In Defense of Imbalance


Douglas Taylor

The seventh anniversary of my ordination will be in about a month and a half.  It is not an occasion for parties or special commemoration, but it does serve as a good time for me to recall the event and to remind myself what happened.  One of the elements of a ceremony such as that is the “Charge to the Minister.”  This is usually done by a colleague some what familiar to the one being ordained.  In my case it was the Reverend Frances Manly, who is currently serving the UU congregation in Niagara Falls.

For the Charge, Frances decided against the standard speech format and instead gave me four rocks in a soft leather bag.  Each rock represented an aspect of my self, of my gifts, which she charged me to remember.  The first rock was a smooth red and green stone.  As she put it in my hand she said, “This represents the masculine and feminine aspects of you which seem to me to be in pretty good balance.  That is rare among most people and rather useful in your chosen calling.”  The second stone was a smooth dark blue stone with thin threads of white throughout.  “This,” she said as she placed it in my hand, “represents the pain and heartache you’ve had in your life.  Though difficult, it provides you with a great depth of compassion.  Notice also that the darkness is shot through with light.  Remember that life is also balanced this way.”  The third one was a sparkling and shining chunk of rock.   She said it was to honor my saving sense of humor.  The fourth rock was a contrast to the third in that is was a round plain rock; an unbroken geode which she placed in my hand with the admonishment that I was to crack it open to see the dazzling crystals within only if I really needed the reminder that there is a dazzling and hidden part within me as well.

That was the charge I was given as a new minister, four rocks: remember to be in balance and don’t forget that with all the sparkle and humor on the outside that there is more that remains hidden.  Which is another way of saying, “balance.”  So, in short – my charge was (and still is) to stay in balance.  I take this charge seriously.

After rigorous attempts to attain enlightenment through austerity and complete self-denial Siddhartha eventually adopted what is known as the Middle Way, a moderate approach to spiritual enlightenment.  Buddhism, the Middle Way, commends its adherents to be in balance.  Jesus is often shown practicing and advocating a sensible moderation.  When invited to a wedding, for example, he ate and drank with the other guests incurring the accusation of being a glutton.  Jesus put forth a common-sense approach of moderation compared with the rigid structures espoused by others.  The Tao Te Ching holds balance and equilibrium as central concepts in its teachings.  Again and again from many perspectives, balance is a key component to the religious life.  Balance is a common theme in the quest for personal and spiritual wholeness.

Balance has been the watchword of my adult life for I have known what it is like to not be in balance and it is not good.  The need for balance has been a recurring theme in what I offer in my ministry as well.  I did a computer search of the last three years worth of my sermons for the word “balance.”  I found 14 sermons what specifically use that word and countless others that refer to the idea.  I have called for balance when looking at the relationship between spirituality and justice making in our lives; I have called for religion to serve as a balance to our capitalist society; I have called on us as a species to recognize our place in the balance of our earth and of the interdependent web of life; and I have proclaimed that the soul of our congregation is in the balance of faith and reason achieved through the freedom of conscience.

A month ago I said, “It is always about balance, isn’t it? Breathing out and breathing in, reaching out and drawing in; balance is the key.”  So, I want you to know that I value balance.  I am in favor of balance; balance is good and important.  That said; allow me to take a few moments to promote the benefits of imbalance.  Imbalance is not necessarily a bad thing to be avoided.  It does not follow that since balance is good, imbalance is bad; that just is not the case.

Being out of balance, I suggest, is a dynamic often frightening experience.  Just imagine being off balance on a bicycle.  Does “dynamic” and “frightening” cover it?  I remember a portion of a dream I had when I was a teenager.  I don’t recall anymore all that went on in the dream leading up to the moment I was falling off the cliff.  I do recall the visceral feeling of wind-milling my arms as my feet tried to cling to the edge.  I can almost still feel in my body what it was like to be halfway over; uncertain whether I would be able to catch myself or fall.  And I remember waking up with my heart racing.  That image, that heart-racing feeling, stayed with me so strongly perhaps because I quickly identified my waking life as spent clinging to the edge almost about to fall.

I told my dream to my sister and she said, “You know what you have to do, don’t you?  You have to fall.”  Oh!?! It’s that simple is it? Just fall?  When everything in me is screaming to hold on?  When every shred of my being knows that to fall is to die and to hold on is the only thing to do?              Yes.              Sometimes, you have to fall.  Sometimes you need to let go of your balance so that you may live again.  Sometimes what feels like holding your balance is really being stuck – and the way to move again is to go off balance and fall.

Allow me to digress for a moment into theories from psychology and theology to help unpack this idea.  Jean Piaget spoke of cognitive development as a progression through successive stages: Sensorimotor, Preoperative, Concrete Operational, and Formal Operational.  According to this widely accepted theory is that as we grow we all go through universal phases or stages differentiated by certain characteristics.  “The starting point of development, according to Piaget, is the need in everyone for equilibrium, that is, a state of mental balance.” (The Developing Person through the Life Span, K. S. Berger; p48)  The states of equilibrium are considered the different stages.  The concept of “stages of development” is fairly well ingrained in our communal understanding of growth and has been applied beyond cognitive development to faith development, moral development, and all manner of other areas.  The key piece is that there is equilibrium between what you experience and your ‘schemas’ as Piaget called them.  Schemas are the mental concepts, they are how you think about what you are experiencing, the ideas you use to understand what you are going through.

