The Myth of Work-Life Balance

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Several months ago, I was invited to lead a breakout seminar at a conference on calling and the common good, offering some reflections about what it looks like to take up calling across all of life—but especially with a view to the ordinary, unsexy realities of daily life. I smiled when I arrived at the conference and found the seminar I was to lead had been succinctly titled: “Balance.”

Balance is a go-to concept for most of us, a default setting to account for our life and commitments. We live in an age when it seems everyone is equally discombobulated, indiscriminately perplexed about how to order a good life, and “balance” functions with a catchall sort of appeal to it—part salve, part rubber-stamp for all manner of angst. It is equally true, however, that balance has its limits as a framework for living a faithful life. So while I affirm balance when it serves as a tool for human flourishing, I want to resist it when it seeks to overreach or overpromise … in short, where it seeks to deceive. By way of preface, however, I have to admit that debunking balance as a myth feels a bit like having to tell my kids about Santa Claus. I don’t want the end of the myth to steal any of its inherent goodness, but at a certain point I do want to help them see more fully, more truthfully. In short, I am sober how there is little glory in debunking well-loved myths!

In my own life, balance is a term that comes up frequently. I have three young children and I work part-time, so it is not uncommon for people to comment or ask about how I balance my life. This is a pretty laughable thing for me (and probably my husband, too), seeing as how “balance” is never quite the descriptor that comes to mind when I think of our cadre of lost library books, our relentlessly filthy kitchen floor, my not-very-mild caffeine addiction, and the 100 or so unanswered emails in my inbox on any given day. The reality of my life—and the lives of everyone I know reasonably well—is simply that it is off-kilter. All. The. Time.

This is not to say that my life is necessarily chaotic or stressful or frenzied. Rather, this involves acknowledging that it isn’t primarily defined by its equilibrium. In fact, the extent to which it is rich, full, dynamic, and satisfying is precisely because it is not comprised of component parts set in proper existential ratio to one another, in some sort of rational or logistical calculus. My life is full because the various commitments and responsibilities of my life emerge out of a coherent whole, out of an identity rooted in the reality of an off-kilter world.

Worldviews in Conflict

This is where we bump up against the simple but stark reality that balance, as a philosophical framework for living, is not rooted in a Christian view of the world. As a tool, such as when we balance our checkbook or balance our diet, one may be quick to point out the many practical benefits and virtues of balance, and I would readily agree. To the extent that we think about balance as a tool—a helper, a gut-check, a barometer of instinct—it takes on many of the attributes of prudence, and thus gains rightful praise as a virtue, helping us wisely manage and contend with our limited resources.

But as a framework—as a philosophy for ordering or seeking to make sense of life—balance unquestionably has its roots in Eastern religious perspective. It is companion to a view of nature and humanity that fundamentally believes All is One. Harmony is possible; we simply need to alter our mindset, be a better person, do more good, quiet our lives, meditate, and cycle through enough lives or good deeds such that our consciousness is sufficiently raised to attain to the Oneness that is all things. Eastern cosmology rests on the notion that we get what we deserve, for good or for ill, and our own personal sense of balance is one way to measure progress toward a better karma, to gauge how well one is joining the rhythms of oneness that underlie reality. This is overly simplistic, of course, but if we get down to basic worldview, this is where various forms of Eastern mysticism lead. All things are in balance, and in order to feel that balance, to benefit from it, we simply need to try harder, to slow down, to commit less, to reflect more.

To be equally simplistic, Christian cosmology says the exact opposite: Everything is out of order, and harmony is long gone. Sin has entered the world, and every single micron of our universe and our being is out of whack. There is nothing we can do to fix it or to bring it even remotely into right order. Save for a God who steps in to make it right again—a God who suffers, a God who saves—there is no hope for life at all, let alone a balanced life. If we look through the lens offered in Christ, we see our world is not gently tipped back up on its axis, needing a small tweak to get things back on track. Rather, we see a world rent apart, refined, made new, and the entire process is pretty tumultuous, pretty extreme, pretty unbalanced. The Christian perspective on life is not mere tinkering and nudging into right balance. It is death and resurrection at every turn, jolting us here, then there, then back again over to one more unlikely corner that throws the whole thing once again into a realm beyond our understanding, beyond our manageability.

The Model of Jesus Christ

Still, to the extent that balance is merely an articulation of our longing to have things sit in right relationship to one another, an expression of our common human desire for peace, calm, steadiness, it is a word that invites us to understand more deeply how Christianity addresses those longings. Not merely through balance or increased life management, but through relationship, surrender, and fidelity for the sake of human flourishing. In Christ, what we see modeled is not balance but a great deal of consistency, a great deal of peace, a great deal of certainty and purpose in the midst of some pretty dramatic and out-of-whack circumstances. I often have to wonder what that means for my own notions and aspirations of what a good life might be.

