I once had a young friend who had plans. She had a twelve-month plan, a five-year plan, a ten-year plan. She knew exactly where she was going in her career and when she would take each step. She knew when she wanted to marry and start a family. She knew how to network and who she wanted as mentors and advisors. Her future was under control.
Then life intervened. She had been a late child, so her parents were older, and they became ill. She lost her job. A long-term love affair with an older man disintegrated. She developed a potentially debilitating physical condition and her doctor told her she shouldn’t have children. None of these things had been in her plans. Life re-wrote her future.
That’s what life does. When we think we know where we’re going, life says, “Oh, no, you’re not going there.” Whether we like it or not, we’re off in a new direction. And it’s in that new direction that we will discover new things and become a new person.
I remember sitting in the faculty senate chamber at the university where I was teaching when I was about 40 and thinking, “This is a good place to grow old. I’m going to enjoy the rest of my life here.” Two years later I was divorced and living a life I hadn’t expected in central New York. Six years after that I was leading yet another completely different life back in the state I grew up in. Six years after that, I had two heart attacks and entered yet another, completely different, life.
Are we ever in control? I don’t think so. Just when we have our plans all made, life happens. Just when we think we know what we’re doing, someone or something says, “Wait a minute!” And most of the time, we push right on, determined to get whatever it is we think we’re doing under control. Believe me, that doesn’t work.
Since we really can’t control anything, even when we think we can, why do we keep on trying to set things straight, fix ourselves, our lives, and other people’s selves and lives? “If I just try harder, do more, think positively, things will go my way,” we say. No, they won’t. Guaranteed. But things may well turn out all right, for all that the things we end up with were not in our plans. Even when things do not turn out all right, we can still survive.
We survive because it’s not a matter of control. If survival required control, which of us would survive? And yet we do survive, rebuild our lives, carry on. And those lives can be renewed, transformed, enriched. We grow because we survive, and the growing is good. We all know that; we see it all around us.
It’s not a matter of control. It’s a matter of balance.
Balance is our ability to accept and adjust to the pressures of the uncontrollable in our lives. We can be rigid and let those pressures bowl us over, knock us off our feet, flatten us like a steamroller. Or we can bend, slip aside, accommodate the changes, and carry on in our new direction.
Another way to think about it is to imagine one of those marvelous French copper bowls made for whisking egg whites. They have round bottoms, so that every bit of egg white is caught up in the action of the whisk. If you place such a bowl upside down on the kitchen counter and try to put a small metal ball on top, you’ll see a good image of a life out of balance. With some effort, you’ll eventually be able to get the ball to rest on the top of the overturned bowl. But the equilibrium of the ball will be unstable; the least touch or vibration will send it rolling off in one direction or another. Turn the bowl over and put the ball inside, and the ball will return to the bottom of the bowl when you jiggle the bowl or tilt it. Inside the bowl, the ball has stable equilibrium. It can find its balance.
So what’s your balance like? When things get out of control, what do you do? Where do you look for strength? For balance? I can tell you some places not worth looking. Strength and balance are not in our jobs, our achievements, or the stuff we’ve acquired (including cars, trophies, or Ph.D.s). Nor can we find our balance in other people, no matter how important they are to us. If our lives, our selves, are invested in such things, we will fail when they fail to provide what we expect of them.
Balance is within. Balance rests in the God within us, the Spirit in our souls. Balance comes from knowing who I am in the universe and knowing that I am connected to all creation. Balance comes from knowing that even though I can control nothing, not even my own thoughts and actions, I have a sound base in God that will support me in dealing with whatever comes – and even help me choose and direct my thoughts and actions in positive ways.
That connection to God, that sound base of self in God, makes it possible to accept my own flaws and failures and move on, makes it possible to accept the accidents and defeats of my life. I will be defeated. It’s inevitable. But God will not be defeated. I will die with tasks unfinished, goals unreached, and dreams forgotten. But I’m part of the fabric of creation, and creation will live forever in the mind of God. And that gives me the balance to find joy in the world and beauty in my life. Balance to accept whatever happens without falling out of God’s hand.