Thursday, May 07, 2009

A Week of Balance: Rachelle Mee-Chapman

Do Less: What the Danes taught me about finding balance.

Balance. It’s one of those words that either prompts to sigh with ease, or makes me to want to throw a book at someone’s head. When you can find it, it’s totally relieving. When you can’t, it’s maddening.

One of the reasons balance is so hard to achieve is that it’s not static. You can’t just find it and park there and never go looking for it again. Life is in flux, so your balance must constantly adjust. For example, a good yogini will tell you that balance is fluid. Small adjustments in a yoga pose are necessary to retain balance. Zen masters will tell you that life is a river with currents that carry you along. But you can’t float fluidly with the current if you are fly-fishing, water jogging, and swimming up steam simultaneously. You have to let go, and float. So how do you stay balanced and go with the flow? Maybe it’s time to Do Less.

Before I moved to Denmark, my life was a constant struggle for balance. I worked a part time job with a full time job description. Our girls were still in the high-need age, and our teenager adopted-by-affection was breaking into late adolescence with gusto. I ran a soulcare community in our home, lived with housemates, and regularly met with soulful seekers. On top of all that—or perhaps because of all that—I developed chronic migraines which I have still not been able to shake. Add to that my poor neglected husband, the house, the compulsion to do something creative, and the need to get in some exercise—and well, the days (and nights…and weekends…) were packed.

During this era I was the client of a woman who was training to be a spiritual director. I remember her asking me if I would like to put all my responsibilities on 3x5 cards so we could shuffle them around and figure out how they could all fit together. I just started to cry. I’d already tried so, so many times: endless lists, schedules, flow charts. I just couldn’t bear to try again. Unfortunately, she and I both had such over-developed protestant work ethics that the most logical solution never crossed our minds. I could Do Less.

Eventually, I got sick enough that Do Less became not just a possibility but a requirement. And in May 2007 I started the lengthy process of
unlearning busyness. Moving to Denmark in February 2008 has helped a lot. Unlike the American Dream, the Danish Dream doesn’t require pulling oneself up by one’s boots straps, rugged individualism, or Donald Trump-like achievement. Danes are frequently referred to as “the happiest people on earth,” and while I don’t find this to be a particularly chipper place, I will say the people are quite relaxed. They are undeniably content . I think what the Danes have got figured out is not happiness per se, but balance. Which made me wonder, what is it about Danish culture that has contributed to this sense of balance? What lets the Danes float while the Yankees struggle? Here’s the short list so far:

Feel great about ‘good enough.’
If the American motto is “shoot for the stars” the Danish counterpart would be “aim for the middle.” The idea of being a super-achiever is almost completely foreign in Danish culture. The whole ethos here –at school, at work, and in your social life—is to do the basic requirements. There are no advanced learners programs in the schools. Working overtime is not seen as ambitious, but as dysfunctional. In fact, overachieving at school or work is frowned upon and is sometimes seen as braggardly. Danes shoot for a few quality products in a work day, rather than a rash of achievements. Doesn’t that sound refreshing?

Prioritize your home life. Danes like to be at home. Their kids aren’t enrolled in a dozen afterschool activities. They don’t run around a lot on the weekends. Everyone is home by 6pm for supper—including the primary bread winner. It’s expensive to eat out so friends and family are entertained at home, and meals are simple but made from scratch –often down to the bread and the mayo! Winters involve books and baking, and Summers mean picnics in the gardens. And when someone is sick they don’t down Theraflu and drag themselves to school or work. They stay at home until they are better. I know! What a concept! But doesn’t it sound wonderful?

Consume Less. My 15 year old wunderkind Mabel told me recently that some of her Danish friends can hang all their clothing on one wall of their bedroom. In a world where the apartments are small and closets are sometimes non-existent, people own WAY less stuff. This means they do less shopping, spend less time maintaining their gear, and waste less of their weekends cleaning up clutter. I’ve been shocked—shocked I tell you!—at how much less I shop, spend, and accumulate here. How much time did you spend in the car driving to stores this week? How much less would you have to put away in your house if you never went to Target? Seriously, right? It’s a shocker.

