Since this past July, there’s been a lot of talk about the struggle for work-life balance. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article on whether American women can “have it all,” brought a flood of responses from various perspectives across the Internet—and the discussion expanded from the lives of American women to “having it all” as such. But all responses followed Slaughter’s model of interpreting the dilemma of work-life balance as an issue of time—as a competition between the personal and the professional in an economy where that is the only resource which we feel we can control.
Between public career advancement and private household commitments, other things must be negotiated. Professional demands edge in on those goods required for personal fulfillment. To define any serious pursuit as a machine that only requires the fuel of time is to belittle the very place of work in a flourishing human life; to define the intellectual life as such a machine is all the more so, and requires deceiving ourselves about what that life really requires. Similarly, the development of one’s private life, of personal relationships and moral commitments, requires more than merely a space in a schedule. Both demand the whole self.
But the model of making time for things leaves no “whole self” to devote to anything wholly demanding and wholly worthwhile; it divides the self into separate functions and assigns each its allotted time. Each scheduled sphere is guided by its own norms and codes for success, for the virtues esteemed in the office or the lab are not necessarily prioritized in the home or the classroom. Our participation in each scheduled activity is therefore often justified by only the operational codes intrinsic to it. Our individual functions and actions can become alienated experiences, and our lives can become a series of demarcated role-playing, with the dilemma of time management never solved, and no whole self to devote to anything.
Only in the pursuit of something larger, something that encompasses each of our smaller roles, can anyone actually commit the whole self. A unified life comes only when each partitioned function is deemed worthwhile not only by the code of its internal logic, but by the logic of the whole. Time can never be managed if there is no system of evaluation external to those within our time-consuming tasks—but when each smaller goal is subjected to a larger good, competing demands on our personal resources are no longer incommensurable and therefore no longer really compete. We can reasonably negotiate what our tasks require when our concern is not the tasks themselves, but the larger pursuit they altogether constitute. Each function becomes intelligible in the context of the others, and the creativity and vision demanded by each are shared across the different sectors of our lives, lavishly enriched.
Exemplifying this, an article from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center reports that feelings of awe can create feelings of having more time. “Awe-eliciting experiences might offer one effective solution to the feelings of time starvation that plague so many people in modern life,” the study’s researchers say. But awe is not merely pain-relief for the sound of a ticking clock—it may be an index of a life that has a sense of the tremendous—of a larger vision that shakes everything loose (as the word implies) and scales down all lesser tasks. Lives without hermetically sealed divisions afford intellectual connections, pragmatic correspondences, and draw new clarity, and therefore deeper unity. Knowing how work, relationships, beliefs, and commitments all fit into a bigger picture might be the best resource in the struggle for work-life balance.