If you hope to live a healthy, spiritual, productive life, there’s probably no principle more important than finding balance in all things.
Time and hard experiences have taught me that extremism, even in good things, is a sure path to disappointment if not destruction. Overdone, even a good thing becomes a bad thing.
This principle applies to every area of life.
It might surprise you, for instance, to learn the Bible warns us about becoming too religious.
Here’s what the writer of Ecclesiastes said millennia ago:
“Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself? Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.”
I especially love the line, “It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other.”
It’s as if the world is always pulling us in two (or more) directions, and our challenge is to hold steady somewhere near the middle, to not get pulled off our feet and dragged toward an abyss.
If we’re too pious, the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests, we’ll become arrogant, self-righteous prigs. No one, including God, will be able to stand us. Our inflexibility will define us.
If we’re too sinful, on the other hand, we’ll veer into all sorts of rebellious excesses and destructive habits that might lead us to an early death.
There’s trouble on either side. Find a position between those extremes, Ecclesiastes warns. Be a little holy and a little wicked, too — an odd suggestion for the Bible to make.
As I said, this principle — balance — applies to every arena.
If you go on too severe a diet, if your forgo all fat or all carbohydrates, you’ll become malnourished and endanger your health.
But if you eat everything your gut desires, loading up on soda and pies and mashed potatoes and chips, you’ll also end up malnourished and endanger your health.
It’s healthier to choose a balanced diet.
Or, if you sell your soul entirely to science, you’ll miss some of the most beautiful of life’s joys, things that can’t be verified in a test tube or calculated on a supercomputer: romantic love, faith in God, poetic vision.
If you give yourself over entirely to love, faith and poetry, however, you may become ignorant of science’s countless benefits or dismissive of empirical facts generally. You may ignore your doctor’s advice or fail to save for your old age or engage in some other type of magical thinking that will destine you to much unnecessary grief.
If you save all the cash you ever earn in Mason jars you bury in your back yard, clip every grocery coupon, buy day-old bread and off-brands and never treat yourself to a vacation or a nice dinner out or new clothes, you’ll end up rich, perhaps. But you’ll also be a miserable miser whose money has done him no good.
If you blow through every sawbuck you get your hands on, if you’re broke by the day after payday because you live in a house that’s too big, drive a car that’s too plush and wear a $10,000 wristwatch you’re making payments on, you’ll be a spendthrift who eventually loses everything.
On and on it goes. Work. Entertainment. Parenting. Marriage.
Want to be truly healthy, prosperous, spiritual and happy?
Strive for balance.
How do we do that?
First, we can remember there’s always a competing version to every story. Again, I refer to the Bible: “Every story sounds good — until you hear the other side.”
Thus we must avoid binary thinking. We need to develop the habit of looking at the other side of everything.
If your most dearly held truth can be reduced to a bumper sticker, you’re possibly an extremist. Usually, real truth is subtle, complicated and amorphous. One side makes some good points, and so does the other, and the wisest answer exists between the two poles.
If you’re sure the solution to our immigration issues is to bar every last immigrant at gunpoint, or, conversely, if you think the solution is to let in anybody and everybody who wants to come here, you’re probably out of whack either way.
Apply this principle to prison reform, taxation, the Second Coming, fad diets, whatever.
Second, be suspicious whenever you hear yourself demonizing a particular idea or group of people — or deifying some idea or group. Humans are neither devils nor angels.
If you’ve decided that, say, all priests are child molesters, or that all men are toxic pigs, or that all atheists are anarchists, then pause and rethink.
Some priest are molesters; some are protectors. Some men are toxic; some are gentle. Some atheists are idiots; some are kind neighbors.
Basically, to find balance, we’ve got to be able to hold more than one idea in our head at the same time. We’ve got to hold onto one thing without letting go of the other.