I was going to start this by saying it’s been a while but apparently, it’s only been about a month since my last post. Congrats to me for slowly creeping toward my goal of posting once a week again. So, what brings me to this junction of thoughts and virtual paper today? A theory. Yup a theory. Not a scientific one. This one is about work-life balance and a stove. I was introduced to the four-burner theory during a small business support group. For those who are unaware of this theory, like I was, pull up a seat and let me give you a quick crash course on it. This theory approaches our lives as if they are small four-burner stoves. Oh, you thought you were one of those grand stoves with six or eight burners? Me too. But apparently, in this theory, we’re not. We’re all tiny stoves that are slightly broken because in order to be “successful” you must cut off burners. So, if your existence was a meal, for this meal to be tasty you can only cook two items at a time.
Now each burner is an item. You have your family, your friends, your health, and your work. No hobbies. No spiritual or personal growth. Just your family, friends, health, and essentially wealth. When this theory is brought up in the work/life balance discussion success is usually meant in terms of one’s career and not overall enjoyment of one’s life. Since being introduced to this way of dissecting our lives, I’ve bounced around in my head what success means to me. I don’t see my life as a simple stove where only two burners can work efficiently at the same time. I know I can’t have ten burners going full blast at once. That’s a level of anarchy that I’ve been there and got the t-shirt for and have no desire to ever recreate. I get the general gist of this theory and the notion that we do have to occasionally put some things on the “back burner” so to speak in order to focus more on other areas. I hate the way this theory breaks elements of our life down into burners instead of realizing those are the meals we’re creating for the feast that is our life, though. My life is more than four burners. And I don’t gauge my success in this life by how well the work/wealth burner is doing. I gauge my comfort, as well as my family’s, by how well what I’m cooking on that burner is doing. But it isn’t the meter I use to determine if I’m winning at life.
There’s more to a successful life, for me, than having a winning career. There are moments with my kids, laughter with friends, self-discovery, and new experiences. Because of those things I’d rather tweak this theory to be a more accurate representation of the richness of our lives. Yes, there is give and take, but it doesn’t mean a burner has to be shut off. Simmer is a perfectly legitimate setting to use in cooking whether literally or figuratively. True to form, I crafted my own life theory and I shall call it the Feast of Life.
How does it work? First, let’s throw out that crappy four burner stove and upgrade ourselves to one of those commercial grade six burner stoves with a griddle and not one but two ovens. With this we can really do some cooking, but before we start throwing down in the kitchen, we must first know what courses we want to make and what ingredients we need to ensure a delicious meal. Every quality chef has a plan before they bust out the hardware. I’ve spent the greater part of last year breaking down the ingredients I need in my life and exploring the configurations of those elements that would yield a feast I can be proud of.
While the four-burner theory is a quick and easy way to dissect our lives, it doesn’t challenge us to dig deep into what we need to truly be happy in this one life we have. Sure, career success is great but is that truly what will bring you fulfillment in life? If so, awesome. If not, then what would? Now’s your time to sit and marinate on that. What areas of your life do you want to be remembered for? Break the notion that a successful life is one that can have a price tag put on it. Instead, look at what ignites that spark in you and run with it. That’s your main course. We all have one, it’s the area of our life that sustains us and breathes life into our existence. It’s the guiding hand as we're moving through this world making vital and even benign decisions.
For me, my main course is family. According to the four burners theory I need to put that on the front and crank that burner up to high. Easy. Except not really because nothing worth having in life is as simple as tossing a pot on high and calling it a day. To be able to call my life a success I had to take it a step further and look at what makes up the meal that is family. My kids are a given. As well as my spouse. But there’s more there. The Ex is family too, for better or worse we’re in the business of co-parenting the bringers of mayhem until we take our last breaths. Then there are the relationships with my parents, siblings, friends who became family, and various extended branches on my family tree that are important to me in one way or another. Each connection is an ingredient, family is a complicated dish in more ways than one; which means it gets three burners and part of the griddle. And half the bottle of cooking wine, but that’s a post for another day.
It’s up to you to determine how best to tackle your main course. What needs to simmer or be a rolling boil and when those things need to happen. The relationship with my boys is always on high, but once they are grown and living their own lives? It’ll get turned down. Life is fluid and our cooking should be as well.
