Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Balance and Symmetry

I am sitting on the somewhat battered third-floor deck of a beach house on St. George Island in Florida, wearing a Key West t-shirt and typing despite the sun glare on my laptop screen.  Some things don't change so much.

But others do.  I've been quiet for about six weeks, thinking about what I'm thinking about.    I've tried a few posts, but they remain in draft form, wholly unsatisfactory.  I don't know whether I'll keep posting sermons or not, as they speak increasingly to a specific small community in decline, a community which I hope will open itself to an expanding spiritual life even as it makes some hard decisions about whether to continue open its physical doors at all.

Meanwhile, for myself, I've been wondering about a few things.

The first: How important to life are balance and symmetry? 

In my denomination, as in many others, would-be pastors are required to complete 400 hours of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) ~ a clinical experience in a hospital, or a hospice, or some other setting in which people are in need of the care of a chaplain ~in order to qualify for ordination. People generally think of CPE as a program for "learning to be a chaplain," but, in reality. most of CPE is focused, via lots of reflective writing and individual and group conferences, on issues which extreme stress reveals about oneself, and on learning to manage one's interior life while serving others.

Our CPE supervisor was found of challenging us with questions about things that had happened in our lives and in our ministry, questions designed to make us uncomfortable and questions which often made me feel as if I were responsible for the bad things which happened to this generally good person.  The result? Since my CPE summer, which was quickly followed by the death of my son (and anyone who has lost a child, especially to suicide, knows that the question of responsibility looms large), I've become more, rather than less, reluctant, to focus on such questions.

More recently, however, it has occurred to me to look for common threads in my life, not in order to ascribe blame, but in order to ask what they tell me about the experience of life, life as I have lived it and as it might be of help to others.  Thus, the questions of balance and symmetry.

Think about it:

A broken ankle and sprained foot, a severe and debilitating injury, one which for nearly five months now has affected my capacity for balance and my ability to do much of anything for which two feet and two legs are required.

Breast cancer, which destroyed the symmetry of my appearance in a fairly significant way. Once I had recovered from all those surgeries, my exterior life remained unaltered and, having previously lost a child, a cancer diagnosis ranked fairly low on my personal scale of measurement. Still, when I take off that Key West t-shirt, what I see is a fairly ugly scar where I once took symmetry for granted.

The double-vision crisis a few springs ago.  That one introduced me to the profession of neuro-opthoamology, but resolved itself in about ten weeks, and I've largely forgotten about it.  But for most of that period, I saw everything in pairs and at an angle, which made any sort of physical maneuvering a doubtful proposition.  No symmetry, no balance.

The death of my son. It is difficult for me to imagine any life-event more destructive of one's sense of balance than the death of a child, especially a death to suicide.  Everywhere I go, he is missing.  Everywhere I look, one of my twin boys is nowhere to be seen. Every day is an exercise in life experienced as walking along the edge of a vast and bottomless cavern into which one of the most beloved of people has vanished, knowing that if the light of life does not outweigh that terrible darkness, then we are all lost.   Perhaps, then, balance is not important at all. Perhaps the crucial factor for survival is that the lightness of being outweigh the heft of absence.

And, as has occurred to me only recently, the death of my mother.  I have lived almost my entire life without the balancing act usually manifested by a two-parent household.  And it's not as if the missing half were still out there in another form, as in a divorce, or as if it happened when I myself was more or less grow to wholeness.  I have walked the whole of my conscious life's journey without the person who most made it possible, and with the sense that the sands upon which we journey are in a constant state of flux.

What does any of this have to say about the future, or about serving others in ministry? 

Perhaps I have merely been misled by the obvious patterns of symmetry in much of the created world, misled into ascribing to balance a value it simply does not possess.  Perhaps that is a near-universal misconception, and is why we feel so thrown off-kilter when our lives are shattered in ways not possible to repair.
Perhaps lack of symmetry and shifting terrain are the foundational realities of our existence, and the sooner grasped, the better.  After all, the earth tilts on its axis, and spins on the far edge of one of billions of galaxies.
Perhaps rather than seeking coherence, something I've been doing for quite awhile, I should be embracing the expansion, of the universe and of my own very small life.


