“Flight of a Thousand Birds” by Anila Quayyum Agha. Should life be this balanced?

I was intrigued when I ran across an article on the New York Times website titled The Unbalanced Life. It’s widely accepted that we should strive for balance between the various areas of our lives, but Brad Stulberg, the author of the article, tells us that he has been happiest and most alive when his life has been unbalanced:

“Falling in Love. Writing a book. Trekking in the Himalayas. Training to set a personal record in a triathlon. During these bouts of full-on living I was completely consumed by my activity. Trying to be balanced–devoting equal proportions of time and energy to other areas of my life–would have detracted from the formative experiences.”

Though he advocates sacrificing balance to pursue a passion, Stulberg acknowledges that there is a cost to this approach to life. Not only do we miss out on other facets of life, the intensity of our passion may prevent us from being aware of what we are lacking:

“When you are wholly immersed in anything, it’s all too easy to let the inertia of the experience carry you forward without every really evaluating what you’re sacrificing along the way; for example, time with friends and family, other hobbies, even simple pleasures like catching up on the latest episodes of ‘Game of Thrones.'”

When it comes time to stop performing the activity–when the event you trained for is over, the money runs out, or the book/play/painting is finished; when you can’t compete successfully anymore, or you’re injured or muddleheaded or exhausted–you’re not only likely to miss what you had been doing but also to realize everything else you have neglected. You also might discover that your sense of self became so completely entangled with your passion that you don’t know who you are anymore. As Stulberg notes, “It’s as if the more you put in, the harder it is to get out.”

Despite these problems, Stulberg doesn’t think striving for balance is the answer. Instead he advocates for internal self-awareness, or “the ability to see yourself clearly by assessing, monitoring, and proactively managing your core values, emotions, passions, behaviors, and impact on others.” Then, presumably, you’ll not let the thing you’re passionate about control your life. You’ll be deeply involved in something that excites or entrances you, but still will keep up with work, family responsibilities, or the like.

Self-awareness is certainly a good thing; it might help prevent the sort of disaster fueled by passion that was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, the account of an Everest expedition that went disastrously awry. Still, I’m not sure that self-awareness is enough. I’ve known at least a few people who, while pursuing some passion, clearly knew that they were missing out on important things or were negatively impacting themselves or others. At the time, they just didn’t care. They loved what they were doing so much that the consequences didn’t matter.

Stulberg is a proponent of the “Do what you love” approach to life. Many who follow this  path don’t think that it matters what you love, as long as it stirs your passions or emotions sufficiently. Unfortunately, some of us are stirred by things that are really harmful to ourselves or others–substance abuse, gambling, rape, torture, child molestation, and on and on. Other loves do harm in more subtle ways–television, shopping, and overeating come to mind. Some people who do these things lack self-awareness regarding the harm they’re doing, but many are aware.

St. Augustine wrote about the loves that guide our lives. We go astray, he thinks, if we love the wrong things, fail to love the right things, or excessively love things that are only worthy of limited love. In his view, we are fully happy only if we love God first, then order the rest of our loves in accordance with their  ultimate importance. (David Naugle’s Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness is an excellent guide to Augustine’s approach.) It’s great to devote ourselves to things that we are passionate about. Writing and running have long been two such things in my life, and they both give me joy. But some passions can harm us and others, and we need more than self-awareness to keep that from happening. We also need to know what things are worth loving, both as to our highest devotion and as to lesser allegiances. That sort of analysis can present us with a dilemma if our passions don’t match what we know is worthy of our devotion. That is an issue for another post, though.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar questions.

American Hustle

The opening scene of David O Russell’s American Hustle is a lengthy shot of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a petty New York con artist, carefully arranging a toupee and comb over, striving for the illusion of a full head of hair. Such deception and self-invention are the norm throughout the film. Rosenfeld says at one point “Everybody cons somebody,” and the only character in the film who seems not to be conning anyone (an FBI supervisor played by Louis CK) suffers multiple humiliations made possible by his guilelessness. In this film (set in the 70s and based loosely on the Abscam scandal) it’s a dog eat dog, and much of the suspense concerns who will wind up as top dog.

Both Irving and his lover/accomplice Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) consider conning a matter of survival: I don’t remember which of them said “I do what I have to in order to survive,” but it fits them both. Still, Irving realizes that conning isn’t just about deceiving others for fun and profit; after proclaiming that “Everybody cons somebody,” he adds “We all con ourselves all the time just to get through life.” There is plenty of self-deception in evidence here—Irving convinces himself that breaking windows as a child to abet his dad’s glass business destined him to become a con artist, Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) thinks she is innocent of the physical and emotional wreckage that trails behind her, FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) seems to think that he’s smart enough to disregard procedures and run roughshod over his boss, and ensnared mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) says that everything he has done has been for the good of Newark, even though he has accepted a bribe.

What did Irving mean when he said that conning ourselves helps us get through life? Perhaps he meant that it makes us confident enough to function; perhaps it justifies things we shouldn’t do but want to do. Maybe self-deception is necessary for us to tolerate ourselves. Sydney is probably the person who cons herself least of all the major characters. At one point, Richie asks her “Did you ever wonder how did my life get like this? Am I ever going to get to a better place?” The questions seem to be part of his con, but they are evidently familiar territory to her, as evident from her look of dismayed acknowledgement. At another point, when she admits that she is not a wealthy British aristocrat with banking connections, a persona she adopted for the con, she’s obviously pained to return from that fantasy world to herself. A life totally without self-deception may have few consolations.

So, is that the only lesson of American Hustle; I can’t truly know anyone, even myself, because everybody’s conning others and themselves? Not quite. The movie allows some possibility for getting past the deception, and, ironically, Irving, the professional con artist, seems closest to achieving this. His relationship with Sydney is intoxicating to him specifically because, as he says, “I feel like finally I could truly be myself.” There is a true self after all, and an accepting, open relationship can unlock that self. Irving can also be known through his choices. Richie pressures him to participate in a sting operation, but Richie’s only leverage is that he caught Sidney taking a bribe. Irving could let Sidney go to prison and continue to enjoy the money and lifestyle that his scams provide. Alternately, he could flee the country with Sydney, but that would mean leaving his young son. He loves Sydney and his son, so he decides to stay and take the considerable risk of running the sting. Thus, he occupies the what little moral high ground the movie provides, though such high ground is no more than a dry patch in the midst of a swamp.

As Augustine said, we are defined by what we love. We know something of who Irving is when he reveals those loves. Similarly, despite others’ efforts to deceive me and my efforts to deceive myself, I can know them, and know myself, by identifying their and my loves and noticing how they hijack us, taking us to places we never intended to go.