Balancing Competence, Control and the Heart’s Demand

Arnold Siegel
May 21 · 4 min read
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Here we are. In the fast lane. Economic realities and social expectations press almost all of us to hustle — almost all of the time. And to appear to take it all in stride. Get up early. Manage the needs of family. Hurry off to work amid traffic, congestion, tired or angry drivers. Deal with everyday bad news concerning kids, our own parents, peers and employees. Lead, motivate, resolve. Cooperate, accommodate, adapt. Innovate. Sturdy back, nimble fingers, quick feet, we do it. In other words, the demands made on us never end.

In addition, everyone’s situation is challenging and complex because the brain is complex. Everyone is home to a multitude of perceptions and impulses, many of which are not in sync. Each of us must wrestle with evolutionary and conditioned conflict or disharmony as incompatible ideas and mutually exclusive impulses compete.

And we are not just well-oiled machines either, built to manage a logical to-do list.

Even as we’re busy, we feel another demand. A demand that isn’t really met by a comprehensive “to-do” list. We feel the demand emotionally. Most significantly, we are individuals who want to see a bigger picture, be a bigger person and make a bigger contribution. Though inextricably bound to biology and the cultural impress, we also know when we exercise our freedom, creativity and imagination, exciting new possibilities for intellectual happiness and for life and lifestyle emerge.

But how do we balance the quest for material prosperity with a voice and substance that also meets the heart’s demand for affinity, for hope, for love and enable us to make it matter that we lived at all? If we’ve not spent enough time perfecting a stand-up personhood that can resist not only its own internal primal immediacy but also the immediate temptation of its conditioned habits, this resource is largely unavailable. And, out of balance, we suffer for it.

So, even as we’re perfecting our competence and control when it comes to running a business or managing a home, we must recognize and respond to the heart’s demand. Its call on conscience, on affinity and compassion, on integrity and fair play, on hope, good faith and love.

Don’t we all recognize this call of the heart’s demand as a humane obligation? Don’t we also recognize it as the means to a profound presence of mind, to happiness, to emotional expansiveness, to a thoughtful balance? This call, when heeded, provides a fine and exquisite balance to the relentless programmed nature of existence.

And I don’t think it works to call the heart’s demand, “me-time.” It’s not about a squeezed-in golf game or spa visit and can’t really be accommodated by a to-do list.

As it turns out, our choices — what we attend to and what we care about — reflect the extent to which we have taken responsibility for our philosophical oversight. The authority of this personal freedom is a variable of the efforts we make to look deeply, to think closely and to see a bigger picture.

The need for a thoughtful balance has never been clearer. This balance involves a combination of personal discipline, inquiry and reflection. It also requires a remodeling of the conflicting and waffling beliefs, vanities, assumptions and prejudices we have (by gene) or were given (by convention).

For example:

  • We know that we value self-control, self-determination, self-initiative and self-possession, but of what active practices and restraints are these values made?
  • We know that we value kindness, contribution and empathy, but of what activism are these values made?
  • We know that we value moderation, integrity and fair play, but of what conduct are these values constituted?

It is also true that none of us can afford to recklessly flout convention. We must go through all the motions that constitute responsibility. But the automaticity of conventional life is not enough to satisfy the heart’s demand. It is the quality of our whole response to being in the world that plays the significant role in the quality of our experience. The heart’s demand is fulfilled when we acquire — over a whole lifetime — a core bedrock of inner strength and creative resourcefulness that brings imagination and emotional and intellectual balance to conventional life.

It’s not easily come by, this thoughtful balance. As I said, the anxieties attendant upon modern life keep us in line, focused on the to-do list. Unless we attend to the balance, we don’t really individuate as originals, as authors of our way of being, as the architects of a life of our own design.

I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 30 years. These classes offer a unique and powerful governing philosophy for practical living. They stand firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity to create a life of our own design. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.

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