Weaving it All Together
Short-term imbalance is inevitable; long-term imbalance is destructive. (Gerard Sittser)
Teaching is my first love. It always has been. Even from a young age I loved organising my brothers and sisters into a play-act classroom, and “teaching” them the rudiments of arithmetic and reading. So it was no surprise to anyone when I applied for the teachers training college and eventually became a primary school teacher.
Apart from some years while our children were young, I’ve continued teaching right through to now. Presently I work with Year Fives at a school twenty minutes from home. Needless to say, it hasn’t always been easy managing the job as well as a family. There have been a number of times when Brett (my husband) and I have discussed whether I should give up teaching altogether. There are just so many demands.
Parenting, of course, is a major one. But so is wanting to stay involved in three or four community and church endeavours. And it’s not just having a job. A big part of the pressure is the hugely increased demand on teachers these days.
All this means tight limitations on what I can do. I love teaching nine- and ten-year-olds, but there are those other things I’m drawn to as well. After all, if life was all about getting up in the morning, going to school, coming home, sorting out the house, and going to bed, I would dry up pretty quickly.
So the last five or six years when I’ve been back teaching have created a real dilemma for me. Our principal demands a great deal from us and so does the system. The paperwork is overwhelming, and we’re expected to be involved in a number of extra-curricular activities alongside our normal teaching load. Sometimes I get the feeling that the principal thinks teaching should be the sum total of life. We’re expected to sell our heart and soul to the cause. Meetings and other demands are unexpectedly thrust upon us, involving evenings and weekends (Saturdays and Sundays!). Then when ERO (the school review authority) turns up or it’s time for reports … it’s even worse.
You can understand the pressure this all puts on other areas of my life. Sometimes it gets to be just too much. In fact, not long ago I reached a point where I simply had to do something about it. My employer’s expectations were unrealistic. They were destroying the growing sense of well-being and SoulPurpose that I had been coming to. I decided I just had to make a stand.
This was very difficult initially as I’m one of those people who feels a strong sense of loyalty, and I take seriously my responsibilities. Plus, I had a fear – unnecessary, as it proved – that if I put limits on the time and energy I gave to my teaching job, I’d soon get the sack. Actually, it was that “worst-case scenario” that helped me deal with the issue. If they sacked me, I decided, then that was their choice. I wanted to teach there, and I’m a good teacher. It would be their loss as much as mine.
With Brett’s help I worked out some clear boundaries which would go some way to protecting me (and everyone else!) from being swamped. It required a degree of negotiation with the principal, but what helped was his knowledge that I’m no shirker. I had a proven record and that increased my bargaining power. It was a case of … “If you want me in this job, this is what I’m prepared to give and this is what I’m not prepared to give.” Sounds simple enough, but I needed all Brett’s encouragement to face up to the principal!
As a result, there are certain days when I leave the school grounds fifteen minutes after the kids do. I have chosen not to take any work home. There are also tasks in the school I won’t do, and meetings I don’t attend.
It’s not easy. I regularly have to keep reminding myself – and the principal – where the boundaries are, what is reasonable. There’s always pressure, internal and external, for the workload to grow. A helpful way of monitoring this is a monthly meeting that Brett and I have set up with a senior teacher at the school, where we talk about how things are going, and decide on any correctives that need to be made.
Outside of school, one of the keys for me has been to view my year not as one block of time with an unchanging tempo, but rather as a series of seasons (or mini-seasons) each containing periods of intense activity in certain tasks, followed by times of relative inactivity. I’ve accepted that each week is not going to be neatly balanced between the different parts of my life.
This particular solution is a personal balance that came from gradual self-discovery. There was a time in my life when I tried to achieve perfect equilibrium all year. That state of Nirvana was never achieved! Not even close. It was an impossible and implausible myth!
Then I realised that in order to give my best to the children I teach, there would be times of the year when their needs would dominate my life. A school concert, for example, or when reports are due. Reducing my other activities in anticipation of these pressure points is how I cope. I can give over and above the call of duty for short times if I (and other people in my life) know that things will not always be like this.
In compensation, there are also times when teaching has to take a backseat to my other roles. And definite, planned-for occasions when rest is the priority. Our two weeks camping with friends is sacrosanct. So are the three days Brett and I have to ourselves every October.
Another helpful key for us has been the support structures we have around us. While neither Brett nor I have family living nearby, we have developed a close group of friends, both Christian and not Christian, who know us well and understand what makes us tick. They help share the load. This is not a one-way street by any stretch of the imagination. For example, we pick up each other’s children from school, have them over regularly, and eat a shared meal together once a week … plus a number of other informal supports. When I’m busy, someone will often drop a prepared meal around or invite us over. We try to do likewise. Without these people in our lives, things would be so much more difficult.
Sometimes, even in spite of this marvellous support and the best of intentions, things just overwhelm me. It’s in those times that I have been learning I’m not called to be Superwoman (though the idea does appeal!). I’m trying to face up to my limitations. (Brett helps!) I have only so much energy. I can give it to only so many things. I simply cannot cope with every demand.
But that very decision has produced another bout of self-discovery. I’m an organized person, but you can’t programme your life to perfection. Sometimes you just have to be there – a friend’s father dying, one of your kids in desperate need of some one-on-one, a neighbour dropping around unexpectedly to talk. I’ve realised that I can’t simply cut myself off from others to suit my own schedule of wellbeing.
This hit home to me recently when one friend told me what another friend had said to her – that it seemed I didn’t have any time for her these days. I felt terrible about that. It made me realise that relationships are more critical than anything else. So at present I am determining to make people (including my Year Fives) the key to how I shape my life.
Yes, I know this is going to produce some impossible conflicts! And yes, I admit it, I’m still a work in process! But at least these days I know where I’m trying to go to, and I have a fair idea of what the problems are like on the road ahead…
Denise’s challenges are ones that many of us can identify with. It’s like being a juggler. At any one time we have a whole range of roles and responsibilities, and we have to cope with the competing demands they bring. It’s not an easy task juggling these demands, keeping all the balls in the air – or as the Oxford Dictionary puts it, “…adroitly balancing several activities”, all at the same time.
