As I See It: Finding Balance In The Living Years
November 14, 2011 Victor Rozek
The shadows are just beginning to crawl down the massive sandstone walls as we struggle into our dry suits and neoprene socks. A thick pair of river shoes and a sturdy walking stick complete our outfits. It’s early morning and still cold as my wife and I prepare to embark on one of the legendary hikes in the National Park System, The Narrows at Zion. Zion is a long canyon carved over the centuries by the Virgin River. You enter the canyon from the south and it gradually constricts as you travel north until the walls close in and the river spills out a narrow cut between towering cliffs. Thus, the hike up-river is known as The Narrows.
For a number of years we’ve wanted to experience this hike, but our two previous visits to the park were in the spring when the current was too swift and the volume of water too prodigious to allow safe entry. Park officials monitor water flow and, as a deterrent to youthful exuberance, they close The Narrows to hikers when it exceeds 120 cubic feet per second. (To put things in perspective, during flash floods, the flow has been measured at upwards of 3,000 cubic feet per second.)
We were resigned to the possibility of never doing the hike, but then I met John, a retired IBMer. We sat in adjacent chairs in a crowded medical lab, waiting our turn to be poked and drained of blood, to pee in cups and undergo other such indignities. I initiated a conversation when I noticed the old, zippered binder with the IBM logo he held on his lap.
John, it turns out, was a lifer. He learned programming back when data center employees wore lab coats. After college, he traded his lab coat for a suit and got a job with Big Blue. Over the years, he worked on mainframes, wrestled with the midrange tag-team of AS/400 and RS/6000, and ended up developing financial systems. Like many people of his generation, his career was dependable and provided him with a generous standard of living. For most of his working life he benefitted from an implied contract with his employer. He was provided lifetime employment in return for doing his job competently, uprooting his family when he was asked to move, and applying his skills to whatever management thought would most benefit the company. It was a trade that produced generations of loyal employees.
Like many IBMers, John put the job first, placed other parts of his life on hold, and looked forward to retirement. But in his late 50s he heard his doctor utter the most frightening word in the English language: cancer. He was diagnosed with prostate and bladder cancer, but fortunately it was caught early enough to be treated. Or so he thought. Shortly after retirement he developed a nagging cough and chronic fatigue. It was then that he heard the second most frightening word in the English language: metastasis.
Half of his right lung was removed and his treatment continues, but his dreams of life in retirement were cut from him just as surely as his lung. And now, there we were like two lab rats, I preparing for a physical, and he preparing to delay death.
At one point I mentioned our impending trip to Vegas to help family with a cross-country move, and the hope that we would find time for a side trip to Zion. He became animated and told me that, years ago, he had read an article about a hike called The Narrows. He clipped it out of the magazine and saved it in a “things to do” file. “I remember the article said you actually walk in the river between walls of colored stone,” he told me, “with hanging gardens and cascading waterfalls.” He dabbled in photography and had wanted to capture it all for himself, but somehow never got around to going. Then he fell silent, as if lost in memory and regret.
My number was called and I started to rise and wish him well, when he put his hand on my arm and said: “Don’t wait, go do the hike.”
The phlebotomist’s needle in my arm was like an exclamation point emphasizing the fact that “I’ll do it when. . . ” is a great gamble. Ironically, as you age, the gamble becomes more urgent, but the odds get longer. I’ll do it when I graduate; when I get a job; when I have enough money; when I get the promotion; when the kids leave home. But like tomorrow, “when” never comes, until one day you notice that nagging cough and the doctor delivers the final diagnosis.
Finding a workable balance between job, family, friends, and self is a juggling act that starts the first day of employment and continues through the last day of your last job. With that much practice, you’d think we’d get good at it, but achieving functional, balanced prioritization is like hitting a moving target from a bucking horse. Context changes, priorities shift, and under the best of circumstances work/life balance does not allow for equal apportionment.
One strategy is to build down-time into your schedule. But if your schedule is already over-full, adding down-time may be more stressful than soothing. Also, if you enjoy spontaneity, planning your spontaneity has all the suspense of throwing yourself a surprise party.
A better strategy is to drop activities–and people–that sap your life energy. Every activity has an energetic component. Some energize and restore us (such as exercise, dinner with a close friend, completing a neglected project); others drain our energy (working at jobs for which we have no passion, over-needy people, or providing long-term elder care). An overabundance of draining activities results in chronic weariness and loss of joy.
Examining everything, (morning routine, commute, job duties, housework, family commitments, weekend activities, television viewing habits, hobbies, type and frequency of interactions with friends) will quickly identify the things that suck the joy out of life. Then, question their necessity: Does it need to be done? Can someone else do it? If no one is willing, can it be hired out? Can I negotiate an alternative or a swap? Can I say no, knowing that saying no to others is a way to say yes to myself.
Ultimately, regret comes from not living your highest values; denying what is truly important in favor of a lesser value. For some it might be sacrificing creativity for security; or adventure for comfort; or abandoning the road less traveled for convenience. Which is why I privately blessed John for the reminder, and made a reservation at an inn just outside the park.
The water is murky and swift, and the bottom is covered by slippery rocks the size of bowling balls as we make our way upstream. In most places it’s no more than knee deep, but there are spots where a little swimming is required. Lacy ferns hang from niches in perpendicular walls. Here and there, sloping banks with grasses and colonies of trees survive above the water line. Fluted stone and twisting channels funnel water from above. Around the bend, a small sandy beach hosts a towering ponderosa searching for sunlight. As the sun moves overhead, the colors of the walls change and come to life. Blacks, greys, and browns, morph into pinks, oranges, and reds; the pallet of erosion.
We hike on through the cathedral quiet, until the waning daylight forces us back downstream. Where possible, we float on our backs gazing up at the ancient, twirling walls, letting the cold water carve the experience into our bodies, just as it carved the canyon.
When the river spits us out, we are tired, grateful, and anxious for tomorrow. We were scheduled to leave in the morning, but there has been a change in plan. There is another hike we’ve never done called Observation Point. Obligations can wait a few extra hours.
As John knows, the clock is ticking.