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Where Can I Put This Pile of Stress?

Striving for balance, Janine contrasts two avenues towards achieving success and happiness, summarized by Stephen Covey as the modern ‘Personality Ethic’ and the time honored ‘Character Ethic.’ The first invests energy in manicuring the public image to the detriment of other relationships and areas of life. The second urges one to embody virtues universally. Self-examination reveals the inefficiency of the first and inspires her to integrate her values with equipoise. - Editor

If you are a moderate person, click the “X” box at the top of your screen and save a few more minutes of your well-managed time not reading my article. You don't really need it. If however, you are in my boat, navigating the river of “striving-to-learn-healthy-balanced-habits” and finding that the paddling is mostly upstream, then please continue with me.

Have you heard of the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey? The name is so familiar to me, as well as a few of the concepts, that I feel as if I have read it, but never have. This week I picked it up and some of the ideas inspired me and encouraged new thought on the subjects of balance and moderation, and the process of achieving deep success in my life.

Stephen Covey says that in the last fifty years we have been pursuing the “Personality Ethic” as a way of living our lives, developing ourselves, and looking for success and happiness. This “Personality Ethic” teaches that success is “a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviors, skills and techniques, that lubricates the processes of human interaction” (19). In contrast, the “Character Ethic,” the focus of the success literature for the 150 years prior, taught that the only way to achieve success and happiness was to work towards integrating basic principles into one's character and learning to live with deeper integrity. It rests on the idea that it is only through examining ourselves and actually changing who we are are that we learn to live effectively and find deep and meaningful success and happiness (18).

He points out that many people achieve great success in one or multiple areas of their lives living by the methods of the “Personality Ethic,” but that it is almost impossible to maintain every relationship and area of life governed by this approach. Here are some of my examples of what it looks like to have success in one area but not another: the CEO of a company does not give his marriage the time and attention it needs and ends up getting a divorce; the devoted mother is so protective, responsible, and concerned about her children that she neglects working on her relationships with the public outside of her home and ends up taking sides with her children and bullying the school system when any school-related problem comes up; the stable couple has a thriving marriage and are doing everything right to nurture each other but just can't manage to have a positive relationship with their growing teenagers; the young professional puts on a polished front at work but goes home everyday discouraged and feeling empty. It seems that straining to maintain the “success” area through overworking, trying hard to look good, not setting reasonable limits in an effort to impress and compete, etc. means that we are very likely to neglect other areas in our lives and maybe take our stress and dump it somewhere else—our husband or wife for example.

So, is it really possible to maintain integrity simultaneously in our marriages, with our children and extended families, with our friends, in our workplaces, and the other public and private organizations with which we interact? What a wholesome and stable feeling I have just thinking about it. The idea is that if we are looking within to foster integrity, honesty, human dignity, service, quality, potential, patience, nurturing, encouragement, then our core selves will be built on these principles and we will apply these everywhere (34). Our selves will not change to impress, we will be who we are and admit who we are not. People will actually like and accept us more for being genuine, working hard, and knowing our limits.

Well, all this talk about the two “Ethics” leads me to reflect on balance and moderation a little more. I often find that I pour energy into one area of life, and then put negative energy into another to cope with the stress I am feeling from overexertion. Usually the overexertion is driven by ego and reputation. I want to feel success and meaning in my life and so I create markers that seem impressive to me and that I hope will impress others as well. In the end, it is not a very satisfying way to live.

I have been trying to set limits on my work and exertions to temper my flailing ego and short-circuit this unhealthy stress-building/stress-releasing cycle. Here are some examples: setting a cleaning schedule so that my house stays clean enough on a regular basis instead of explosively cleaning and trying to get everything done at once, usually to impress a guest; stretching my body for a few minutes in the morning and not getting carried away with doing hours of yoga that I can't maintain; reading short passages from the Word to feed my life and letting go of the need to do an impressive amount of scriptural study right now; being willing to be myself in social settings instead of putting on a face and then needing to veg for an hour afterward to recover from the stress of maintaining that face; telling my husband what I really think about an idea and engaging in discussion about it instead of bottling my opinions, judging him, and building up resentment that is bound to come up later; taking time to rest in the middle of the day to renew my body and mind so that when my husband walks in the door I can welcome him instead of dump my stress on him; teaching my son to play by himself, and with me when I am available, so that I am not always entertaining him and feeling resentful of it.

It seems to me that practicing to live guided by virtues is key to achieving constancy in who we are and will eventually allow us to achieve a sense of success in all our relationships. Emanuel Swedenborg talks about virtues in Conjugial Love. He says: “Virtues which have to do with men's moral wisdom likewise have various names, and they are called temperance, sobriety, integrity, kindliness, friendliness, modesty, honesty, helpfulness, courteousness; also diligence, industriousness, skillfulness, alacrity, generosity, liberality, magnanimity, energy, courage, prudence—not to mention many others. Spiritual virtues in men are love of religion, charity, truthfulness, faith, conscience, innocence, as well as many more” (Conjugial Love 164).

I find this list quite satisfying to read because it gives me concrete ideas of what I can specifically work on towards a life of charity. Take energy for example. It is also translated earnestness (Warren) and vigor (Chadwick). How many times a day do I unthinkingly complain about tiredness and allow myself to droop? I could choose to put effort into summoning energy and vigor to interact with people and do my daily work, even when I don't feel like it, and that could be part of working on serving other people and being closer to the Lord.

To me, balance feels hard to achieve. It feels pretty tempting to work towards shining in one area and ignoring others. In my experience this creates some superficial happiness, plus a pile of stress that needs to be dumped somewhere else. I find it refreshing to get the encouragement from Covey and Swedenborg that genuine satisfaction and happiness can be sown by practicing to live a life guided by virtues, virtues they both specifically outline. What a clear way to work towards heaven! What are you working on today?

Janine Smith

I am a 3 years-old mother who enjoys gardening and walking. I find some of the most fulfilling moments in my life are when I am sharing with friends about the meaning and purpose of life. I like brainstorming ideas for how people can come together and support each other's growth towards heaven. What do you find most fulfilling in your life and how do you like to share your passions and growth with other people?

Reader Comments (3)

I really like this article. It would be really interesting to study virtue-theory ethics in depth, in light of the Heavenly Doctrine.

December 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPearse


I believe Lawson Smith has done some study of virtue theory as presented in the HD, though I bet he would be unwilling to call it "in-depth". I also imagine there is a lot of valuable stuff to be learned. I am have a growing interest in the idea of character education or values-centered education. (starts to sound a bit like the goal of NC education). Brian

December 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

While in Kempton in the fall, I got to give a few chapels on some of those virtues, and it was a lot of fun. Coming up with a way to describe sobriety (and not moderation which is a different virtue) to 5th through 10th graders was a bit of a challenge.

December 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPearse
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