Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Equilibrium

As the daughter of a practicing, licensed psychologist, I could not dodge free therapy growing up. My childhood memory bears blotches like Rorschach cards of plopping into the passenger seat of my mom's car and casually chatting, which eventually meandered to the inescapable "well, how do you feel about that?" or "how does that make you feel?." I dubbed these sessions "car therapy," about which my mother and I still joke today.

The upside of having a psychologist-mother is that I've been raised without any social stigma towards therapy. In fact, as a kid, I thought of therapy as a sort of 'mental' tune up the same way a car needs a tune up and an oil change every couple thousand miles or so. Granted, I'm no car, but I praise my mother and her ability to keep my head on straight. I'm a far more well-adjusted person than I should be, life considered.

The 'car tune-up' mentality towards therapy came in handy when (alert: confession of a twenty something) at twelve, I struggled adjusting to early adolescence and my own brutal sense of perfectionism--with which I admit I still battle--and consequently spent a few sessions chatting it out with a psychologist named Isabel who specialized in working with gifted children. To this day, I carry with me as a tenant the only thing I ever remember her saying:

Keep a foot in both worlds.

What did Isabel mean when she said those words ten years ago to little kid Lindsay? In retrospect, I believe she was hinting at none other than the fine art of equilbrium, the task of balancing one's separate pieces in order to become entirely self-actualized, and a fine art it is.

But I consider myself lucky. I've always had a strong sense of who I am, and it's this sense of self that's guided me through thick and thin. And I'll again admit to you all wholeheartedly that last year, Lindsay was far, far away from equilibrium, and that place was a dark place.

The funniest part, though, is that in September, unbeknown to me, I came to live in The Land of Equilibrium. Over the past four months, I have discovered that the art of Equilibrium is part of French culture, and before you knock me, let me explain how and why the crazies who chopped off their own king's head, overdid the gold on the Ch√Ęteau de Versailles, and seem to protest everything have got the art of Equilibrium down to a science.

At first, France seems like the nation of crazies. They're obsessed with their language and keeping it as pure as possible. They strike because they don't want retirement raised from (gasp) 60 to 62 years of age. And good lord, I don't even know how many lights they strung on the Eiffel Tower, but it's a lot. But underneath the veneer of excess lies a profound respect for equilibrium, and one of the ways this manifests itself is with their eating habits.

One of the things I love about this country is the attitude toward eating. In fact, it's probably one of the most sensible, balanced things this country possesses. Yeah, eat some chocolate--but have one or two pieces and really savor the flavor rather than gorge yourself on two bars. Want some cake, ladies? Have your cake. Eat it too. But maybe make yourself a lighter dinner to balance things out. And heck, go for a walk and catch up with a friend; it keeps the scale even. With food, portions are human sized (amazing) and nothing is forbidden (yes, eat carbs. Yes, drink wine. YES, good lord, have dessert! It is FRANCE after all!) it's simply all a balancing act. In other words: everything in moderation. Including moderation--which must explain the crazies....

But equilibrium isn't just an attitude toward food. It's an attitude toward work, toward life itself. On weekends, shops are open half days on Saturday and Sunday, and in order to make up for those weekend business hours imposing on much needed repose, businesses are closed on Mondays until around 2 in the afternoon at the earliest. There's no sense of rush, no implacable urgency. T

This translates well toward the French attitude towards athletics, which can be summarized with one word: meh. In fact, when I ask the French why they don't like running, the response is nearly always the same: "it's so tiring." In other words, the expenditure of energy involved in athletic endeavors does not balance with the return received from those endeavors. Why run when you can walk just as far but more leisurely? Perhaps this explains why the French aren't spectacular at a lot of sports. It definitely explains the attitude toward running, which is too much, the key phrase you will find wise French mothers telling French children. "C'est too much," is a hybrid phrase with a stolen English back-half that succinctly, I suppose, sums up a lack of equilibrium in a way the adjective trop cannot.

So, how to account for the crazy, and the excess? The retirement protests are, as I interpret them, a cultural reaction to keep the equilibrium of NOT over working. Retirement is precious, because it means no longer having to work, and allowing oneself to have hard earned repose to balance out those years of travail. What about the guillotine and Marie-Antoinette? Well, Louis XVI over did it, and couldn't balance his politics with keeping bread on his people's plates. So equilibrium got out of whack, and to paraphrase science: for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction, and there you have it.

All in all, I envy this country's respect for equilibrium, because it's a fine art the United States of America has yet to understand. Americans over work themselves and burn out. Rather than balancing sweet treats here and there with skipping dessert another evening or having fruit or yogurt instead, we supersize the burger, the fries, and yet have the audacity to order a diet coke. I realize I am making large generalizations here, but I never claimed these generalizations were scientific: they are rather, observations.

What has this sense of equilibrium done for me? It's taught me how to, as Isabel said, keep a foot in both worlds. And I've never felt better, happier, or more comfortable in my own skin. When I get on a plane to come home, I hope I'll be bringing equilibrium with me.

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