Juggling commitments is not new. For instance, the woman described in Proverbs 31 clearly had to handle a variety of different roles. Not only was she a wife and mother, managing the household, but she was also a businesswoman – buying and selling real estate, planting a vineyard, making and selling clothes. Then there was her service among the poor, and her reputation for being a wise counsellor. She is commended for her faith and sensitivity. It all sounds rather exhausting and more than a little intimidating. But it’s a great model of integration, and her lively faith is clearly at the centre of her activity.
In a similar way the Old Testament leader Nehemiah carried multiple responsibilities. We think of him primarily as a man of prayer, championing justice for those who had been exploited and oppressed, and confronting the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. And he was. But Nehemiah was also the governor of Jerusalem, with a special responsibility for rebuilding the walls of the city. This major construction job was his main task, around which everything else had to be fitted.
But that wasn’t all. Nehemiah faced other complications. The walls of the city had been demolished through attack after attack from enemies. And those enemies were still camped close by, threatening to renew their assault even as the building project went on. This created enormous pressure to get things done quickly. Talk about deadlines!
Nehemiah also had to deal with disharmony and conflict inside the walls. And to top it all off, he answered directly to the emperor of Persia – somehow balancing Israeli aspirations with the wishes of an occupying power. Now that would have been a challenge!
So dealing with competing commitments is nothing new. However, there are extra challenges when it comes to finding integration in our modern lives. Our twenty-first-century world is vastly different to the one that most people in history have experienced. If you could take yourself back to before the industrial revolution you would find yourself in a village or town, not only living with your family and friends but also working, worshiping and recreating with them. In fact, for most people through most of history, work was centred on the home.
To be sure, living and working and relaxing all in the same community brought its own set of problems and tensions, but the positive side was that it led to a much more integrated life. Today, we may well find ourselves involved in multiple communities. We may live in one place, be employed in another place, worship somewhere else, and have a friendship and interest network scattered all over! (Literally all over the world, given the ease of email and the freedom of travel.) Instead of our children learning a trade from watching and participating with us while working at home, often they have no awareness of what we “go off to” each day. They may be able to put a name to their parent’s job (“Daddy is a truck driver”), but ask them to explain what he does all day and they have little idea.
Integration means the achievement of a comfortable and harmonious unity across the different parts of our lives. The impact of the industrial revolution, however, has been to compartmentalise and to separate those parts. No wonder most of us struggle to gain a sense of integration among the roles and responsibilities we carry.
So we juggle. But it’s not just the set of commitments we have. It’s not just that we need to keep all those balls in the air all the time. They keep changing! No sooner have we got used to managing them than one or two are replaced or enlarged to make life even more difficult! New shapes, new sizes, new colours….
So juggling is an absolutely necessary skill for each of us to learn if, in our modern world, we are to achieve balance and integration.
The dictionary describes balance as “…an even distribution of weight ensuring stability; mental or emotional stability; a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions; a counteracting weight or force.” When the boss demands that we devote all of our time and energy to the job, we just know that giving in to his/her demands is going to get things out of proportion. If we’re to keep our lives in equilibrium we desperately need to find a “counteracting weight or force” – like a spouse or friend who can remind us of our other commitments!
We can also lose equilibrium when we give far more time and energy to a task than it merits, like spending 100 hours on a 20 hour assignment. If we don’t value the various roles and tasks in our week in their correct proportions, other things are likely to suffer, to say nothing of our emotional stability.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that balance means giving an even spread of work and rest to each day or week . When we juggle several roles, there will always be some periods where one role or another dominates our energy and time. That’s life. As Gerald Sittser notes, “Short-term imbalance is inevitable; long-term imbalance is destructive.” Balance is something we bring to our lives not in each individual moment, but over the long-haul. We do it by recognising where we have been giving our energy recently, and then by compensating –giving energy next to the other important parts of our lives.
Balance is keeping the elements of our lives in comfortable proportion. Integration is where every diverse part makes sense and fits into the overall scheme of things. That’s perhaps even more difficult to achieve, but integration is what helps bring meaning and purpose to our lives.
A key biblical concept for bringing about such integration is by remembering our “calling”. When our lives seem fragmented into unconnected parts, we need to connect to those parts; we need to strive for a sense of unity. We can do this by working out who we are, who we’re called to be, and how we fit into God’s purposes.
There’s another biblical word that applies here. It describes the complete state of balance and integration. That word is “shalom”. Shalom speaks of wholeness and harmony – where all things are in their right place: relationships, work, rest, creation.
All of this is, of course, easier said than done. So far we’ve described the concept. Let’s now try to earth it in real lives. We, the writers of this book, would like to take the risky step of describing our own experiences of striving for balance and integration – both the struggles and the successes. We hope that you will be able to identify with at least parts of our journeys, and that you will find here some keys for a greater measure of balance and integration in your own life.
I enjoy the challenge and variety that comes from being involved in a lot of different activities. I live with my wife, Alison, 19-year-old daughter Catherine, 16-year-old son Chris, and fun-loving three-year-old grand-daughter, Ruby. So home life dictates the shape of much of what I do.
For much of my working life I have had more than one job at a time, usually combining some kind of pastoral leadership with theological research and teaching. This has been supplemented by a number of other, mostly voluntary, roles such as serving on boards. I also enjoy playing music in a couple of bands, playing golf and watching rugby, going to the movies and enjoying the company of friends socially.
Consequently, the picture of a juggler trying to keep a number of balls moving in the air without dropping any describes exactly the way I often feel. I’ve watched a number of jugglers, and it never ceases to amaze me the skill required to do it well. In fact, some are so clever that they hardly need to look at the balls, or even think about what they’re doing!
Unfortunately life has never been like that for me. I find it hard to say no – I just don’t like missing out on things! But I’m well aware that this frequently gets me overcommitted and leads to stress and trouble. As a result I constantly need to re-examine my priorities. Am I really managing to keep all those balls successfully in the air? Am I maintaining a healthy balance between my various responsibilities?
To help juggle my employment and family commitments in an integrated way, I have chosen to work most of the time from an office at home. I’m aware that other people might not like the way this blurs the separation between home and employment, but it works well for me – and for my family.