Alright, we’ve got our main course bubbling away, what’s next? Our soup of course. Not a soup person? Well for the sake of this metaphor pretend that you are. A soup only needs one burner set to a nice steady simmer so the flavors can blend together nicely. You stir it every so often, check the flavor, and add a bit more kick as needed.
For me, I call that dish friendship. It’s dependable and brings comfort all year long. Especially in those moments when life seems bleakest. It’s complex, but not in the same way my family relationships are. It’s a meal I can survive on, and Thor knows I have, but I need both it and my main course in order to thrive in this life. What you set in your soup pot is the element of your life that won’t implode if you look away for five or ten minutes to tend to another dish but is still vital in creating a memorable feast.
We’ve got our main course and our soup dish. That still leaves us with two burners, two ovens, and the rest of the griddle. For me, the remaining burners and griddle space belong to my side dishes: health, career, and personal growth. The number of side dishes you have will be determined by how much of the griddle and how many burners you need to cook your main dish. Your side(s) are those things that compliment your main course without overshadowing it. My health, career, and personal growth are important elements because they aid in creating a well-rounded life by providing the tools I need to maintain the parts of my life that matter the most to me. What are the elements of your life that compliment your main course without demanding to be the star of your feast?
At this point, we’re breaking a sweat and the kitchen smells amazing, but we still have two piping hot ovens ready. What are those for? They are the bread and dessert courses. Also known as the filler and icing on the cake. These are the things that one could do without in their life but having them brings great joy and ensures a fulfilling life feast. For me, those are hobbies and bucket list items. These are items that aren’t tied to personal growth but instead add to the overall joy in my life. Things like tattoos, running a race, or celebrating New Years in Sydney aren’t vital to my satisfaction with life, but accomplishing these things did and would add that extra something to my feast that would ensure I went out of this life stuffed and victorious by my own standards.
Everyone’s feast is different. Everyone is fulfilled in life in their own way. For some their main course is work and their baked goods are their relationships with family and friends. Only we can decide how our feast will be constructed. It is our job as the head chefs of our lives to take the time to sit down and look at what success and life fulfillment truly means for us and then set to work cooking a feast that will be enjoyed long after we’re gone.
Our lives aren’t easy bake ovens or simple four-burner stoves where we can turn two off and keep on trucking. It’s time we turned the work-life balance narrative on its head and realize it’s all part of the same life. Balance is a lie. We’re all in search of fulfillment. Balance is just the hustle they sell you to keep you slaving over a small stove. Get a bigger stove and cook up the life that brings you the most joy. You’ll be glad you did.
Copyright(c) 2019 Rayven Holmes
Cognitive Dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.
“We have a term for that, it’s called cognitive dissonance”, the words excitedly leaped from my therapist's mouth. Some days, I believe people who work in mental health get more joy from being able to label a behavior, than those of us they are labeling get from finally having a term for our mental state. I sat there, digging my nails into the delicate Styrofoam cup rim, leaving evenly spaced indentations of anxiety behind. Cognitive dissonance. The words swirled in my mind as she went on. I’m familiar with the term, I’ve used it to explain unyielding and illogical religious beliefs. Surely, I'm immune from such a label, I thought. But I’m not. In at least one way, or another, we all fall victim to cognitive dissonance. For me, it’s been my marriage and the repeated belief that if I waited long enough, and loved hard enough, the man I married could and would change the hurtful behaviors he exhibited. In the process, I ignored my own harmful mental gymnastics.
When it came to religion, I could easily examine the inconsistencies and toss the breaks in logic into the wastebasket where they belonged. Eventually, leaving nothing but godlessness and unabashed skepticism. With love, oh love, it hasn’t been that easy. If there was a disconnect between words and actions, then I clearly wasn’t seeing it correctly. A belief supported by my spouse. I simply needed to look at everything differently. To be patient. To hold on. Give him time and trust. Always more time and trust. I could do this. To give superficial change, that quickly faded, more weight than years of peer-reviewed data. Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them; the first time.” We rarely do, though. Why do we do this? Why do we allow our hearts to cloud our logic? How can we observe years of behavior, and at the mere notion of change, throw all our chips in and declare this time around it will be better?
This isn’t a post with answers. Because, frankly, I don't have any damn answers. So, if you’re waiting for that you’re going to be shit out of luck. I’m still tracing the rim of a Styrofoam cup attempting to make sense of this one life we’re given and fighting with the cognitive dissonance emotional attachments create.
