Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Owning the balance we choose

This week, via the lovely Chris Atherton and this blog post, I came across David Sedaris' theory of four burners, as on a stove:

"One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work. The gist...[is] that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two."

It's an interesting model for taking stock of one's life and priorities, and the concept - that at least one and possibly more of what are traditionally considered the important areas of life will need to be neglected in order for a person to be successful - is a familiar one. Women aren't the only people who have been sold the dream of having it all; increasingly, the promise of modern life is one of plenty and abundance in all four of the areas Sedaris conceptualises as burners. We can have great careers, life-affirming friendships, the kind of family life we've always dreamed of and enjoy wonderful, glowing health throughout as we hurtle through the longest life expectancy of any human generation.

Screw that. Anyone who's tried to keep each of those plates spinning, or burners burning, can tell you quite plainly that it's not as simple as working hard enough at every individual aspect, or just wanting really badly for all of them to go in your favour. Balance can be achieved, but there's always a cost. And it's not always as dramatic as cutting off an entire burner, but, to have all four even close to perfect, a fair amount of compromise is needed in each. 

When I read of the burners theory, my first reaction was surprise. I'm happy with my life, and my initial thought was that this was because I'd managed to strike a good balance between the four burners.

Then I thought about it a little harder - not much harder at all, really, just for more than three seconds. And it dawned on me, like a cold and unwelcome sweat, that I could immediately and assuredly name which two burners I neglect so that the other two have a chance to flourish. I'm not going to name my two; that's not the point of this. But I knew, and I did not much like my answer, because it was heartless and narcissistic and unhesitatingly certain.

Luckily, I kept on thinking about it. And I don't think the situation is anywhere near as dire as I had begun to fear it was. The problem with the metaphor of the burners, useful as it is for a surface evaluation of priorities and as a way to conceptualise compromise, is that it's all-or-nothing, and doesn't really encompass the subtleties and nuances of the thing it sets out to describe. 

All of the options, when thought of in terms of being "cut off", are too extreme. They're an appeal to emotion - they conjure images of people whose health fails at the expense of everything else. People who have great friends, fulfilling careers and who are healthy, but who go home at night to an empty house. People who have loving families and who will live well into their eighties, but who have no friends and a dead-end menial job. Think about your burners, especially the one(s) you habitually neglect in favour of the others. Then imagine your future - yourself in twenty or thirty years - if you continue neglecting these aspects of your life. It's a frightening thought, isn't it? Ending up old and wealthy but utterly alone because you didn't invest enough time in friends and family when you were younger. Dying slowly of something preventable because you thought there would be plenty of time to eat better or quit smoking after your kids had left home and you'd retired. Not a single choice, in this game that each one of us is playing, looks like a winner. 

I don't think it's as bad as that, though. After spending some time moping about my own particular choices and priorities, and the miserable dotage I was afraid they were slowly dooming me to, I started to see the idea of the burners in a different light. I came back to my initial reaction - that I was happy, in total, with my life as it stood. That it felt as though I had the balance right, even though I could see clearly that my choices and actions in terms of these four life areas were anything but even-keeled. And it occurred to me that our balance - and with it our happiness - is what we make of it. 

There are even get-out-of-jail-free cards in this game; the great thing about thinking of these parts of your life as stove burners is that you can choose to lavish attention on a neglected part in the short term, or in the future, and make small steps towards evening out the balance. If even is you want. 

I'm happy with my life because what I make of it is what I choose to make. I felt heartless when I thought about the things I currently invest less into, because thinking about the concept of burners made me more aware of the unconscious choices I make, and when I became conscious of these choices, it seemed unconscionable that I should continue to make them. People who neglect x, or so I have been conditioned to believe, are not good people.

The more I thought about it, though, the more it seemed as though working harder at the areas I was so ashamed of neglecting would begin to suffocate me. I may not give as much time or attention to them as I feel I ought to, or as I should in order to be evenly balanced, but I give them as much as I can, and the results feel comfortable and fit in well with the way I live my life.

There is no way to burn all four burners on full and end up with a good dinner. Balance - total balance - is elusive. It may not ever be attainable. What is attainable, though, is a balance that you, personally, feel happy with. That is what I have, and I refuse to be ashamed. If everyone's neglecting something, we may as well all own our neglect.

I'm not saying you should stop calling your mother entirely, or that you should skip work tomorrow and go to the movies, or that chain-smoking a pack of Bensons is the best way to spend your evening. But don't feel too guilty about what you think you ought to be doing - if you're happy with how you've struck your balance, things will almost certainly work out just fine.

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