Juggling certainly describes how I often feel. But another picture I’ve found helpful in trying to maintain a healthy balance in my life is the Pentathlon.
The pentathlon is an Olympic event that requires an athlete to compete in five military skills: fencing, riding, running, shooting and swimming. Doug Sherman and William Hendricks, in their book How to Balance Competing Time Demands, write: “As a pentathlete, you can’t do exceptionally well in just one or two areas, like running and swimming, and blow off the other areas just because you don’t like horses or you have a thing about handguns. You have to excel in all areas.”
Because quite different skills are required in each event, the training periods for each must be carefully planned. Aiming for perfection in one event could undermine the overall purpose. Trying to be the world’s top swimmer or top fencer would create an impossible strain. So rather than perfection, the goal for a pentathlete is “overall excellence”.
What I like about this model is that it encourages me to look at my life as a whole. Pursuing growth in all areas – family, employment, church, community and friendships – is what I’m aiming for. I recognise that these parts overlap and interact, affecting one another. The pentathlon helps me to work toward integrating everything in my life into one comprehensive whole, with God as my coach.
It also recognises individuality. Each of us has to develop our own training programme. This requires that we know ourselves well and encourages us to prepare in a way that builds on our strengths … and compensates for our weaknesses.
Balance – you either love it or hate it. Right now I’m struggling with it, because I’m not handling it the way I’d like to. There are just too many things to do: a house and garden to be maintained, food and laundry and basic life needs to be managed, friends and relatives to keep in contact with, lots of rich experiences to be had as a parent, opportunities for various forms of service, the challenge of university study…
Balance – sometimes I love it. There was a day some time last year when all of a sudden … my life felt balanced! The sun was shining, I had study and work commitments exactly how I wanted them. I had ample time to stop and smell the roses. I felt so grateful for my life and the composite parts of the whole.
The truth is that it had taken some time to reach that state – it didn’t just happen overnight. But it felt good because I had worked hard and had achieved results I was pleased with. A couple of years ago, my first week as a post-graduate student presented me with a dilemma. I could see that the workload involved was going to eat into the time I had set aside for my family commitments. I knew I could complete the course if I devoted nights and weekends to it. But I hadn’t been expecting to have to do so at that stage, nor was my family prepared for my sudden absence.
On the other hand I didn’t want to put off the time when I could complete this degree. I preferred to graduate with my class rather than wait till later. I was also afraid that if I didn’t do it all full-time it would look as if I wasn’t “up to it”.
I had a week to make my decision. It really came down to the trade-offs I was prepared to make. In this instance I had to check for myself that I was on the right road – should I continue with the course at all? I was positive that continuing was the right thing to do. Then I had to think about the consequences of each alternative (studying full-time or part-time). Where it looked like there were pros and cons for each, I would have to call on my values.
It didn’t take long for me to realise that I wasn’t ready for such a full-on commitment, and I also felt that my family needed a bit more preparation before I absented myself for longer periods. Compared to being around more for my children at this time of their lives, the prospect of graduating a few months, or even a year, after my classmates wasn’t much of an issue .
Going part-time would mean taking longer to complete the degree. I had to discuss the implications with my husband Geoff, and we needed to balance those trade-offs together. It would mean more input from Geoff in caring for the children after school on the day I had a late lecture. He is self-employed, so fortunately there was some flexibility for him to do that.
I tried to think of ways I could make a part-time course work for me, rather than feeling disadvantaged by taking longer to finish. How would I structure it to fit my other commitments? How would I deal with the reactions I was likely to get from people just for doing something in a different way?
So I made the commitment to part-time study. Since that time I have been more pro-active in involving all the family in the household jobs. We all get to contribute in some way according to age and ability. There are occasional relapses! Sometimes we think we have succeeded well – other times we are frustrated in our efforts and it feels like starting again at square one. I think each member of the family has learned something from the process. (“Yeah, right!” they say, groaning.)
Finding and maintaining balance is an ongoing task. I try my best to keep things balanced and in perspective, but you can’t plan for every eventuality. I am learning to relax my high expectations of myself, and to set limits over the expectations others have of me. It means I have said “No” to worthy requests for my time – and have struggled with feeling guilty because of the disapproval my “No” has sometimes earned. People aren’t always aware of the other commitments you have outside of the role they see you in. So I try to put the guilt aside.
I choose one community commitment at a time. That way, I can give my time and energy with enthusiasm. I have been able to manage more than that in the past, and possibly will again in the future, but for now, one is enough. This year I have opted to coach my daughter’s netball team – it means an after-school practice during the week and being available on Saturday morning for the match game.
I can occasionally help with activities at school, but I don’t do so on a regular basis, although I was quite involved in those activities when the children were younger. It seems a natural progression that as they grow I also seek other growth for myself. Balance in my life today looks different to balance in my life ten years ago.
I have also come to respect my need of rest and relaxation. One of the reasons I wanted to keep my weekends free was to make time for a break from all the structure and timetables in my life, amidst all the other stuff that happens at home over the weekends. I need time to reflect and to be renewed for the week ahead. I work more efficiently from Monday to Friday when I know that I’ll have time off in the weekend.
And now a balancing comment … about balance! Achieving and maintaining it is important, but the search for balance can become a tyranny at times. Is it just “stability” or “calm” or “security”? Everything hanging together well, without a loose thread in sight? Life’s not like that. At least not life where we learn to struggle and grow and then get to look back at what we learned. At different stages of my life, as I have taken on new goals or new responsibilities, my life has been momentarily out of balance, and has looked (and felt) messy. That was the case in my first year as a postgraduate student. I didn’t feel very “in control”, and it was very uncomfortable at times. Finding new ways of adapting took some time and creativity from all of us.
Keep balance as a goal, is my advice, but don’t get frightened off a new opportunity just because it will initially upset your lifestyle.
Balance, in spite of the struggle involved, is healthy. I am happy that there are several different roles I have in life. While each is an important part of who I am, none of them is the whole of who I am. Knowing that helps me keep each role in perspective.
