I’ve always used my birthday as a time to stop and think about where I’ve been and where I’m going. The annual tradition is one way I try to build self-awareness and achieve balance. This year in particular, however, I didn’t want to stop. In some ways, I had been stopped all year and I wanted to celebrate my renewed ability to go-go-go. Last year, I had knee surgery four days after my birthday. I spent the next six months rebuilding my strength, and the six months after that rebuilding my strength again after a second surgery. I spent all twelve months chasing literal and metaphoric balance.
Literally, the muscles in my right leg atrophied and stopped working after surgery, and required both electric stimulation and intensive isolated exercises to get them back in shape. In the early days, this meant spending most of the day lying down with my leg elevated, slowly trying to bend it every couple of hours. In the later days, this meant dedicating an entire morning to rehab, then doing mini stretches throughout the day.
Metaphorically, the recovery process and pain inhibited my ability to practice or enjoy much of what typically keeps me emotionally balanced—writing, exercising, cooking, socializing, working, and sleeping. Even if I could occasionally do one or the other, my notion of balance necessitated my ability to do all of it at once.
In some ways, I felt like I was stuck in another person’s body (for better or for worse).
This lack of balance was a stark opposition from the life I have always known. As a child, I was involved in countless activities simultaneously: Multiple styles of dance class, singing lessons, choir, soccer, writing contests, piano, swim team, volunteer work, oil painting, yoga, and I’m probably forgetting a few (school). Despite the occasional overwhelm, I never wished any of them away. I enjoyed what I defined to be a “well-rounded” life, and more importantly, I prided myself in being able to balance everything. The pace I set (or that was set for me) in my childhood is the one I brought forward into my adulthood. Whether or not it’s right, I equated “balance” with “doing many things” and “imbalance” with “failure.”
About six months after my surgery, as I regained my physical balance, I attempted to test my mental balance as well. I outlined an idea for a new book and considered ways I might start to realize my dream of owning a coffee shop. Both of these endeavors required extensive time and energy, which, admittedly, were sparse given how much of my limited time and energy were drained by the recovery process. I set both aside and considered that perhaps I was incapable of the balance I once knew.
Around this time, I learned that I needed to have another surgery. It was as if someone was tugging the rug underneath me as I was trying to stand up. But somehow, I held my ground. I didn’t let it throw me off. I was surprised to find that through the initial months of recovery, I had found a sense of balance amidst the imbalance. I was more adept at riding life’s waves.
Last week, The New York Times published a piece in its Well section about achieving balance. Shockingly, the article isn’t in praise of it. Instead it argues that sometimes, imbalance is a good thing. To get fully consumed by some one aspect of your life (“Falling in love. Writing a book. Trekking in the Himalayas. Training to set a personal record in a triathlon.”) is rewarding in a way that balance sometimes is not. It allows you to fully acknowledge, experience, and appreciate this one thing. With self-awareness, it enables you to excel.
The article summarized my past year in a way that I couldn’t on my own. It made me see the imbalance in my last year not as my destroyer, but as my healer. There is undeniable benefit in giving one person or thing your undistracted attention.
As I look back on my year of imbalance, one thing is true: I was happy. My injury gave me an excuse to slow down and wholly focus. It allowed me to work toward, and achieve, small and big milestones. It reminded me to appreciate the marvels of the human body—my human body. It proved to me the humanity in strangers. It filled me with the care of loved ones.
So in entering another year of my life (this time with more physical balance than last year), I am, for the first time doing so with an eye for healthy and meaningful imbalance. And I’m pretty happy about it.