I’ve spent months dissecting why I allow myself to distort things until they are easy to swallow. Instead of, accepting them for what they are and cutting the cord.
He says he’s never hit me. So, despite everything else, I should be happy. True, he’s never hit me. But, when did that become an acceptable bar to reach instead of an universally unacceptable behavior? And why is physical abuse the only recognized form of domestic violence? Do the words and actions that don’t leave physical scars not count? And if they don’t count, why do I have to do mental gymnastics to reason them away? If this is a person I can feel safe with and trust, why does simply typing this fill me with soul-crushing fear? I’m doing wrong by sharing the truth. Is love when the truth is an act of rebellion?
The emotional part of my mind says yes. It also wants to say people change. It wants to believe the fantasy.
You’re not seeing it clearly, Rayven. His words. Or are they mine? It’s hard to determine whose words they are. I can only determine that they suffocate me. They whisper in my mind, “you’re not perfect, how can you expect so much”, “calm down, you don’t see things how they really are”, “no, you’re just crazy”, “it’s not control, it’s concern”, “I love you”, “so much of this is your fault”, “you’ve brought this on yourself”, “just fix you, try more, bend more, give more, you don't do enough" "learn to take a joke", "I'm only kidding", "stop complaining this is the best you'll ever get”, "no one would want you anyways", "it's not settling, it's being smart", "don't be selfish", “don’t you see how it’s all your fault”. The words work to choke out the discrepancies. The discrepancies exist because of me, I deduce. This notion makes my mind an Olympic performer in mental gymnastics. Always in search of a reason for the unreasonable.
Therapy works to give the discrepancies the oxygen they need to breathe, so I can acknowledge them and move forward. But still, I sit rubbing the anxiety indentations in my cup, waiting for the oxygen to reach my lungs so I can finally breathe, too.
I look pretty damn happy, don’t I? I learned a long time ago that a well-placed smile can hide a multitude of sins. We are taught not to question the smile. The smile is a warm and inviting sign that everything is ok. The smile is a lie.
On the clinical level, depression is a feeling of intense sadness often coupled with feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness. For those of us with it, depression is the ability to lie so well about how you really feel that some days even you start to believe your own bullshit. The longer you’ve been in the game, the better you are at exploiting it to create an illusion of stability.
Depression and I go way back. To pigtails and hopscotch. To fighting, flying household items, and a broken home. To lost innocence and unheard screams. Depression was there to remind me that the world is dark, cold, and unloving. To make me doubt joy and descend into sadness. Depression helped me see that the world wanted me to shut up and smile because everyone has problems. So I did. We all do. We close our mouths and swallow our tears. We make excuses for why our bodies can’t leave our beds. We choke on the words we wish to speak and the world around us turns in its blissful ignorance.
We get up every day and we fight with our minds. There are moments of respite, our medication takes off the edge, our therapist gives us a place to scream, the lemons stop flying so we can finally make a cocktail. We breathe in those moments and then as we exhale once more a hand emerges from the cloud that follows us. We try to evade it, the longer we fight the harder this becomes. We swear we’re ok as the fingers slowly tighten around our throats. We aren’t ok, though, and no amount of positive thinking or prayer fixes it.
One of the hardest lessons I've had to learn this year is that it’s ok to not be ok. Not everyone will support you when you come to terms with that. I strongly suggest cutting ties with people who want you to keep faking it for their comfort, but that's up to you. Either way, we have the right to say “I’m not ok” and take the steps needed to cope. Because there is no “getting back to normal” for us.
There is no “back to normal”, that’s a lie society sells so they can blame the fighter instead of addressing the illness. For me, always having a lingering sense of sadness and loneliness is normal. It’s why I am who I am. There is no other normal and I would rather embrace that than try to “fix it”. Much to my future ex-husband’s distaste, but I’m ok with that. Furthermore, I don’t believe I or anyone else with depression needs “fixing”. I believe we need love, compassion, and the freedom to not be ok.
There is more power in a simple "I’m here for you” than in Deepak Chopra level advice on how to handle the clusterfuck that is life. As much as people mean well, sometimes the best thing anyone can do is shut the fuck up and hold someone’s hand. So shut up, take someone’s hand and know that we aren’t ok, and that’s ok.
“There’s a lot of things you need to get across this universe. Warp drive… wormhole refractors… You know the thing you need most of all? You need a hand to hold.” - The Doctor
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