In his book The Elephant and the Flea, Charles Handy coins the terms “portfolio person” or “flea”. He’s referring to the kind of person who fulfils a number of roles largely independent of any particular organisation. This describes the last ten years of my life perfectly. I juggle numerous different tasks through the week. I’m presently a car dealer, writer, school trustee, teacher and student – to say nothing of my roles as a father, husband, church member, friend and neighbour.
This juggling act is probably not exceptional for someone in mid-life. In my case, however, there is a complicating factor. I need to keep all the balls in the air, trying to lead a balanced and integrated life, while working from home and having a highly unstructured working week.
There are, of course, huge advantages to being able to work in this way. Many people are quite envious of the flexibility I have and the ease of simply travelling up the stairs to my office without encountering any traffic jams whatsoever! However, my working life does raise some tricky issues for me. Let me identify some of them.
(But first let me humbly acknowledge that a large part of the population has been here long before me. I look with total admiration at the way “home-makers” – mostly mothers – handle the extraordinary complexities of being a fulltime and unpaid parent on the one hand, and a contributor to community activities of all kinds on the other.)
First, how do I draw a line between “work” and “family and rest”, when my primary place of work is home and my schedule has me weaving my way in and out of both work and family activities?
Many of my friends commute to their place of daily work, some by train, others by car, and some by walking. The travel time allows them to orientate themselves to the job, or (at the end of the day) to the family demands of home. The clear divisions of the day help them to switch from one sphere of life to another, allowing them to re-focus on the next task.
But what about me? How do I switch off my “business” or “writing” brain, and switch on my “parenting” or “rest” brain? One possible solution would be to keep definite work hours. However, I greatly appreciate the flexibility of easily slipping from one role to another as need arises.
Physical space helps to a degree. My office/study is designated for “work”. My family know that if they want my full attention I need to get out of my office and downstairs to the family areas of the house.
As well, I have managed to build some healthy disciplines into my life; for example, not answering the phone at certain times of the day – though again I am far from perfectly consistent.
Who/what can help me to determine work priorities when so many options compete for my attention and energy?
I don’t find this easy at all. As with most people, the urgent often gets done at the expense of the important. Not only that, but I find administration very easy to do and so this will often get priority over more “thinking” work such as writing. The reality is, of course, that work with short term payoffs and results is easier to be motivated for than long term projects. They can be “left for another day”! I all too easily fall into this trap.
Gaining a sense of perspective on priorities is not simple. After all, I have no boss dictating how my week should be spent. However, I do have a small group of “significant others” – my wife Jill and a varied set of close friends and colleagues. I have asked them to act as sounding boards for my plans, and I read carefully their reactions to my thoughts and intentions. If enough of them feed back to me concerns about something I am sinking time into, or voice positive reactions to an idea, this increases my confidence to hold back or invest energy.
For example, my current status as a part-time student (finishing off a qualification I began many years ago!) is largely the result of the urgings of these friends. The choice to study was not something I felt sufficiently motivated to do, but Jill and a number of friends felt differently! While ultimately I was the one who had to make the choice to undertake study, I leaned fairly heavily on their knowledge of my growing SoulPurpose.
This leads to the other great benefit of developing a number of close family and friends. It’s the perspective they can bring as I shape my sense of SoulPurpose. I know I have blind spots and only a hazy view of who God has made me to be. The “significant others” in my life help fill out the picture, as well as call me to account for how I am using what I have been given.
In fact, sometimes they have more confidence in me than I do! At strategic times in my life they have given me the faith to take a step in a new direction – like moving to Canada for study in 1990, and starting a business in 1995. They have also enabled me to change the way I use my time – such as learning to touch-type instead of writing longhand, and not feeling the need to answer the phone every time it rings.
There are some things that we all have difficulty recognizing in ourselves. Lack of balance or integration are two of those things. So is excessive busyness. We have to be willing to hear these kinds of evaluations from those who know us well.
We also have to give them the opportunity to exercise such a role. I’m incredibly fortunate to have family and friends who really believe in me, understand me, and are prepared to sensitively support me, so that I can pursue my SoulPurpose in a balanced and integrated way.
How can tasks and roles that seem so different (such as car dealing and writing/teaching) be done in a way that gives a sense of integration and wholeness to my week?
I am a car dealer … and I also work for a Christian organisation. I’m sure that when some people hear that they shake their heads and wonder how I could end up working in such seemingly opposite worlds. And yet, for me there is no incongruity between selling cars and teaching the Bible, mowing the lawns and writing a book on pain, paying the monthly accounts and giving counsel to a school principal. How did I reach that awareness?
Three revelations over the years made it possible. The first was the discovery that all work, done to the glory of God, is of value. There is no hierarchy of tasks. Nor is there a mystical division between “secular” or “spiritual”. Each task I do has value, and contributes to the call to follow Jesus. It all counts.
The second was the realisation that God himself is a worker – and that not all of his jobs are highly creative. The type of work he engages in is astonishingly varied, and includes some rather mundane maintenance work. If it’s alright for God, then it should be alright for me!
The third revelation was coming to terms with the incredible diversity of abilities and opportunities I had. There were so many ways I could serve God and other people. The challenge was to learn how to work Christianly in all things – in a way that glorified God and helped build his kingdom. Car dealing can do this. So can washing the dishes.
Much of what I do requires me to be a self-starter. And an important component of my working week is long-term in nature – where the benefits may not be seen for years. So inevitably there are days when I fail to be motivated to tackle these long-term tasks, weeks when the downside of my melancholic nature gets the better of me. “What’s the point of this?” “Is this really going to make a difference?”
In these times of self-doubt and lack of motivation it’s easy to get caught in the trap of just “busy-ing” myself with some of the more tangible tasks. There are always files I can tidy up, emails I can answer, dishes I can wash. But often these easy options simply act as diversions and distractions, when I know I should be attending to other matters. Bringing balance and direction to my working week is not easy.
So I am learning about myself and trying to work in a way that is more in tune with my motivations. For example, there are times in the day where I generally find it easier to do thinking and writing work – mainly mornings and late afternoons. Freeing up time in these periods gives me a better chance of using the time well.
Knowing when to be hard on myself is a key. And so is knowing when to cut myself a little slack. Sometimes I need to give myself the freedom to go for a walk or to have a sleep – I don’t always have to be “productive”. Other times what is required is a bit of application – just getting stuck in.
