Ten thousand birds

“As long as you’re working, juggling the demands of career and personal life will probably be an ongoing challenge.”
~ The Mayo Clinic

In today’s hectic world, who hasn’t felt like a juggler trying to keep all the balls in play, or worse, like a tightrope walker struggling to stay on the wire? For many people, this circus act is a way of life.

Wouldn’t you much rather be lying under a tree somewhere, with soft grass cushioning your back and lazy white clouds floating overhead in the clear blue sky? Ever wonder just why it’s so relaxing to be near a tree? Even closing my eyes and picturing myself under my favourite tree has an instant soothing effect.

It turns out that this image can do a lot more to help us than provide a momentary escape from reality.

Recently I chatted with Susana Christiansen, a philosopher and mentor who tries to help women achieve balance in their lives—using a fresh new perspective.

“Women in the 21st century want to be mothers, wives, professionals, citizens … all at the same time,” Christiansen observes. “Nowadays, when you think about balance, a common image that comes to mind is that of a circus performer: a juggler or a tightrope walker. Maintaining balance in life often becomes nothing more than a difficult exercise in equilibrium.”

highwire act
Photo by Laura Bittner

Imagine Nik Wallenda crossing Niagara Falls. Pretty harrowing, right? Now, imagine a tree with strong roots and healthy branches. Both the tree and the tightrope walker manage to stay upright, but they achieve this in very different ways.

Christiansen says this is due to an important distinction between balance and equilibrium.

She explains: a system in equilibrium is based on the tension between its elements. It is a closed system, because it depends on a set number of elements that have achieved stability by adjusting to each other. Change one of the elements or introduce a new one—toss the juggler another ball, blow a gust of wind at the tightrope walker—and, tension building, the elements must start adjusting all over again in order to avoid collapse.

Building on principles from Spanish philosopher Leonardo Polo, Christiansen says that a tree, on the other hand, is an open system: organic, dynamic, open to growth, and capable of supporting other elements that are introduced to it. A bird resting on a tree’s branch does not cause the tree to topple over. If the tree is strong enough, it can even accommodate a person clambering up its trunk, hold a tree-house securely in its branches.

CypressI come from British Columbia, land of ancient, towering cypresses. In one park, visitors can walk on bridges suspended between five of the tallest trees. A sign advises that the added weight does not hurt the trees at all; in fact, it only makes them stronger.

We are easily impressed by the height of giant trees, but imagine what the root systems of such trees must be like. How far down they must go, to be able to nourish the tree and support it, even through the worst storms. “A tree’s stability,” observes Christiansen, “depends not on tension between elements but on the richness at its source.”

As the Burmese proverb says, “Ten thousand birds can perch on one good tree.”

To maintain life balance, then, it is much more useful to employ the model of the tree than that of the tightrope walker, because human beings also are open systems, with the capacity to support many other systems and to make many choices in the course of each day.

“Trees know what is good for their growing,” says Christiansen. “We need to be more like that.” There are many practical conclusions that can be drawn from this comparison, but what it means, essentially, is an awareness that I am the one living my life. The things I do in the course of the day must be out of my free, conscious decisions, not just in reaction to whatever gets thrown at me by way of my professional and personal obligations. Above all, I must make my decisions without fear of risk.

“People want guarantees that they are making the right decisions,” says Christiansen. But in life, she points out, there are no guarantees—no such thing, really, as “right” decisions. I can only make sound decisions—choosing what I consider to be the the best thing from a series of objectively good things. So sound decision-making requires both will and wisdom: the ability to set priorities, to sort the bad choices from the good ones, to say no to the bad choices and put the good ones in action.

It’s a paradigm shift that brings with it an enormous sense of responsibility, but at the same time an exhilarating freedom—like getting behind the wheel of the car for the first time after you get your driver’s license. This comes as no surprise to Christiansen, who maintains, “Stress is a great enemy of freedom.”

“Human beings are made to be balanced, but not the way a tightrope walker is balanced,” she concludes. “That way is simply too stressful. It’s not natural, and it’s not healthy.”

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