  1. So much to think about in this post. Thank you.

  2. I have long favoured the idea of equilibrium over balance. Equilibrium to the lay person may have more strict symmetry requirements than balance, but to the chemist this is not so. To the chemist any chemical reaction which exists at equilibrium is in a dynamic state. Two chemical reactions are occurring at equal rates but the position of the equilibrium is variable. The position of equilibrium shifts to adapt to changes in the system - like a change in concentration of one reagent. The equilibrium shifts, one reaction speeds up a little and the overall composition changes, but equilibrium is restored again after a while. It is a little different, but once again at equilibrium.
    To me - things like the loss of your son are life events which change the position of the equilibrium forever. The presence of the loss remain and the new position of the equilibrium may still feel a little odd and perhaps even unnatural. It may take a long time to live into. But it has a rhythm and dynamic of its own which can survive small perturbations.
    I guess, to me, equilibrium implies the capacity to absorb changing circumstances. The equilibrium itself is shifted in the process and may take time to reestablish, but the system has the capacity to find a new equilibrium which takes into account the changes.

  3. Mags, can you explain that more concretely, perhaps with an example from chemistry, to a layperson completely ignorant of chemical reactions?

  4. PS: Yesterday we went to a museum explaining the Apalachicola estuary and it's fluctuating levels of salt and fresh water, and then on a boat trip where we heard about and saw the same thing. I suppose that's what you mean? Certain plants die and others thrive depending upon the water concentration and, interestingly, the appearance of the water changes as well. For instance, a nearby bay is much bluer and to the average tourist appears clearer and "nicer" but is in fact dying. So with the spiritual life devoid of tension.

  5. Its.

    No wonder there are so many punctuation errors online. Spellcheck loves apostrophes!

  6. And . . . Ignatius's concept of balance and equilibrium would be interesting to explore. When I get home!

  7. You are near the ocean this week. Somewhere you have seen boats. The phrase "On an even keel" comes to mind. As boats sail, the keel is not always even and it must change its attitude (whatever it is called in sailing) to stay afloat. Weather changes on the water and in life too.

    Terrible and inadequate analogies, I know, my view is that you are one very sturdy boat, even with repairs and changes. You still don't quite know what your life and trials and triumphs have done for so many others. Please keep up your writing, whatever turn it takes. God does use you for so many others, often those you don't know about.


  8. I tend to think of balance and symmetry (in the universal sense) as similar to socialism: they're nice constructs that work well enough in an approximate environment, but the real world isn't so simple. Nature is full of extremes, cruelties, evolutions and failures. We're attracted to notions like balance because they imply some kind of control or constant in a world that's always changing around us. In truth, I think we are more accountable to chance than we'd like to think, and our only hope is to cope with the lot we've been given. The comment above about equilibrium seems right on. We aren't moving towards balance, only stability, for whatever stability means in our system. (Archimedes is a good read for a layperson. At least he was for me!)

    I'm also reminded of the principle that nature abhors a vacuum. Whatever we lose must be filled again, whether it's grief in place of joy or strength in place of weakness, etc. I should probably ask myself about what losses have been created in my life, and how they've been filled...

    1. Perhaps the sense of imbalance arises from the presence of gaps that will not be filled.

  9. There is much amazing symmetry in the universe, and I think it attracts us because it seems so marvelous that it exists at all in our huge, diverse world (and beyond.) I think we are mistaken if we believe that the Universe somehow elevates symmetry above asymmetry. But I do believe that sometimes the Almighty does present examples to us of things for us to ponder, when it seems necessary for us to ponder them. It's our job not to restrict that pondering, but to open ourselves to answers and ideas that we would never expect. We might be searching for answers among the grains of sand on the beach, when the answer is fluttering above our heads waiting for us to look up.

  10. Robin, I'm so glad I decided to check and see if you had posted anything new. You raise a lot to think about and I really appreciate Mags' thoughts about equilibrium as well. It is necessary to step back from our lives periodically and discern our path so I understand why you need to take time away from your blog; however (you know something is coming when you see that word), I need to mention that you have a gift for reaching people through your writing. Enjoy your time in Florida. Blessings and prayers.

  11. Balance and symmetry can be a good thing, I like to "feel" balanced or at least feel as if I am working toward more balance rather than less. But the truth is, before long I get bored. Perhaps, after so much change, tilt, lack of symmetry, in my life, I have just grown used to change? So what is normal, if change is the norm? What is balance, if lack of symmetry is the norm? For me, balance has something more to do with an inner sense of peace, more than the circumstances. Most disconcerting when I cannot summon that inner peace. That rarely happens, but it does happen, even now, from time to time. Angst. and. Peace. Balance?