Lack of motivation can result from lack of stimulation – interacting with others may then be the right thing to do. And then, of course, there are times when those practical jobs are appropriate – I’ve been absorbed in creative work for two or three hours, so now is the time for some mechanical tasks.
Bringing balance is an ongoing challenge and there are many times when I get it wrong. Sometimes the fallout from the imbalance requires some drastic action – like having to reduce the number of balls in the air, or learning to say no to a certain opportunity.
For me perfection is definitely a long, long way down the track!
Oxford Concise Dictionary.
Gerald Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).
See Appendix: Someone is calling you, towards the end of this book. This unpacks the concept of calling.
What aspects of our stories did you particularly identify with? What parts challenged you?
Think through the following statements as they relate to your life:
Short-term imbalance is inevitable; long-term imbalance is destructive.
Being a responsible and reliable person doesn’t mean you have to deal with every problem that arises.
Because you can doesn’t mean you should.
People are more important than jobs.
One helpful way of maintaining balance in your life is suggested by Richard Bolles in his book The Three Boxes of Life.
Bolles notes that traditionally life has been divided into three areas, each dominated by a particular activity – Education, Work, and Retirement. He suggests that it would be more healthy if we saw Learnng, Working (paid and unpaid) and Playing as essential ingredients of each stage of life. Bolles invites us to divide a circle into segments that portray what kind of time and energy we are currently investing in each of these activities and then decide if there is anything we would change in our present circumstances if we were really committed to lifelong learning, lifelong working and lifelong leisure.
He suggests that to help us analyse carefully what is going on, during the course of our life we need to regularly ask the following four questions:
What is happening?
What do I need for my survival?
What meaning or mission or ultimate goal shapes my life?
How do I arrange my life now to most effectively sustain me and work towards my goals?
These four questions, asked in this order, need to be answered for each of the Learning, Working, and Playing dimensions at every different stage of life.
Note: Ongoing or lifelong learning is accepted as an important part of working life these days – partly because of our need to grow technical skills, partly so that we can develop as people, but also partly because of our constantly changing world. We cannot assume that the tasks we work at today will be the same or even exist in ten years time. For example, forty years ago most churches had need of an organist. Today the organ has been largely replaced by electronic keyboards. Who would have thought back then that a sound technician might replace an organist?
Divide up the following circle into three segments – learning, working, playing – making each segment proportional to the time and energy it currently takes in your life at the present time.
Ask yourself the four questions listed above.
Do the previous exercise as preparation for a group session. In the group show your personal pie-chart, explaining it and your answers to the questions of Step 2. With the help of the others in your group, aim to sharpen your understanding of how you are working out your priorities in your life, and how you can make your life more balanced.
Doug Sherman and William Hendricks, How to Balance Competing Time Demands, (NavPress,1989).
Mary Ellen Ashcroft, Balancing Act: How women can lose their roles and find their callings (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996).
Richard A. Swenson, The Overload Syndrome: Learning to live within your limits, (NavPress, 1998).
Richard Bolles, The Three Boxes of Life (Ten Speed Press, 1978).
There is more to life than increasing its speed. (Mahatma Gandhi)
You may not be a workaholic. (Then again, living in the 21st century, you just might be!) But one thing is almost a given – you go through long periods when your life is far too hectic and busy. It seems that 99.9% of the population knows all about stress and nervous tension. Too many things to do, too many people to see. “Stop the world now – I want to get off!”
There is a tragic irony to the situation most of us find ourselves in. Our culture has never been more materially rich. We have all the gadgets and toys one could imagine. Yet as Robert Banks notes, we find ourselves caught in a new poverty – a lack of time.
Why have we allowed the treadmill of life to speed up? Why do we have to live faster and faster? Why do our lives seem to be spent just trying to keep up?
Thirty years ago, Alvin Toffler predicted it. And it’s just as he said. Over the past generation the pace of life has increased dramatically. We see it most acutely in the way technology, communications and transport have changed.
But hang on. Shouldn’t the advent of cars, new motorways, faster aeroplanes, computers, mobile phones, fax machines and the internet make it much easier to do our work, and free up much more time? Those new appliances: the microwaves and the automatic washing machines and all the rest – aren’t they “labour-saving devices”?
The answer to that is yes – and no. Yes, they do save a lot of time and effort. No, they don’t slow life down. It turns out that for some perverse reason the benefits have been well and truly overwhelmed by a whole series of unexpected pitfalls. Thanks to mobile phones we can be swiftly in touch with our loved ones – but we also find ourselves at the mercy of every caller, however trivial the enquiry or inconvenient the time. Thanks to the modern motor car we can get quickly to other places – but we get caught in traffic jams on the way. (If you live in an area where you are blessed with clear roads, then don’t get smug. It’s a safe bet you squeeze far more destinations into your schedule than your grandparents ever did when they walked or caught a tram.)
And the final insult is that we actually have to work longer … in order to earn the dollars … in order to pay for those microwaves and washing machines. And then to have them repaired … or updated. (Think of the domestic crisis when the washing machine breaks down. Or the stove. Or that greatest of all domestic disasters, when there’s a power failure…)
The writers of Affluenza put it precisely. “Swelling expectations lead to a constant effort to keep up with the latest products, to compete in the consumption arena. That, in turn, forces us to work more, so we can afford the stuff. With so many things to use, and the need to work harder to obtain them, our lives grow more harried and pressured.” 
Where did our extra free time go? Where did all those other demands come from?
We are a culture fixated on Productivity – leading to Progress and Growth. The gods of the 21st century are not wooden, stone, or bronze. They are economic.
Our whole system is built on the belief that for our society to be a great place to live, this year we must produce (and therefore consume) more than we did last year. Apparently this is real progress! The measuring stick is the increase in GNP (Gross National Product).
It doesn’t take too much imagination to work out where this leads. Enough is never enough. New levels of productivity must be achieved this year – and next year – and the year after. Only by literally working harder or faster, or by employing ever-newer technology, can this be achieved. In a cruel twist, the record sales figures produced by committed and hard-working staff last year become the starting point for increasing this year’s goals. The reward for the poor staff caught in this tightening vice is increased consumption … which, of course, they must pay for by increased earnings.