Travel slow.
Danes have more balance in their lives because they do less. One of the reasons they do less, is it takes longer. Urban Danes travel by foot, bike, or bus. Most people I know don’t own a car. This means it takes a little longer to get from point A to point B. So you automatically have to do less in a day. Slow travel requires you to be more realistic about how long you need between appointments and tasks, makes you think twice about over-committing, and de-clutters your calendar. It also makes space for gratitude, as you walk past the sparkly, frosty lake on the way to your morning appointment. And on top of that, travel á pied or by bike doubles as your daily exercise, so you don’t have to make room for that trip to the gym. Brilliant!

These are just some of the ways my host-culture has encouraged me to Do Less, and thus helped me find more balance in my living. I’m already writing mantras in my head to cement these lessons deep into my psyche in hopes of holding on to as many of these good habits as possible when we return to States. I hope some of them trigger little “ah ha!” moments for you, offering up little solutions for the balance conundrums in your own life. My hope for you today is that you might be free enough to float down the river of your life, and that fluidity and peace would be your withmate.

Yours on the Journey,


Rachelle Mee-Chapman is an alt.minister, writer, mama and American expat living in Copenhagen, Denmark. Follow her on Twitter, friend her on Facebook, and watch for her Do Less series beginning in May 1st at Magpie Girl.


Unknown said...

What a fabulous read and so very true my friend. It's when we are out of balance that accidents occur in our lives. Prayers, silence and perfect harmony.
Happy Twirls

Holly said...

This is wonderful. And so very true. It's hard to keep everything in balance when you have three complete sets of China, each with 8 place settings, and all the plates spinning at once!

The K.I.S.S. principle of life may very well be how we could find better balance.

Thanks for a peek at the Danes...they are Great!

LissaL said...

I feel like I am spinning plates right now and want to smash them. Argggh. As always I gain insight from your writing!Word up-Transformation in process.Lissa's going to find some balance before she breaks!

Peaceole said...

Wow I love this read! Yes this is an "ah ha!" moment! How true! The concept of "Do Less" I need to learn to do that. Right now for me it's easier said then done since I am committed to a leadership position for at least a year or two. However that should not stop me in finding a balance Peace and Harmony.

Thank you for this!

Danette said...

Oh, Rachelle. I know what you mean about the cards and charts, and I remember taking similar lessons away from the year I lived in Florence.

The "stuff", the pace, the sensual joys of good company and everyday life. That was a long time ago for me, and those lessons have certainly strayed from my own day to day.

I feel like after reading this post I want to curl into it's lap.

Thank you, so very much. What a wonderful post!

Tammy said...

Wonderful! I love this perspective - thanks for sharing!

I read a book a number of years ago called "Don't just do something, sit there". The title alone was worth reading the whole book!

Mike and I are working on simplifying our lives so that we can move and survive on a much lower income. The stress from his job is too much, and we've been getting signals from the universe to TAKE the risk and not wait to do what we want.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Lovely. Marcy and I must be Danes at heart. :)

We will be car free here in Erie, PA 8 years as of July.

And I can't begin to describe how much that changes one's life. All for the BETTER.

Shell said...

The Danes have something there. I love the idea of being good enough. Spending time with family, not working crazy hours and having time to just be.

kate i said...

I love this Rachelle! I hope that someday North America will adopt this "less is better" lifestyle...and it will when each one of us makes the commitment to make that change in our own lives.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts here today.

Tori said...

Oh my gosh. The sad song that just came on might have had something to do with it, but as I was reading your post tears sprung up in my eyes. We are trained to multi-task and constantly be busy. It sounds like the Danes have got it right.

Unknown said...

Since moving from Southern to Northern California...all I had was time. Less traffic, Less time in the car getting across the city, less work to pay for overly priced rent etc...I am much healthier without it. I have more time to treat myself by non-monetary means.
thanks for the story!

Brandi Reynolds said...

oh my god you were writing this post just for me!

I love this, absolutely love this. I'm often told that my expectations of myself are harder than anyone else's could ever be.

Yet I know when I can get in the flow, relax and not need to do everything perfect all the time, life works better.

often I can let go of the MUST DO tyrade for weeks sometimes months only to get snared in the trap again.

I have been inspired by your post and others to really-as you said-cement the ideas of doing less so that my balance can maintain.

Kel said...

what a breath of fresh air
a lifestyle other than the American dream
it's a shame more countries don't aspire to be like the Danes :)