Work-life balance

I read a review today of The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, by David Whyte. He questions the concept of “work-life balance”:

Poets have never used the word balance, for good reason. First of all, it is too obvious and therefore untrustworthy; it is also a deadly boring concept and seems to speak as much to being stuck and immovable, as much as to harmony. There is also the sense of unbalancing that must take place in order to push a person into a new and larger set of circumstances.

I like that! Work-life balance is usually just another thing I’m not doing right or well, or insisting on properly enough. The phrase also implicitly equates life with family – I am missing out on family time if I’m at work. So it’s assuming the world is a zero-sum game. Work is part of life, not the only part but a big fat chunk.

This fellow Whyte’s book talks about three life realms: work, relationship and self. They’re not zero-sum but rather sharing your waking and dreaming hours, supporting or detracting from one another depending on how you set them up. Let’s look at the case of Keri:

So I have work, which I usually love. I’ve been working in a position for almost two years that purports to provide “work-life balance” – which so far means I don’t work ridiculously long hours unless it’s necessary to do so. That’s somewhat limited thinking, right? But whatever, at least I’m not crying myself to sleep from overwork and exhaustion.

Then I have a particular relationship – a cute, weird Spaniard – that is an important part of my days, even more so, like now, when he is in town with me or I with him somewhere. I want to figure that out more, or enjoy it more, or both, because I find him a fascinating mystery, a whole exciting soul different to mine, who also likes to cuddle. I mean, who wouldn’t want that? I also have very important relationships in family and friends, not too many but enough to keep me on Skype each weekend, and permanently consistently always with them on my mind and me on theirs. Important indeed.

And third, there’s Self – not work, and not any relationship, just me. I’m having a harder time getting my head around this one, or at least putting it in words. I am not sure if my book fits there or in “work” – it seems such an extension of me. It’s me, cultivating Keri-ness, on paper. And it doesn’t feel like work. But if I identify too closely with it, won’t I be devastated if it does not get published? And if the book is not self, what is? I think a personal journal would be Self, or a hike in the trees, therapy, dancing, whatever art makes your heart sing (ack! just brought my book back into self…), my view of the world or of wee little specks of it – how Keri puts together the shards of stained glass in her particular pair of rose-coloured glasses, and what she sees when she looks through them.

One quote from the book (which came my way through the review on, a great site) talks about how important this Self part is, and what happens if you don’t cultivate it.

Neglecting this internal marriage, we can easily make ourselves a hostage to the externals of work and the demands of relationship. We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion. It is as if, absent a loving relationship with this inner representation of our self, we fling ourselves in all directions in our outer lives, looking for love in all the wrong places.

I find this a stunning statement. I think I am going to take some me-time to think about and carry out some Self things this week.

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