Amidst such a pervasive ethos, it’s hardly surprising that many of us struggle with increased demands from our jobs. Longer hours, more productivity, less staff to do more and more, expectations of taking work home or coming in to the office in the weekend, and so on.
The demands on employees have dramatically increased over the past fifteen years. In fact, according to Harvard economist Juliet Schor, Americans are now working 160 hours more per year (on average) than they did in 1969. That’s nearly a whole month of extra 40-hour weeks! 
We don’t have too much choice. If we don’t meet the expectations will we get the chop and be replaced by others who are prepared to sell their soul for the company?
“Home-maker” parents are caught in the same bind. It’s no surprise to find that studies report mothers (and the occasional home-staying father) spending more time shopping and ferrying children than their parents did.
We gladly recognise that there are employers who aim to create a work-life balance in their companies. We suspect, however, that far more often employers relate to their staff as if they own them – as if there is nothing else in life nearly as important as the job. In recent years the situation has been made even worse by “contract work” – where the worker is simply contracted to do a specific job. This can mean fewer and fewer companies that have a long term commitment to their employees, and feel responsible for their wider well-being.
Breaking out of this is not easy. Unscrupulous managers and employers will push staff as far as their employees are prepared to be pushed. And, perversely, even where an employer creates a positive work environment, many of us still drive ourselves to earn more, using credit or extra part-time jobs, or both. Our whole culture is based on the premise that we need more and more things.
Certain periods in life are more demanding than others, and this accentuates the pressures and demands. For example, the writers of this book fulfil numerous roles in a week. We are parents, marriage partners, home owners, neighbours, board members and friends. Alistair is a pastor and teacher, Annette a postgrad student, Wayne a businessman and writer. And in our spare time we all run a taxi service and volunteer support crew for our children and their many and varied activities.
Parents among our readers will be well familiar with the syndrome. We all happen to be at that stage in life where the number of roles we carry is probably the greatest it will ever be, and those roles stretch us to the limit.
Furthermore, certain parenting stages are extraordinarily demanding even without multiple roles. For example, if you have two or more pre-schoolers you will feel you have precious little discretionary time. (And any scraps you do have are constantly rendered useless because you have so little energy left. You repeatedly find yourself collapsing in desperately needed sleep, or flopping in a vegetable-like state in front of the TV!)
For many parents the stress of raising children is accentuated by the lack of close-at-hand family support, separated as we so often are from parents and siblings. And it can be made worse if the employed partner faces unrealistic demands at work, so that two-parent families are in reality, one-parent families for large chunks of the week.
There’s another crucial reason why many of us are so harried. Busyness has become a virtue, not a vice. In our society – and indeed in our churches – you could be forgiven for thinking that “busyness is next to godliness”. Mention how hard-at-it you are and you are likely to be highly affirmed.
So why do we want people to know that we are so industrious? Because busyness is equated with importance, significance and success. We desire to be esteemed and wanted. We are affirmed and valued when we are always on the go. So we become skilled players of the “I’m just so incredibly busy” game.
“How’s your week been, Wayne?” “Oh, so busy, Gary. I had to go to Sydney on Monday for a business meeting; Tuesday I was due to meet with a visiting CEO from the US; Wednesday I had a home group meeting in the evening; Thursday it was off to Auckland to see some clients for two days. And now my business partners have told me I need to fly to London on Monday week to sort out a problem over there. I tried talking them out of it but they said I’m the only one who can do it. I feel exhausted.”
Gary is impressed. “Wow, you have been busy, Wayne. You need a break.” And inside Gary’s head a little tape is running: This guy must be really important; he’s run off his feet. When he asks me how my week has been, how can I embellish it so it sounds like I’m really busy too – and therefore important?
Perhaps a further cause of busyness, at least among Christians, is the desire to avoid being labelled “lazy” – for this is one of the worst of evangelical sins. We work hard to “pull our weight”, and often end up overcompensating. It’s easy to soon become driven.
So far in this chapter we’ve made an underlying assumption that being busy is wrong. At first glance this may seem to go against what we have been taught about the Christian life.
After all, aren’t we called to “give our lives for the cause”, to expend ourselves on behalf of others? And wasn’t it the Puritans and early evangelicals who taught us to view time as a precious resource which should not be wasted?
The answer to this is, of course, yes. We are called to be meaningfully employed in God’s kingdom. In that sense, busyness may not be totally negative. And certainly there are times in our lives when we must urgently complete a task. Nehemiah was in just such a bind as he raced to finish the walls of Jerusalem before his enemies could exploit the weak points. Farmers can’t afford to lose a minute when the time is right for bringing in the harvest.
However, when in this chapter we refer to busyness we mean the overwhelming and persistent feeling that there are just too many things to do, too many people to see … and too little time to get it all done.
All of us go through busy patches. But when busyness becomes a way of life – a regular habit – it turns destructive.
Busyness will often divert our energy away from the most important issues of life, and undermine what we were made for. Our homes can become railway stations or B&B’s; our stress levels go through the ceiling; there is little or no time for growing relationships; we often have the feeling we are busy with so many things, but really not doing any of them justice; time for nurturing spiritual disciplines is sacrificed; reflection, prayer and relationship with God are squeezed out.
These are just some of the results of being habitually busy. Such a lifestyle also puts pressure on other resources, like money. Our frantic state may lead us to take shortcuts for meals – eating out frequently, buying more takeaways and pre-prepared meals, options which cost a lot more and put pressure on our finances.
The pace of life we set for ourselves can cause us a lot of damage. But is there anything we can do about it?
Robert Banks, All the Business of Life (Sydney: Albatross, 1987) page 63.
John De Graaf, David Wann, Thomas Naylor, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2001) page 44.
Noted in Affluenza, as a result of a personal interview with Ms Schor.
There are several ways to get our busy lives in better balance.
Discovering your SoulPurpose allows you to work out what your priorities should be.
