When most people refer to balance, they envision a successful juggling act. A balanced life is one in which, simultaneously, I keep all my projects going and all my relationships healthy. I achieve this balance by sheer strategy and willpower.
In Christian spirituality, balance has more to do with temperance, which means that we allow our deepest principles to hold our passions in check. As Paula Huston explains in her book By Way of Grace, temperance has been misconstrued in popular language to mean an unhealthy denial of life’s pleasures. But from earliest times Christians have valued spiritual balance.
St. Ignatius spoke of people having “disordered affections”—being ruled by desires rather than free to make wise choices. When we don’t practice temperance, eventually our affections will become disordered. A temperate person honors her desires and passions as gifts from God, but she does not constantly rearrange her life according to the ongoing flux of those desires and passions.
I’ve discovered that whenever I feel pushed, desperate, or hurried, that’s a signal that I need to apply some temperance. When I am driven to act—by my fear, my need to impress, or my own impossible expectations—I allow my perfectly good passions to run away with me. Passions themselves are not bad, but they were never meant to be in charge either.
Most of us can relate to Paula’s story; her desire to give her daughter the perfect wedding led to weeks of frenzy and overwork. One time, when my sister and brother-in-law were visiting, we’d had a full day of sightseeing and had returned home to cook a nice dinner. At about 8 p.m., I started pulling out ingredients to make an apple pie, and my sister stopped me: “Are you on speed?” she asked, laughing at my insistence on providing a homemade dessert. I decided that it was more important to relax and watch a movie with my family than slave over a pie we were too tired to eat anyway.
As an editor, I have to practice temperance; otherwise I would never finish making a manuscript “perfect.” As a writer I practice temperance when I decide that, no, a 16th rewrite of that scene is not necessary.
Parents must practice temperance when it’s time to let go of children, even though we know we could help them organize their lives or choose their friends. Our good desire to help those we love must be tempered by wisdom.
One of the best gifts of temperance is that it frees us to enjoy our loves. When I write, I can throw myself into it completely. And when temperance tells me it’s time to stop writing and do something else, I can put down my work and enter the next thing wholeheartedly.
Identify situations in which you feel pushed, or hurried, or desperate. Can you describe what’s going on, and how you might apply some temperance?