I remember hearing about “the golden mean” as a child. It must have been explained to me then that this philosophy of Socrates and Plato, of Aristotle and Confucius and Aquinas, was a basic truth I should strive to follow.
It basically says that the path to perfection is carved between two extremes. The Middle Way, as it is called in Buddhism. Or, as Benjamin Franklin said: “Moderation in all things — including moderation.” We must fly halfway between the ocean spray and the heat of the sun, as Icarus was advised by his father but foolishly — and fatally — ignored.
It is striking how many cultures, across time and space, espouse this teaching. I know I latched onto it early and have carried it with me as a talisman throughout my life. If I could reach this elusive “mean,” follow some preordained recipe to strike just the right balance, all would be right in my world.
And really, nothing in my nearly 50 years has shaken my faith in the rightness of this. I still believe in moderation, in looking at every problem from all sides and finding the solution that causes the least harm. I believe in eating all foods, just little less of the ones filled with sugar and more of the ones laden with nutrients. Often, when I am shopping and can’t decide among the many, many choices, I will simply pick the item in the middle — middle price range, middle quality. If it’s something I don’t know or care deeply about, middle seems good enough.
But when it comes to my actual day to day, I’m afraid my balancing is not particularly elegant. I am hardly a strapping Greek boy flapping through life sporting a pair of feather wings.
No, I am more of an insecure, prone-to-worrying, over-committed mess, who often reaches nightfall too tired to think a complete thought and having never set foot in a shower.
More than balancing, I am spinning. Like a contestant on Wheel of Fortune, I push the disk of my days around, clicking through all the parts that I’m trying to keep moving forward: home care, meal prep, kid activities, yard work, writing stories, posting on social media, maintaining my website, helping various nonprofits, reading, working out. I dial through each section of the wheel doing what I can to not fall behind and then click to the next area, do what must be done there, and click forward again.
If I stop to think of my relentless juggling act, I have to ask: Is this what the ancients had in mind, tucked in their caves, high atop their mountains?
Does “moderation” mean “pulled in a million directions”? Shouldn’t something called “the golden mean” be shinier than this?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
Maybe “balance” is more about staying on the beam even while outside forces are buffeting you from side to side. Maybe “mean” is taking in the extremes and folding them together with the middle. Maybe “moderation” means hearing the cacophony but uttering a sane sentence.
Because if we are not experiencing, not striving, if we’ve chosen the too tidy and too known, that is no way to live either. We need the messy and exhausting and challenging. Perhaps what matters is not what we feel in each moment but who we become by the end.
I still believe in the search for the center. I believe in caring, but not getting carried away.
I’m just here to say I thought this path would be less steep. I thought walking along it would make me feel less defeated. Somehow I equated “golden” with “easy” and I’m discovering that could not be further from the truth.
As I see it, the golden mean is not instructing us to smoothly sail to nirvana. It’s saying that all the crazy, all the trying and failing, all the pushing forward one tiny step at a time, that is how we can begin to see what The Middle Way even is. That is how we discover where our path lies.
Only by feeling the water and the sun can we find our way through them.