I gaze down the length of the path before me, barely as wide as my foot. The amber-colored wood hewn from a majestic pine has a slight sheen to it, reflecting the gymnasium lights. I take my first steps with all of the grace of newborn giraffe testing its gangly limbs for the first time. With my second step, my arms start to flail and fear sets in. The drop is only 4 feet, but considering my slight eight year old frame, it might as well be a net-less plunge from a high-wire. I recover on my third step, my inner Nadia Comăneci rising to the surface. But I look toward my left on the fourth and go tumbling to the padded blue mat below.
No, I’m not some young Olympic hopeful, though I had admired their graceful exploits in Montreal. I’m just an average young kid in gym class, doing what all my classmates were instructed to do as well. Learning the balance beam. It’s remarkable and somewhat humorous to me that a scant few years later, the apparatus was deemed unsafe. Apparently lightly urethaned wood isn’t the safest surface to walk on, and suede-covered versions were now required. My elementary school ruled in favor of lower liability insurance rates and forgoing replacement costs and banned them altogether.
Never one to be daunted by what I deemed to be the irrational fears of grown-ups, I began a quest for other ways to practice. I’m a Gen X-er after all. We’re most easily recognized by our braggadocio filled memes about surviving a childhood drinking from hoses and riding our bikes without helmets. (It’s likely the head injuries incurred by not using safety equipment that makes us feel this is something in which to take pride.) So I continued my pursuit and found suitable replacements in felled logs and the metal beams still adorning the playground.
Through practice I got pretty good, if I say so myself. Once I found my center of gravity it became a breeze and I barely fell at all. When I did, I convinced myself that the scrapes and bruises were reminders to keep my focus at all times, and to keep my eyes facing forward at all times instead of looking downward or off to the sides.
Mastery created boredom and I began to try other activities. First ballet, then band, languages, and then boys soon followed. My gymnastic dreams were a distant memory now and my life in balance was now filled with pendulum swings. Not quite manic, but the ebbs and flows of joy and defeat that often accompany puberty and life in general.
It wasn’t until my late thirties that the concept of balance reentered my thoughts. Not in a physical sense, but a more behavorial and somewhat esoteric one. I was in the midst of a deep internal struggle between selflessness and selfishness. I had begun caring for an elderly family member. Running errands, doing chores, balancing checkbooks. All of the things that younger bodies and minds are more adept at than those that have been worn down and ravaged by time.
At first it was a symbiotic relationship, and I was getting a sense of usefulness in exchange for my labor. As time progressed, however, my labors were met with greater and greater dissatisfaction. If I spent three hours doing chores and visiting, I was chastised that it should have been four. If I made a cost-saving suggestion that would place the person in a better financial position, it was greeted with resentment and hostility. My sense of usefulness waned and it became drudgery and had morphed into the dark feeling of a parasitic relationship.
Friends and family on the outside looking in deemed me selfless; an angel. Their words did little to allay my growing displeasure. The stress of the situation wound up manifesting itself physically in the form of facial paralysis. My doctor recommended I avoid stress for a while and see if it didn’t improve. There it was…my out, and I pounced on it. I ceased responding to all requests and allowed other family members to take the reins for now. After all, it was their turn, right? I’d been doing it on my own for two years. Surely they could manage it with their combined forces.
As I lightened my load, the incidents of numbness decreased, and then fell away entirely. My doctor had been correct in his assumption, and that should have been answer enough. Then the rumblings began. My halo now had a black patina and was slipping. The kudos for the selfless angelic one fell away and were replaced by how selfish I had become. Only looking out for myself, with no regard for how stopping my aid affected others. I was blindsided.
I decided to pursue the concept of balance again, but what was the mid-point between selflessness and selfishness? Through trial and error and the same commitment to practice I put into learning physical balance, I discovered it. The answer was self-interest. The same mentality that you’ll hear when traveling on an airplane. Put your own oxygen mask on first before coming to the aid of those around you.
It applies just as much to my life today as it did years ago. As we face the pandemic we need to remember the balance between selflessness and selfishness. We can’t be reckless about our own health. We need to take proper precautions. To properly serve others we need to be strong. Neither though can we let our scales tip to the side of selfishness. Hoarding needed supplies or deciding we don’t feel like adhering to the guidelines may not put ourselves at risk, but it’s definitely gambling with the lives of others.
Had the balance beams not been chucked aside in our youth the idea of finding the center may have taken a more deeply rooted hold in our hearts. Then again, sometimes the memory of a fall is just what you need to be more cautious.
Stay strong, blessed, and healthy my friends. We shall rise again, and hopefully with better balance.