Balance and the Autumn Equinox

Woman balancing on the rail of railroad tracks with golden autumn leaves on the trees and the ground

Where Is the Balance?

The equinox is a time of balance, when night and day are equal. In that moment of symmetry, all is well with the world and with the heart. For an instant, at least, there is calm.

Or so I imagine. In reality, I fly through the equinox like though any other day, managing a smattering of exercise, scraping together enough food to keep me well, cleaning when I must, and creating when I can. In between, I snatch moments for rest and relationship. Time passes in a blur. Balance eludes me.

Not everyone feels out of balance because of busyness. Some people are bored. The seconds drag by. They feel lonely, their minds dull. They may have disabilities that make leaving home difficult. Some have no family or friends to care for them. Others may be depressed, unable to crawl out of bed. For them, joy is elusive and balance never imagined.

Balance and the Cycles of Life

But what do we mean when we speak of balance? If you look up the “myth of balance” in a search engine, you’ll find many articles declaring that balance is a myth. Some authors are talking about “work-life balance,” as if we could parcel out our play, work, sleep, and chores in an equal measure of time and activity that would produce an optimal life.

So is balance less a matter of time and more about the satisfaction of accomplishment? Could it be an hour of peace, friendship, or stillness before the day’s end? Is balance about order without rigidity? Perhaps balance changes from day to day, so what seems like balance one moment feels like imbalance the next.

Looking at nature, we see that balance, such as during the equinox, never lasts. Plants grow and die. Insects swarm, then disappear. Planets orbit the sun in a continuous arc, but comets and debris shoot in and out of their paths erratically. As summer turns to autumn, our days will shorten, and we remember that life is always balanced by death.

Is that what we mean, then, that a whole is formed by light and dark, warmth and cold, peace and war, hope and despair, wealth and poverty? When opposites ebb and flow into one another, is that balance?

Woman balancing on the rail of railroad tracks with golden autumn leaves on the trees and the ground

Justice as Balance

For the Greeks, balance was, in part, the proper execution of justice. That’s why the Goddess Themis holds a scale in one hand. In her other hand, she clutches the sword of judgment. So she can be impartial, she is blindfolded. [1] Themis balances wrong-doing with retribution, making everything right again.

Or so we like to think. But the courts can be blind to fairness, equity, and compassion. Punishment doesn’t settle scores, nor does it return order to society. When we reward good and seek recompense from evil we may provide balance, but legalistic justice rarely does this. It offers not restitution or reconciliation, but revenge. Besides, knowing which of us are good and which are not is harder than we think.

So how do we maintain balance in the world? How do we even bring it about?

According to Kate Harris, it’s not our job to create balance in the world, nor to live a balanced life. In her article, “The Myth of Balance,” she encourages us, instead, to strive for a rich and satisfying life, for life has no “rational or logistical calculus.” [2] Indeed, such a full life can be incoherent and off-kilter at times, but that very instability can encourage us to accomplish things of significance and draw us closer to one another.

So how do we live a life that satisfies? Harris says we do so by being faithful. But faithful to what? We can be faithful to causes, employers, deities. Through all of this, though, we are being called to be faithful to relationships. That, rather than balance, is why we were born.

Balance and Relationship

Like Harris, Kathleen Norris believes we are here to be in relationship. She also believes that imbalance can enhance those relationships. She is writing about acedia, one of the eight bad thoughts described by the ancient monks we call the Desert Fathers. Similar to depression and sloth, acedia looks like sadness, but creates in us a deep, abiding apathy that separates us from everything in life, including God. In this way, acedia is a sin, for it damages relationships.

To break free of acedia, we must experience the wrenching tilt of imbalance. Something must jolt us, must discomfort us enough that we will face up to a difficult situation. In this way, imbalance can help us return to peace and equanimity, for it invites us back to the world, encourages us be faithful to our relationships.

Sin and Relationship

But that doesn’t guarantee our relationships will be healthy. No matter how wonderful, relationships are messy. They engender strong emotions, so we struggle at times to stay calm and loving. Over and over, we sin against ourselves, against one another, and against our god.

But the Desert Fathers did not talk about sin. Instead they spoke of internal demons or bad thoughts that lead us astray, ones that disturb our peace and upset our balance, that take us away from who we really are and separate us from the source of life, the ground of our being. From these bad thoughts can come the actions we label sinful, but if we are able to notice our thoughts, we have the option of choosing our behavior. This is what the Desert Fathers taught.

Such careful observation and honest acknowledgment of our internal state is difficult. They take training and courage. Often, as we explore our inner depths, we become unsettled. But this is the unsettledness that Harris and Norris appreciate, for it gives us the opportunity, as Norris puts it, to reunite with “our true self in relation to God.” [3]

Relationship and Sin

Relationships are why we are here. They are what we are called to be faithful to. You don’t have to be Christian, or even a believer in spirits and spirituality, to understand that we exist to be in relationship. Everything we humans do, everything we pursue, is in the interest of relationship.

That doesn’t mean we always help people when we act. Nor does it mean our relationships are always with people or nature. Sometimes we choose to relate to things, and it is that choice that causes harm.

Greed is the desire to own and control things. When our lust is strong enough, we see people as things that exist only to slake our thirst. This way of relating destroys everything it touches. It never satisfies. Indeed, when we view everything as a means to wealth and power and control, when we seek not water, but a mirage, our thirst intensifies. Our throats become parched. By then, we are so out of balance that we think we are here to consume.

We are wrong. We are here to love.

The Faithfulness of Love

That love is the faithfulness. It is how we are called to be in relationship with other people, with animals, with nature, with the stars, with our deep and sacred selves. When we rush around, diving into projects, distracting ourselves with entertainment or education, we lose our balance because in that chaotic whirlwind, we cannot be faithful.

Relationships require attentiveness. They must be seen and tended and fed if they are to grow and become strong. To nurture relationships, we must settle our minds, quiet our spirits, be present to the moment and the person. Otherwise, we stand alone in the chaos. Greed, lust, and acedia will rise up to thwart us. When we get lost in the imbalance of these bad thoughts, we damage those around us and devour the world until all is gone.

The Messiness Of Life and Relationship

So we are here to be in relationship, and we enter relationship from a place of stillness and silence. Whether we focus on our relationship with our inner being or with God, we are here to love and to mend. That’s the balance. It’s not the balance of equilibrium, but the balance of an invigorating and unpredictable liveliness.

In the chaos of existence, we may feel warm or faithful, angry or anxious, lonely or satisfied, needy or burdened. Our emotions and thoughts shift and change. The world tilts beneath us; the ground shifts. That’s okay. That’s life. But we can hang onto that place of peace within the storm, that holy and wise place within us. Then we may find that in the uncertainty of life, there is balance.

The autumn equinox reminds us that though balance is a tenuous thing, it exists. Right relationship is possible. Though we are born in relationship with many things — with God, nature, ourselves, the stranger, our families — how we choose to relate to others is not guaranteed. Unless we are faithful to love and to balance, faithful to the pursuit of right relationship, we will destroy all we have been given, whether of humanity or of the world. To protect what we have left, we must learn to recognize the bad thoughts that arise within us, notice our lustful and greedy urges, and choose to be faithful, for in this faithfulness is the balance that matters. In it is the balance that will save.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. “Themis,” Wikpedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Themis, accessed 9/17/19.
  2. Harris, Kate, “The Myth of Balance,” The Washington Institute, https://washingtoninst.org/the-myth-of-balance/, (no date), accessed 9/17/19.
  3. Norris, Kathleen, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, New York: Penguin House Audio, Chapter 3.

Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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