for bringing balance into our lives no longer work. Flexibility and creative thinking are called for.

Fourth, it takes practice – Just like learning to ride a bike, we don’t hit adolescence or our adult years and suddenly know how to lead a Balanced Life or find a Spiritual Balance. We mostly just go along and make decisions and do our thing until suddenly, one day, we find we are way OUT of balance. We throw up our hands and say “Things cannot go on like this!” Then we go up to the top and start from scratch. It takes practice. This is one reason they call it a “Spiritual Practice.” Perhaps we need to also start talking about a “Balanced Life Practice.”

Balance. It is not easy. Like riding a bike, or learning to walk a tight rope, there are certain aspects to balance that apply to our physical balance, our life balance, and our spiritual balance. We often need help, we must be willing to make mistakes. We know that things will change on us – usually just when we think we have it all figured out. And it takes practice – very very few of us are born knowing how to do this. But the benefits are numerous, for all that is our life.

2 Responses to “practicing balance.”

  1. Kathie Johnson March 25, 2013 at 9:04 am #

    So sorry I missed this sermon, but glad I listened to my body. I am sure it sounded even better than it reads, and it reads great!!!

    • Rev. Dawn March 25, 2013 at 9:58 am #

      Actually, I am under-the-weather myself. I sat in a chair as I delivered it and ended up getting lots of words mixed up. My delivery was just off. I totally understand you taking the day off, and am doing that today myself!

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