I realized something interesting today. Life, of course, is a game of balance. We can’t kill ourselves working too hard, but without meaningful work our lives are empty. No person is an island, but we don’t want to drown in the sea of society. This balancing act shows up in many different philosophies, especially Buddhism’s middle way, Aristotle’s golden mean, and (sort of) the Taoist yin and yang.
Recently I’ve been thinking about the balance between compassion and justice. On the one hand, as Shakespeare said, the quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. On the other hand, humans need to be reprimanded for their errors or malicious deeds — otherwise we tend to believe the myth that our bad actions have no harmful effects for us.
As a teacher, I am confronted by this question on a regular basis. I believe compassion, loving-kindness, and forgiveness are supreme virtues that should be exercised constantly, especially by adults in positions of authority. Punishing children may be necessary, but it’s hard to do — and it’s easy to get carried away on a power trip. So I try to be understanding and patient.
On the other hand, any teacher on the planet can tell you that when you give a student a little bit of leeway, s/he will push and shove in an attempt to grab more. Eventually it’s easy for the teacher to feel like a pushover or doormat. To make matters worse, lax discipline in one classroom can make life more difficult for the next teacher.
Mark Twain wrote a perfect crystallization of this dilemma in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Tom’s Aunt Polly feels bad for not being more strict with the mischievous boy. She says:
I ain’t doing my duty by that boy, and that’s the Lord’s truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says. I’m a laying up sin and suffering for us both, I know. He’s full of the Old Scratch, but laws-a-me! he’s my own dead sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him, somehow. Every time I let him off, my conscience does hurt me so, and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks.
So our lives are forever caught in this sort of impossible balancing act. We have to exercise and keep up with the news, but leisure is a guaranteed human right. Delicious food is yummy, but eating healthy is so very important. We can’t obsess over what other people think about us, but we don’t want to be clueless buffoons or scumbags who constantly (and probably unwittingly) anger or belittle people.
So here’s the interesting thing I realized: We can never achieve a perfect balance. Sometimes we’re going to work ourselves too hard, and other times we’ll be shiftless and lazy. Sometimes we’ll be too hard on kids, and other times we’ll be too lenient. Sometimes we’ll feel like we need more me-time, and other times we’ll feel isolated and lonely.
Sometimes I strive to achieve this perfect balance, and I get angry with myself if/when I don’t strike it. But now I realize that’s just a trap of the ego. (The ego has so many devious traps! Side note: The song “HelloHiHey” by Lifesavas is probably the best text about the ego created in the last 50 years.)
The key is not to strive for an impossible balance, but to know thyself — there it is again, temet nosce — and be aware of when you need to switch from one side of the scale to the other.
Here, I’ll embed “HelloHiHey” for easy listening/reading. (The lyrics are part of this video.) Enjoy!