Step away from the edge

When did we become such an extremist culture? If the word extremist sounds, well, extreme, consider the word moderate and you’ll know what I mean. No one wants to be moderate anymore, or to do anything in moderation. As a culture, we seek out the biggest, the newest, the richest, the edgiest, the most dangerous experience or position we can find.

On reality TV, we see people competing to lose the most weight or be the best chef. Marketers tell us we’ll be left behind if we don’t have the newest phone, and we line up to buy it. College students accept binge drinking as the norm, putting their health, safety and studies in danger. Congressmen put the nation at risk to score points and avoid compromise at all costs. And in our daily lives, our fear of not having every bit of the latest information makes us obsessively check texts and email.

Isn’t the competition exhausting, though? We often talk about managing our time, but not so much about managing our energy. In fact, our energy is a finite commodity too, and we would do well to think about how we want to use it. It’s very stressful be constantly competing, or fighting, or worrying about the meaning of a text message, or subjecting our bodies to excessive amounts of food, drink or even exercise.

Most of us are naturally somewhat competitive, and of course it’s nice to be the best at something, or to set goals for ourselves. But I’m reminded of the saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In some areas of our lives, maybe we’d be happier to not have the best or be the best. Bruno Bettelheim’s famous book, A Good Enough Parent, espoused this philosophy. Instead of striving to be the perfect parent of the perfect child, he advised that parents should be more attuned emotionally to their children so they could understand their relational needs. Instead of trying to mold a child into the one we want, help the child develop into the person he or she wants to be.

A focus on emotional awareness can serve us too, as we try to manage our energy. What do you need for yourself, in body, mind and spirit? Is it the newest phone or the most principled stance on an issue? Or are those things that you could let go? Do you need to lose more weight than your co-worker, or would losing a smaller amount be sufficient for you?

A recent study conducted at the University of Copenhagen showed that moderate exercise was actually more motivating than hard training was. The people who did 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise lost more weight than those who did 60 minutes of hard fitness training. The moderate group said they had more energy and were more motivated to make other healthy lifestyle changes, but those in the vigorous group were exhausted after their workout and less open to altering other habits. They had drained the energy they had for changing.

“Moderate” doesn’t have to mean boring or mediocre. It could just mean that you are using your energy within reasonable limits, for you, at this moment. At some other time, or in some other space, the choice might be different. How can you feel your best right now? Not the best of something or the best at something, but just the best and most content you?

Benjamin Disraeli once said that, “The choicest pleasures of life lie within the ring of moderation.” They’re not always at the edge.

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