The Radford Files
The Fuzzy, Superficial World of Balance
Balance. Everybody wants it. Tires and tightrope walkers need it.
It’s a very popular concept in the New Age and holistic healing circles, but what is it? It’s a buzzword that, like natural, is universally desirable but poorly defined. Pills offer emotional balance, books offer spiritual balance, alternative medical therapies offer chi or vibrational balance. The idea, of course, is that in a perfect world, everything is balanced or in equilibrium. People seek innumerable physical and metaphysical methods to bring “balance” to their lives. Balance suggests an even, equitable, harmonious or natural division between substances, states or conditions.
Humans seek and love simplicity. We like dualism and dichotomies. We like good and bad, male and female, East and West, heaven and earth, reality and fantasy, skeptics and believers, balance and imbalance. These categories are convenient, but they are also profoundly vague, superficial and misleading. The world simply isn’t divided into two polar opposites. Yes, there are men and women; there are also homosexuals, transvestites, transsexuals and the intersexed. Yes, there is good and bad, but what is good under some circumstances may be bad in others. It’s simply not true that “you’re either with us or against us.” Binary, dualistic thinking can be dangerous.
Some traditional polar opposites are not really opposites at all. For example, love is not necessarily the opposite of hate. If loving someone is caring for them deeply, then the opposite would be apathy—not caring for them at all. If you are trying to find a balance between love and hate, for example, you may be wasting your time trying to balance the wrong opposite, if you catch my meaning. Even “black and white” is not so black and white; counterintuitively, in the visible spectrum black is actually not all colors combined but instead the absence of color, while white is all colors.
It seems closed-minded to ignore all the wondrous complexity and shades of gray in the world in favor of a binary bias. For me, it’s just those borders, those divisions, those seams that make life fascinating. I like the fact that people and things are not pigeonholed into A or B, and we can celebrate individuality and diversity.
Today many people go to New Age and holistic practitioners to get their chakras, chi or auras balanced. The idea of health being a state of balance has a long history, much of it mired in antiquated medical practice and belief. Ancient people used to believe that disease was caused by an imbalance of fluids in the body called humors. There were four humors: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood. Working under this premise, physicians treated patients by trying to restore harmony and balance among the humors. Bloodletting was a common treatment (veins would be opened with knives and leeches applied to sick patients), along with the use of emetics, laxatives and purgatives. A minority of patients (those who did not die from severe blood loss or infection) recovered and thanked the doctors. So strong was the faith in the humors and balances that the great loss of life was attributed to the original disease, not the treatments.
There is an attractive simplicity to the humor model, though it is obviously incorrect and outdated. If you go to a doctor complaining of illness, perhaps not even the worst quack will search for an imbalance of the humors. Yet many modern alternative medicine practices seek to balance not the humors but other energies or fluids just as unknown to science and medicine. Repeated scientific studies have failed to prove that the human aura, chi or energy field even exist, much less that they are subject to disease-causing imbalances. Alternative medical healers will simply insist that it’s true because that’s what they have been taught, and they “feel the energies” and don’t need the “medical establishment” to validate their approach anyway. If the consequences of their treatment were as severe as their humor-balancing ancestors, they would be sued for malpractice or jailed for gross negligence.
It is medically true that “imbalances” can cause disease in some cases, but not in the way usually assumed. You can view the correct functioning of an organ as being in “balance” if you like, but it is not a medically accurate nor useful label. A kidney or lung that is not working properly or is cancerous is simply that; there is no “imbalance” of substance or energy that need be—or can be—corrected.
Balance also implies a “normal” baseline state of affairs—but how do we know what that state of affairs is? With a concept as elusive and personal as balance, how does one really know when you are balanced? If by achieving balance a person means he or she is perfectly happy, this ideal is unnatural and unsustainable. Normal life has ups and downs, good and bad, joy and sorrow. Real life is not “balanced.” I suppose you could somehow try to strike a balance between the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, but how would that be done practically? Wouldn’t that mean a person who just had a wonderful experience ought to soon seek out a depressing one to keep it all in balance?
The idea of “balance” just gets sillier the more you think about it. Instead, free yourself from the mental chains of binary bias and balance and accept your own unbalanced wonderfulness!
Benjamin Radford is a writer, investigator, filmmaker and other-things-doer who has given up on trying to be balanced.