Dashboard check saves grief down the road
It happened quickly and I captured the instant out of the corner of my eye. I vividly recall the events of that autumn Saturday afternoon because it all too easily could have been me. As I raked and bagged up the last of the leaves in our yard, I gave a quick wave to my neighbour across the street. He was putting up his Christmas lights on what appeared to be the last mild day before the arrival of winter weather.
Then, my neighbour took “the forbidden step.” Initially, it must have made great sense. After all, he was only a few inches short of being able to hook the Christmas lights around the tree’s top branch, so how could standing on the top step of his ladder be a bad idea? After determining that the bold letters stating, “Not a Step/Do Not Step” were meant for lesser men, he moved to the top step. The top branch was now within easy reach.
There was, however, one remaining challenge—balance. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the ladder begin to tilt dangerously. Then my neighbour disappeared and I heard the sound of impact. I immediately dropped my rake and started across the street but stopped when I saw him jumping quickly to his feet. As the only earthly witness to the spectacle, I quickly went back to my raking like nothing had happened to save my neighbour from also injuring his pride.
Though my neighbour and I have talked many times since that Saturday, we never discuss the ladder event. But I know I learned an important lesson that day. For me, the challenge of trying to balance on the top step of a ladder is a powerful metaphor for everyday life. With multiple roles in life, a 24/7 non-stop, rapidly changing and ever-faster society, we can very innocently and unintentionally take one step after another until we find ourselves overextended and gingerly trying to keep our balance on the tenuous “Do Not Step” top step of the life ladder.
While my neighbour knowingly looked at and ignored the “Do Not Step” sign on his ladder, we often don’t have much warning that we are approaching danger, what I call the “red zone.” In fact, “being busy” is generally expected, encouraged and rewarded. In part, we may also correctly rationalize that “this is just an intense season or stage of life,” or that perfect balance in this life is just impossible. There is, however, a very helpful tool that we can use to self-evaluate our life balance— the dashboard. A car is a fairly complex and interconnected machine, but the driver can quickly glance at the dashboard gauges for a quick and simple check on the car’s health. If a yellow or red warning light comes on, you can choose to cover it over with duct tape and ignore it. Or investigate the potential problem. In the same way, you can quickly and regularly use four dashboard gauges to evaluate your health and balance in life.
As you review each of the four gauges on your life dashboard, you can give each one of three readings: green for healthy, yellow for early warning sign or red for imminent problem. Here are the four life dashboard gauges:
This gauge measures our external activity through our efforts at work, church, home, in our community and beyond. Since we are “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10), each of us, regardless of profession or life stage, has a significant contribution to make.
For many men, the most common balance problem related to the external gauge is that we consider this the only indicator that really matters. This is often rooted in good intentions—a desire to provide, or to achieve significant success or impact. However, a very destructive danger subtly but powerfully comes when external activities become the foundation for our identity and value. In other words, we see our identity and value primarily through our position, successes or the eyes of others. Unfortunately, if we get unbalanced in this area, the consequences often have dramatic negative impact well beyond ourselves.
The relational gauge measures the quality of our personal relationships, such as with our spouse, children, extended family, close friends, our neighbours and community. One key warning sign for this gauge is what Lewis Grant calls “sunset fatigue.” In his book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, John Ortberg describes sunset fatigue as “when we come home at the end of the day’s work, those who need our love the most, those to whom we are most committed, end up getting the leftovers. Sunset fatigue is when we are just too tired, or too drained, or too preoccupied, to love the people to whom we have made the deepest promises.”
The internal gauge measures areas like our character, emotional stability, energy level and physical self-care. Breaking character and emotional stability down into more precise terms, we can evaluate whether we are growing in integrity, purity and humility or if patience, peace, kindness and fun are evident in our lives. Energy level is often self-evident and physical self-care is looking at how well we take care of ourselves through regular exercise and proper nutrition.
When we start to move significantly out of balance in life, the internal area of our lives is often vulnerable to some cyclical challenges. For instance, in times where we are overextending ourselves we may sleep less or feel fatigue more often. This can lead to a “shorter fuse” with more critical words or even anger. We can also neglect exercise and nutrition, which leads to fatigue or in the long-term to physical health problems. The temptation toward temporary “escape” through unhealthy indulgences and even immoral behaviour also becomes more common and intense.
Wherever we are on our faith journey, and whether we acknowledge it or not, we were created by God. Moreover, He deeply loves us and desires an intimate, vibrant and on-going relationship with us. The spiritual gauge looks at whether we are seeking and seeing growth in this important area of our lives. While the practices of church involvement and spiritual disciplines are very important, this gauge helps to evaluate if we are growing in the big three of love, faith and hope.
Unlike the “God first, family second, work third” approach that seeks to compartmentalize our lives into separate and unconnected areas, this gauge reminds us that God desires to be central in all aspects of our lives. Despite our best intentions and practical strategies, we will still regularly find ourselves in moments or even seasons where it feels like we are precariously perched on the “Do Not Step” top step of the ladder. The good news for followers of Christ is that despite all the change and turmoil around us, we can ultimately seek and find internal balance by trusting the One whose “yoke is easy and burden is light.”
Three practical tools to help you live with more balance and impact:
Remember Your True Identity
One of the major drivers of imbalance in life is a distorted view of our identity and value. Many people allow the unreasonable expectations of self or others to drive them far beyond God’s expectations. Os Guinness’ words in The Call remind us, “Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by Him, to Him and for Him. First and foremost, we are called to Someone (God), not to something or to somewhere.”
Develop a Personal Vision Statement
A personal vision statement identifies and spells out our personal priorities, values and intended direction or purpose in life. Rather than living life in a reactive day-to-day approach, a personal vision statement seeks to bring focus, intentionality and a proactive approach to our daily lives. You can use your personal vision statement as a compass for life decisions and as a filter for saying “no” or moving away from things that distract us from what is really important. You can start by simply setting aside a couple of hours, asking God for guidance and then writing out some words, phrases or sentences that describe your life desires for each of the four life gauges: external, relational, internal, and spiritual. Over time you can refine your words for each dimension and invite some input from trusted people in your life.
One common contributor to imbalance is a reactive approach to planning and scheduling. Instead of letting events that come up determine your schedule, it is important to be proactive in scheduling your known priorities at least three to six months or even a year in advance. Whether you are using a dollar store monthly day timer or a PDA, this practice will help you ensure priorities and reduce imbalance.