Now, here is a critical component to all this that is usually forgotten.  How do we move from one stage to the next?  Through what Piaget called Disequilibrium.  When the mental schemas don’t fit with present experiences, “the individual falls into a state of disequilibrium, a kind of imbalance that initially produces confusion but then leads to growth as the person modifies old schemas and constructs new ones to fit the new conditions.” (Ibid) That time of imbalance is the doorway into the next stage.  Imbalance is a motivation toward and the momentum into growth.

Existentialist theologian Paul Tillich spoke of this process in terms of self-identity, self-alteration, and self-return.  Self-identity, according to Tillich, is done through clarifying within yourself just who you are.  With varying degrees of awareness, everyone manages to develop a self-identity.  It is a centering activity marked by being in balance.  Self-alteration is that moment of “uh-oh,” when your experiences of life fail to match the self-identity you have developed.  Does that sound familiar?  It is that moment when something new happens either by an external event such as a loss, or by an internal source such as a sudden insight.  For whatever reason, you are thrown off balance, you are thrown into what Tillich calls chaos.  Tillich loves to talk about chaos.  Chaos, while a terrible thing we hope to avoid, is an amazing process whereby New Being can emerge.  The experience of chaos is uncomfortable and the typical response is to take the next step which Tillich calls Self-return, the movement back into centeredness and identity and balance.  Often we find, however, that our center has shifted a little because we have experienced that self-alteration, that ‘other thing’, that was outside our previous self-identity, which is now included in our experiences and thus into our new identity.  And thus change and growth occur.

What Tillich calls chaos is not exactly the same thing that I am calling imbalance, chaos is imbalance and much more.  “Nothing that grows is without form.  The form makes a thing what it is … Every new form is made possible only by breaking through the limits of the old form.  In other words, there is a moment of ‘chaos’ between the old and the new form, a moment of no-longer-form and not-yet-form.”  (Tillich, Systematic theology Vol. III; p 50)

Other theologians use the concept of “liminal time” or liminal space” to describe the same concept.  Limen is one of those old words like Spuddle [to go about a trifling business as if it were a matter of importance.  To assume airs of importance without occasion] and Gardyloo [A cry which servants in the higher stories of Edinburgh give, after ten o’clock at night, when they throw their dirty water &c. from the windows; hence, also used to denote the contents of the vessel] which are not in use today, but we could perhaps still find use for them.  The Limen is the threshold of a physiological or psychological response.  It is that moment of no longer and not yet.  You are at the threshold between.  To be in Liminal space is that place of imbalance and chaos where you may discover anew who you are (or who you are becoming.)

For Piaget, it is the moment when you realize that how you describe what is happening to you and that which is happening to you do not fit and you experience a disequilibrium leading you into new understanding.  If you cannot accept this time of imbalance, you will not be able to move forward into new understanding.

I said that imbalance is dynamic.  Balance is also dynamic because it includes imbalance.  When riding a bicycle you have balance because of momentum – but you have momentum because you pedal on one side first and then the other and then back, and so on.  You maintain balance through moments of imbalance; otherwise, you are not moving.  This sort of imbalance is healthy and productive, if a bit difficult to manage.  In this way, imbalance is the threshold from an old balanced center to a new balanced center.  This is valuable imbalance that thankfully only lasts moments.  Other sorts of imbalance can last a lifetime and yet can still be something for which we can give thanks.  Here I am thinking of those amazing artists, scientists, and reformers who have such an overwhelming gift for their art or their science or their ability to motivate positive social change, yet there are tragic flaws that accompany the gift.  I think of movies such as Shine, Beautiful Mind, and Amadeus.  These based-on-true-stories types of movies highlight the genius and the greatness of such people, but they also demonstrate the weakness and chaos that can come to dominate a person.  It is not a healthy position to live from, but people do it.  This is a level of imbalance that, if left unchecked, can produce some of them most amazing art, music, scientific discovery, social change, and transformation as well as utterly devastate the soul.

Some powerful movement can happen when you lean strongly into one aspect of your life, thus causing an imbalance.  Dramatic results can be achieved if you throw all your energy into a social cause or artistic composition or complete self-denial with the goal of enlightenment.  Such one-sided attention can also result in sudden overwhelming bouts of chaos or some other tragic consequence.  There is an almost romantic notion for artists, scientists, and reformers that if they could only somehow focus all their attention and passion onto this next campaign, or this next play, symphony, or painting, or this next scientific breakthrough; if we could somehow give our whole life over we will succeed and taste a sweetness that cannot be had any other way.  And yet, to be that out of balance seems to incur a debt in chaos, a debt of tragedy.  Or is that just the stuff of myth and legend?  Or is that the endless lesson of so many myths and legends?

That much imbalance may be worth it, thought the cost be high.  The sort of Imbalance I set out to defend was the momentary crossing between kind, the threshold from “what no longer is” and “is not yet.”  The doorway is not a place to set down roots and take up residence – yet some do, and for a few of them for whom there is a lasting legacy for their life and sacrifice, we give thanks.  But I gently commend to you that you take your powerful moments of imbalance in moderation.

In a world without end

May it be so