Frequently we take on roles and tasks that don’t fit who we are. This might be through a sense of obligation or of supposed importance. More likely it’s because we simply haven’t worked out where we fit in God’s scheme of things. Discovering who we are and who we’re not, and being content in that, will help us to build a grid which sifts the stuff we should be doing from the stuff we shouldn’t. You might call it strategic living.
There’s another angle on getting our priorities back in line. It’s learning the value God places on relationships. This is a lesson Martha had to learn – the hard way, as Luke recalls:
As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home. She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said. But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.”
The Master said, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it – it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.” (Luke 10: 40-41, The Message).
Martha was anxious to produce a welcoming meal. Is that important? Absolutely. Luke tells us about this incident not so that we should rate the spiritual level of different activities. He’s not saying it is more spiritual or important to sit down and spend time with Jesus than it is to do the dishes. The point Jesus was making was that activism shouldn’t rule our lives. There are strategic times when relationships need to take priority. At those times “productivity” should take a back seat. Knowing when to be active and when to relate, reflect, and pray is a critical act of discernment.
Many of us can identify with Martha. There’s a lot to be said for getting things done and out of the way. But Mary and Martha had all too few opportunities for sitting down and talking with Jesus. On this occasion Martha was wasting a rare opportunity. It’s important to discern the appropriate thing to do in each situation. We need to live strategically…
Saying no is one of the most important skills you can learn. It can become easier when you understand how you were made and what you are called to be involved in. (The activities of the previous chapters will have helped you identify this more clearly.) What is it that God is calling you to make the primary involvement of your life? That’s what you should focus on. When people are laying on you the expectation that you should deal with a particular problem (or you are laying that expectation on yourself), ask these questions.
Am I the right person to do this?
Is it something I am equipped to deal with?
Are there others who could do it as well or better?
What other priorities do I have at this time?
Should I really be putting them aside in order to deal with this?
It’s true that there can be times when we sense God asking us to do things which don’t “fit” well who we are. But that should be a conscious decision we make, rather than simply responding to the needs of the moment.
Remember, there will always be more opportunities and needs out there than any one of us can deal with. Learning to sense which ones God wants us to be involved in, and to feel okay about saying no to others, is critical if we want to make a difference. Time is a gift from God – but it’s a limited gift.
Which leads to the next point…
None of us is called to save the whole world. That’s God’s job! When we accept internally that we are simply junior partners with God in his work, it substantially alters our perspective. The air of indispensability is gone.
Sometimes we simply have too high a view of what we are doing. That can distort our priorities so that we end up worshiping our work.
Life is not meant to be all about activity. Genesis is clear on this. The example of God’s work in creating the Cosmos should act as a template for us in our activity. What did God do after six days?
God took a break.
Through the Bible we discover that God has established natural rhythms for healthy living – and in one case (the 24-hour day) he even assisted us by turning off the lamp! So we have day and night; and we have working week and Sabbath. It doesn’t end there. Israel’s calendar also included regular “religious festivals” (some lasting several days), the sabbatical year (every seventh year when the land was rested) and the year of Jubilee (the 50th year – after seven sets of seven years).
With all of these God intended to structure into the normal schedule of work a balancing rhythm of rest. How we do this in our modern and largely urban context is a personal challenge we all must face. But rest we must – not only because our weary minds and bodies need a “breather”, but also because for our own health we need to constantly realign ourselves with our Creator and his Creation.
Jesus is our ultimate example. As Os Guinness says, for Jesus “…spirituality is plainly not a life of contemplation divorced from a life of action…There is only the rhythm of engagement and withdrawal, work and rest, dispensing and recharging, crowds and solitude, in the midst of one of the shortest, busiest public lives ever lived.”
Strikingly, one of the features of NZ society in the past fifteen years is that Sunday has become like every other day of the week. On what used to be the day of rest, shops are now open and sporting events held. This means that we have to be much more intentional about building the weekly rhythm of rest into our lives.
For example, an acquaintance who has very busy weekends tells us that ten years ago God spoke to him quite specifically about taking every Wednesday off. Though it has been hard at times he has held to this commitment, and reckons that he has actually been more productive as a result.
Our lives are generally too cluttered – with things, desires, and activities which are not helping us to live faithful lives of discipleship. We need to think seriously about simplifying our lifestyle and lowering our expectations. Richard Foster comments that:
“(Christian simplicity) allows us to see material things for what they are – goods to enhance life, not to oppress life. People once again become more important than possessions. Simplicity enables us to live lives of integrity in the face of the terrible realities of our global village.”
The call to simplicity is not a call to do away with material possessions. Neither is it some kind of mystical extraction from our culture – a total rejection of all that modern life offers. Rather it is an approach that enables us to see the wood from the trees. What is really important about this life comes clearly into focus, while the clutter is sifted out. In such a state, our real priorities are able to be lived out.
Many of us actually have a standard of living well beyond what we need. Tragically we don’t realise it. For most of us really do think that we are “just getting by”. However, when we dig below the surface of our expenditure we can soon discover that we have chosen or bought into a particular standard of living. Our choice of home (size, geographical location, features, material it’s built of), our living situation, transport, furniture and furnishings, entertainment, eating habits, holiday options, etc., all dictate the standard of living we choose to maintain. As we stated in our book Where’s God on Monday? :
Many of us can actually live on substantially less with very little pain. Buying a house in a cheaper area of town and then resisting the desire to “upgrade”; buying a second-hand vehicle that has already depreciated substantially but still has good life in it; settling for mainly second-hand furniture; eating out only occasionally; keeping one’s wardrobe to a minimum and wearing clothes till they are well-worn; choosing cheaper forms of entertainment and holidays – all these are some of the practices we’ve pursued over the years. And they have reduced the cost of living substantially. During the years of greatest expense (teenage children!), simplifying our standard of living has meant much less financial pressure on us than on many of our friends. We are content to live on a lower income and therefore have more time and energy to give to other matters – including rest.
A simpler lifestyle affects our role as consumers in modern society. Writing over thirty years ago, Alvin Toffler noted the huge complexities developing for people through what he described as “overchoice” – “the point at which the advantages of diversity and individualisation are cancelled by the complexity of the buyer’s decision-making process.”
We are faced by too many choices on too many products. Having to decide between a dozen different cereals at the supermarket is challenge enough. But then just down the aisle is another choice – and another – and another.