So far as we know, for 30 years Jesus lived a quiet life, a pretty ordinary life, and then his ministry—his travel, his teaching, his speaking, his relational commitments, his “public profile,” we might say—ratcheted up almost overnight and kept a steady pace for three years. Not much balanced about that approach from the standpoint of a 5- or 10-year career plan. Likewise, on countless occasions, scripture tells us Christ stops mid-task to attend to a more urgent or pressing matter, to people and needs that slowed him down or complicated the logistics, such as when he is bustling through a crowd to get to Jairus’ daughter and stops to care for the bleeding woman. On not one, but two documented occasions when he is seeking to get out of town, he finds himself instead stopping to teach and then feed four or five thousand people. And the list could go on and on. In every instance, Christ chose relationships over plans, and most of the time that choice made his plan, his timing, out of balance … just as it does for any of us who seek to tend to people whose needs are unpredictable and unmeasured. Our calling to model Christ in caring for others tends to find itself at odds with an abstracted idea of balance.

Even more, however, is that while his ministry was attentive, attuned, consistent to the needs around him, in every circumstance, what we see modeled in Christ is his willingness to surrender, to give over control, to let the whole thing get a little inefficient, a little messy, a little outside the box. We see this most profoundly in his death on the cross. If ever we see the upside-downness, the out-of-balance reality of our world, it is when we see the Creator of all things dripping blood on the very earth he molded, taking flesh-shredding blows from hands he fashioned. There is much that could be said, much to be explored, but the simple and searing truth is that balance doesn’t leave much room for surrender. A surrendered life is as deeply rooted as it can be, but there’s no telling whether or not it will be particularly tidy.

Yet beyond the willingness to serve others—to let their needs supersede his own, to yield to all of the inconvenience and disproportions they consistently created, and then to give over control and surrender to the circumstances borne of that self-giving—is Christ’s fidelity, his faithfulness, to be true to his father and in so doing to be true to himself. He was faithful to wait until an appointed time, to not get ahead or to out-plan his father, even when the plan (from our perspective at least) might seem a bit patchy.

He was faithful to stop, to wait, to listen. He was faithful to take huge risks, to offend the popular view, to take up and then do the impossible—because he was fully bought into the idea that it wasn’t really about him or his ideas anyway; he was interested and fully attuned to what it is the Father wanted. If it turned the entire universe in on itself, so be it. Christ’s faithfulness was not measured by his life’s efficiency or some vague perception of him having (or keeping) it all together by Galilean standards. Rather, his faithfulness was reflected in his willingness to do whatever God asked of him, which was as significant as it could possibly be. Yet from all we can know and read, it doesn’t seem like balance was even remotely a part of it.

The truth is, we all long to have things set right, to shake out, to settle down. Accepting that in Christ we are most likely to experience these things in the midst of—even through—relationships and circumstances that feel disparate, extreme, or weighty, is a realistic and helpful truth … despite its counterintuitive feel. At the end of the day, we are not seeking a balanced life so much as a faithful life. And a faithful life mirrors Christ. It reflects a God who bore complexity and constraint, pain and limitation, rather than a God who merely kept it all in check.

"Balance," No. “Coherence” and “Sustainability,” Yes.

In my own life, instead of balance, I have come to adopt the word coherence. I don’t need my life to be in static equilibrium, but I do need it to hold together, to make sense, and to be consistent. Coherence is a word that evokes seamlessness rather than categories, an ever-emerging and evolving life cycle shaped by discernment, complexity, and constraints rather than a one-dimensional pie chart.

A companion word—a sister to coherence—is the word sustainability. It is one thing to be balanced in the moment, for the season, but a coherent life requires that habits and choices, commitments and cares be sustained across seasons to become formative over a lifetime.

In all things, we trust that God longs to draw us into a richer life, a deeper life full of meaning and purpose. But we must also acknowledge that the kingdom of God is an upside-down world, an inverted economy where the rich are poor and the poor are rich. Everything is in right relationship, but never confined to our finite perceptions or inklings. Our lives are dynamic and full, often straddling and stretching between worlds and commitments beyond our wildest imaginations … but never quite in the proportion or the meter we would have thought reasonable.

Yet for every off-kilter day, every off-kilter moment, this is a comfort. Our best efforts are not attempting a bit of polish, a human-led cosmic makeover. Instead, God longs to make all things new, to make us new, and the path to newness is usually a bit more counterintuitive, a bit more interrupted and off-kilter, than it is a smooth and balanced ride.