Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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You CAN Have It All (Some Restrictions Apply)

In my weekly reading I came across an updated version of a classic. Life is like juggling as many balls in the air as we can. All of the balls are made of rubber; drop one or two or whatever and you just pick ’em up on the bounce. All of the balls except for family. The family ball is made of glass.

Drop the family ball and it shatters.

Some years ago I wrote an essay that pretty much said that you CAN’T have it all. It was accurate for the times, not because it was harder to have it all back then but because having it all actually meant having EVERYTHING. Man, was I attacked for saying that. One Academic ER doc, a woman, came at me with a classic ad hominem attack. Not a word about what I wrote (the only thing she actually knew about me), but plenty about the person who wrote the piece. Not very helpful, frankly, or conducive to productive dialogue. Wonder what she’d have said if she’d known about my advocacy on behalf of my younger colleagues, particularly women. In any event, it’s time for an update.

My daughter and I have had a brilliant ongoing discussion about what most people label “work-life balance”. Megan and I agree that no such thing exists because the whole concept is built upon a false construct. “Work” is a part of “life”. It is inextricably a part of life and therefore cannot be carved out as something that is inherently separate and equal to whatever it is that one calls “life”. My old CrossFit world provides a very nice analogy in the discussion of functional movements like the squat. A squat is a movement that is a unified whole. You cannot break it down into pieces/parts and train them separately.

Doing leg extensions, hamstring curls, and leg pushes does not train the squat.

What Megan and I have settled on is “Harmony”, a state in which all of the aspects of life ebb and flow into and out of play. Think of the various instruments in an orchestra playing a complex composition. It is as obvious when a life lacks harmony as it is when a single instrument is out of step with the rest of the orchestra. Too much or too little, too fast or too slow, you always “see” it when harmony is lost.

What, then, is different in our understanding of “having it all” today compared with 9 or 10 years ago. As always my understanding, and consequently my ability to enunciate my understanding, has been enhanced by a better, more accurate vocabulary. You can, indeed, have it all, but you must think long and hard about what “it all” means to you. The misperception then, and now, is that “having it all” means having EVERYTHING. You can’t have everything. No one can have everything. Whatever you think “it all” means, for sure it doesn’t mean “everything”.

There’s more to it, though. Once you have taken the measure of what belongs in your own “all” basket, harmony comes when you realize that you can’t have it “all” at the same time. All of the things in your “all” basket take the lead at times, and fade a bit toward the background at others. Again, the metaphor of the orchestra is apt: there’s an oboe there somewhere but it’s not always playing. You simply can’t have it “all” all at the same time.

You can have it all, but all doesn’t mean everything. Even if you have it all, you can’t have it all the time. So where does my little juggling epiphany fit in? We all know people who we admire for keeping many balls in the air while spinning a dozen plates on sticks. When they occasionally drop a ball here or there we uniformly react with something like “of course you drop one every now and again.”

But what if it’s the family ball? The one that’s not even a little bit rubber but actually the thinnest glass imaginable? Each of us also knows that career-driven person who always puts family second (or lower). Takes every assignment. Works when they’re home, by choice. What of them? (And don’t @me about those true heroines/heroes who work 2 or more jobs just to keep a roof over the family’s heads and food in their tummies; I’m clearly talking about people who have choices to make).

Family, like work, isn’t really a “stand alone” part of life either. However, as I get older, as I watch another generation raise their families while simultaneously watching the generation that raised us leave the arena, it becomes clear that harmony is much more difficult to achieve if you don’t handle the family ball as if it is, indeed, the fragile element that it is. “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” How often have you heard that one? Pretty accurate, that. For those of us “managing” the lives of elderly parents and relatives it often seems as if we are only as happy as our least happy elder, too. Do you wonder what, or more accurately who will be there when it is you that is on that final glide path?

I can’t help feeling as if the place of family in one’s own experience of harmony will determine how that final flight goes.

I dunno. Maybe the juggling quote weakens my thesis about life and work and harmony, but I think not. Whether you buy into Megan’s and my concept of harmony or continue to feel that “balance” is the better construct, “work” is not the other side of the teeter totter from “life”. Family is. Without adequately caring for the family part of whichever equation you wish to use stuff just doesn’t work. There is no balance. Harmony is unachievable.

You CAN have it all, as long as the well-being of your family is the first part of “all” you create and take care of.

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