The skills required to negotiate through such a gridlock of choice are increasingly important. Savvy consumers read a lot and investigate the pros and cons of particular brands and models. But with each new invention we complicate our lives still further – rather than simplifying things. This is hardly helpful for our spirituality, and it frequently makes our lives even more hectic.
There are no easy answers to the state of overchoice we find ourselves in. It will help if we can keep “essential” requirements to a minimum, and if we can regularly remind ourselves and each other of the problem. As with so many matters of healthy living, this is a dilemma which is easier to face when we do it with like-minded people. Talking these things over with alert and supportive friends can keep us sensitive to the issue.
Learning to shut the office door for a few minutes of relative solitude; pulling to the side of the road and turning the truck engine off; putting on a video for our preschool children while we take a coffee into our bedroom for half an hour’s peace – these habits are necessary in order to nurture our spirituality (to say nothing of our sanity!).
This type of slowing down is, in reality, a spiritual discipline. However, as Os Guinness points out:
“Neither of the two terms in ‘spiritual discipline’ comes easily to us as modern people – we are by nature neither spiritual nor disciplined.”
So we have to work at it! Till it becomes as natural to us as breathing.
When we provide these suggestions for dealing with our incessant busyness, we are not trying to construct a neat “10 steps” programme. What causes our overly hectic lifestyles is a complex mass of demands that won’t be dismissed easily or simplistically. Our circumstances and responsibilities differ, and as a result the challenges are greater for some of us than for others.
Nevertheless, we hope that this chapter will be a catalyst. We hope that it will help you, and us, to aim for more consistency between what we really believe in and have been “made for” … and the reality of our day-to-day living.
Busyness is a bit like passive smoking! None of us can avoid the effects totally – unless we cloister ourselves away. But that means either being a closed sect removed from the culture; or, by opting out of the “rat race”, selfishly protecting our time and resources for our own indulgence. The latter is definitely not an option for a Christian, (and even if it was, we suspect busyness is so much in our blood we would soon get bored!).
The purpose of working against the downsides of busyness is not so we can indulge ourselves more. Far from it. It is exactly the opposite. It’s so we can be more effective, focused and productive partners with God.
A friend draws a distinction between a busy life and a full life. One could easily dismiss this as just playing with words, but he has a point. It might be a busy day if we rush around vacuuming, cleaning windows, weeding the garden and trimming the edges. It would be a day used to the full if we leave the hedge unclipped and instead spend an hour under the shade of a tree with a favourite book. It might be a busy week if we work late each night getting that recommendation paper finished on time for the boss. It would be a week used to the full if at one point we drop what we’re doing and visit friends who have had a disaster. It might be a busy year if we work long hours getting our new business up and running. It would be a year used to the full if we down tools when we see the signals that a client is having a bad time and needs someone to talk to, or a shoulder to lean on.
A full life is one that values balance and integration. A full life calls for sensitivity – to what God is doing, to the needs of others, and to our own needs. And it’s the kind of life that is free enough to be wonderfully spontaneous at times – dropping what we’re doing to help someone else or to play a game with a child, to throw a party or to send someone a gift. When we allocate our time we reveal subtle yet critical values.
We suspect this is something of what Jesus had in mind when he said, “I came so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullest.” (John 10:10, CEV).
Erma Bombeck’s little prose If I had my life to live over, picks up some of the sentiments of living a full rather than a busy life. It’s worth reflecting on:
If I had my life to live over…
I would have talked less and listened more.
I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded.
I would have eaten popcorn in the “good” living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace.
I would never have insisted that the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed.
I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage.
I would have sat on the lawn with my children and not worried about the grass stains.
I would have cried and laughed less while watching television and more while watching life.
I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren’t there for the day.
When my kids kissed me impetuously I would never had said, “Later, now go get washed for dinner.”
There would have been more “I love you”, more “I’m sorry…”
But mostly given another shot at life, I would seize every minute look at it and really see it… live it… and never give it back.
I would tell all my friends that I need them and love them and that my life would be empty without them!
Of the reasons given for busyness, which ones especially affect you?
If unrealistic expectations from your employer is one reason you can identify, write down as specifically as you can what you think are reasonable expectations. Schedule a meeting with him/her to discuss these expectations, and to see if you can agree on a common list of solutions that are fair both to you and to your employer.
Think about the pressures you find yourself under at present. Which of these are external (for example, the demands or expectations that others place on you) and which ones are internal (inner compulsions or “voices from the past” such as a need to please, to be a perfectionist, to live at a certain standard or to achieve certain goals)? Are there any ways in which you feel you are a “driven” person? What steps can you take to change this? What help do you need to change?
Think about how you take time out or do things just for yourself. Which of these activities cause you to slow down and “unbusy” yourself? Which ones just reinforce the hectic pace of life you experience the rest of the week? Which of these activities are genuine energy gainers (i.e. recharge your batteries) and which ones are actually energy drainers (sucking more of your energy)?
Take time to meditate on the following words of Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30 The Message)…. “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
What are some examples of overchoice in your local shopping centre at the moment?
What are some other possible reasons for life being constantly busy?
Tom Wright comments: “Only in a society that has its priorities drastically wrong could a football pools advertisement shout, ‘You’ll never work again!’ and mean it as a promise, rather than a threat.” How do we help each other to see that the purpose of “unbusying” ourselves is not so we can live even more self-indulgent lives – taking it easy and “enjoying life” – but so that we can concentrate on living holy lives of obedience?
4. Discuss some of the following quotes:
“All junior executives should know that if they work hard ten hours a day, every day, they could be promoted to senior executives so that they can work hard for fourteen hours a day.” John Capozzi
“Although people will pay to fix their stress, they are not about to change the lifestyle that is causing it.” David C. McCasland
“If the most conscientious physician were to attempt to keep up with the literature by reading two articles per day, in one year this individual would be more than eight hundred years behind.” Octo Barnett M.D.
“Work expands to fill the time available.” Parkinson’s Law
Os Guinness, The Call (Nashville: Word, 1998) page 159.
Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981) page 3.
Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (London: Bodley Head, 1970) page 239.