It All Hangs In The Balance

In the 12 steps, we call it “living in the grey”, in the Catholic Church, it’s called the “narrow road”. Aristotle called it the “Golden Mean”. Balance. The chiseling work of the interior life, of developing a life of virtue.

It’s funny how different religions, philosophies, manners of thinking, can all be saying the same or similar things, but with a language all their own. Eastern religions place prime importance in the value of balance of different forces within the mind as the means to peace. The 12 steps encourage its members to avoid the extremes of black and white thinking and get used to the discomfort of “the grey” in order to maintain sobriety. Catholicism built off of Aristotle, citing the mean between the extremes of excess and deficit as the balance point upon which virtue lies and claims this to be the road to happiness and fulfillment. The secular world chimes in with claims of the importance of work/life balance for peace of mind, and even the fitness world clammers on about the importance of balancing cardio to strength training in order to properly train the body without causing injury. Balance.

By trade I am a physical therapist. In the world of physical therapy, balance is used as an indicator to determine someone’s risk of falls which can essentially be carried over into their “functional independence” to use our jargon, or “risk of dependence”, shall we call it. Balance is the marker of safety from a physical standpoint. I find it poetic that both in the physical and the spiritual worlds proper balance is necessary to keep yourself from harm. Morally when we “fall”, we sin, but I never thought of it as a loss of balance until now.  How interesting. Let’s dig further. 

In older age, a fall can lead to a broken hip, a brain bleed or a broken neck. Whenever I start to investigate a person’s chart and I see lots of X-rays ordered, I can assume with much certainty that there has been a fall. Undoubtedly, something was injured, as they are in the hospital. Sometimes people get lucky and it’s just a bad bone bruise or superficial scrapes. Sometimes people get off the hook without much damage, but a fall is always indicative of another potential fall. It indicates a weakness. If this weakness is not addressed, they will almost certainly fall again, and the next time, they may get very hurt. 

The same can be said of sin. Little white lies don’t hurt very much. They’re easy to forget about and we can not notice the damage they do or portend, but it indicates a weakness, and a weakness, untreated, turns into an injury. Spiritual injuries weaken our desire to do good, especially in the face of hardship. They make us tend toward laziness, selfishness, or even destructiveness.

We seem to have a tendency to avoid hard things, to make sure our own needs get met first, to do things that we want to do and get annoyed when life doesn’t go our way. This tendency toward selfishness and weakness is termed “concupiscence” in the Catholic Church. Yep, there’s an actual name for it. A tendency of the human person that has been studied by philosophers and theologians for centuries. 

If you’re new to the concept, a fairly common example may assist with your understanding. Consider the well-known difficulty of starting a new diet. It’s January 1st. The holidays and general life-stressors have added to your waistline and you aren’t thrilled about how your favorite pair of jeans are fitting. You heard about a new diet a friend of yours had success with. Motivated by their improved looks, compliments received and your own desire to be healthier and less self-conscious, you do the proper research and are ready and determined to start tomorrow. And you do. A solid week goes by, you’re already starting to feel better. Another week goes by and maybe your enthusiasm is starting to wane a little. The third week, it’s a friend’s birthday and you make an exception to your diet plan in order to participate in the festivities, telling yourself you don’t want to be a wet blanket at the party. By the fourth week, however, your motivation is definitely waning, you are having trouble recalling to mind the same level of conviction you felt on January 1st, you had a long day at work and you decide that this diet is not the best fit for your life right now, and you stop.

It’s a slow decline, you convince yourself that you could obviously do the diet again if you wanted to, after all you completed two and a half flawless weeks! You minimize the fact that the first time you didn’t feel like choosing the harder option, you gave in – you bent the rules for them. You cite circumstances that were “out of your control” as a reason to indicate it just wasn’t the right time, but bottom line is…you caved. That is concupiscence, the slow decline into mediocrity, unmet dreams and lackluster efforts. This could be a moment for shame, but it’s absolutely not, it’s simply the human condition! It’s the path of least resistance, we don’t shame water streaming downhill, and we don’t need to shame ourselves for tending toward a thing less taxing! However, at the same time, it is not an excuse to accept behavior that which is less than your God-given dignity.

We fall. What precipitated the fall? A loss of balance. A leaning of our interior selves beyond our metaphysical base of support. Concupiscence is like gravity. As certain as a physical principal in the spiritual world. If you do not resist the force of gravity with your own strength, sensory perceptions and corrections, when you wobble, you will certainly fall. So it is with the spiritual life. If you are not self-aware, not forming your conscience, not working toward growing in wisdom and humility, you will eventually lose your balance, and if your spiritual muscles are not strong, you will fall. 

So how do we strengthen these spiritual muscles? How do we exercise our interior life? Drum roll please… growth in Virtue! This was the crux of the massive shift in my own personal struggle and interior development. Virtue! What the heck is that?! It sounds absolutely silly to be so excited about something that sounds so droll, but there you are. That is the unique flower in God’s garden that I am. I learned that growth in virtue was my way out from the intolerable interior pain I was experiencing in my personal life. It wasn’t an escape, not a short term fix for a long term problem, this, I discovered, was my means to interior freedom.

So if you’ll humor me, I intend to spend the next several posts working through my own understanding of various virtues and how I see them come alive as I work to understand them. I plan to kneed, stretch, inspect, take apart and put back together the most significant ones I have had the gift to stumble upon. The purpose of this is quite selfish. I have this burning desire to know and understand them so that I can actually apply them to my life or realize how I’ve only been feigning them all this time. I want to understand what these words mean. I want to dig into the theological nuances and compare and contrast a secular understanding from the Catholic, because in doing so I believe, as has happened already, that there is an immense richness there that I just didn’t realize I was missing. And perhaps, if you have the endurance to read through my musings, you may be just as mystified and inspired!

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