Saturday, April 3, 2010
The Balancing Act
by Troy Chapman
Prison is a place of imbalance, so living holistically here is a matter of striving always to maintain your balance.
It’s almost a cliché to say that people get assaulted or stabbed here for two-dollar debts or misplaced words and it’s a cliché because it’s true. This is one aspect of the imbalance I was talking about in my last post — the granting of too much importance to relatively unimportant things.
This afflicts staff as well as prisoners. I’ve seen men and women come to work here and literally give themselves heart attacks by waging various wars with prisoners and other staff. While one staff person, seeing someone standing in a doorway (a minor violation) will saunter by and say, “Don’t loiter too long there,” another will begin screaming, take the prisoner’s ID and write a ticket. If the prisoner gets angry and they argue, the staff person will come and tear up his cell in a shakedown or send him to the hole in handcuffs for “threatening behavior.” It’s an unbalanced response to someone stopping in a doorway, but it happens routinely here.
We often internalize these things, worrying obsessively about a look someone gave us or the fact that someone didn’t speak to us when we spoke to them. Or about which officer will be working and whether we’ll have to tiptoe around to avoid a ticket.
These are all imbalances. They’re magnified and concentrated here but I think the same general thing happens outside of prison. Indeed, these imbalances are the result of people being imbalanced, so we see them everywhere.
But I’m curious about framing our problems this way — as imbalances — because it changes the nature of “solutions.” It’s a lot easier, for instance, to begin balancing my thought processes than to “stop worrying.” For me, it’s a virtue to wonder if something I said hurt someone’s feelings, so I don’t want to “get rid” of this habit (even if I could, which I can’t). But after a certain point this virtue becomes a vice. The point at which it does is the same point at which it becomes imbalanced and we’re obsessing about it.
One of the images we’ve used in the Ethics Project for a long time to illustrate well-being is a wheel with our various relationships balanced around the outside rim. There are a couple of ways to create imbalance. One is to pay lopsided attention to relationships — to spend hours a day with a parent and five minutes with a child, for instance. Another way to throw things out of balance, however, is to move the hub of the wheel. This to me represents stepping away from our true center — of the truth or of our own values (which ideally ought to be the same thing).
There are infinite ways to “move the hub.” Religious people who think it’s more important to convert you than to actually relate with you are people with an off-center hub. As are those who believe control of the world outside themselves is important and ultimately good. We’ve all, at one point or another, thought that revenge was more important than forgiveness, that being right was more important than being loving, that proving something to someone was more important than respecting them.
I get my hub off-center pretty much every day but, as a friend pointed out to me once, balance is actually a matter of constantly moving away from and then returning to the center. Our body doesn’t rigidly grab hold of the center of balance and cling to it. Rather, we are constantly swaying minutely around the center. Translated into spiritual and psychological terms, this means I don’t have to be perfect, I simply need to be conscious — to develop the habit of living in reference to the truth and good and keep my eye on these true centers as a traveler watches a landmark. I need to remember what’s important. But with the world screaming at us on full volume and our own impulses tugging at us from every side, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. It’s a balancing act akin to riding a unicycle on stilts.