The center has become far out

Balance is not exactly the word to describe the '80s so far. As a lot of culture-watchers have noted, perhaps prematurely, we seem to be in danger of reverting to those Tarzan swings toward extremes characteristic of the '60s.

But then, balance has always been a fragile virtue, mroe admired as a physical triumph of acrobats, figure skaters, and tight-rope walkers than as a mental and moral discipline of artists, philosophers, or even politicians.

Nobody ever shouted "Bravo!" for a middle C.

When Aristotelians tried to make balance glamorous, they called it the golden mean. But few in the audience were fooled. Presumably most people, even then, knew that gold itself was immoderate.

Balance sounds so cool, so premeditated. Give us a little passion, a little enthusiasm, we yawn, failing to realize that balance, by definition, would give us all the passion and enthusiasm that are good for us -- and not a drop more.

We are so afraid of appearing moderate (read: "dull") that we become hypocrites instead. For whether we acknoledge the fact or not, most of our life is spent trying to find one golden mean after another. And how difficult that centering process is!

A couple of trivial examples:

As motorists we devote half our winters to grouping in search of the dial-twiddling balance for heating our automobiles. One moment the car is too cold. The ankles freeze, the fingers stiffen in a congealed curve around the steering wheel. The next moment the brow beads, the armpits glow. It's too hot. Where was the interval of just-right? How do you locate it without getting too cold again and repeating the whole cycle?

The same thing happens in the shower, between a red parboiling and the blue goose-pimple. And who has solved the sleeper's predicament? One blanket -- like a refrigerator. Two blankets -- like an oven.

Then tehre is the perfectionist palate, craving a lemon meringue pie balanced between too tart and too sweet, yearning for the egg neither too soft nor too hard. And where, oh where -- for all our hyphenated instructions -- is the steak just slighty medium-rare?

Sound is another department where the golden mean remains an ideal more often than an actuality. All doorbells, automobile horns, and alarm clocks share this in common: They are either loud enough to be annoying, or so quiet thy fail to do the job.

But enough trivia. In the interests of balance, we must move onto matters really worth balancing. Aristotle defined happiness as the ultimate golden mean. How do we do there?

More excess! We speak of being "high" more often than "happy." We are, it seems, "manic" -- when, of course, we are not "depressive," with no stops between. We have a dozen synonyms for "exciting," but the most popular use of the word "tranquil" involves a pill.

The lovely words that used to dance gently, without frenzy in the calmer neighborhoods of happiness now sound archaic, like "serene." Or "light-hearted." Here is a grace-filled word, with none of the desperation to it that characterizes many of the latter-day words clutchiing after happiness.

To be light-hearted does not mean to be carefree -- obviously happy. Nobody saw more darkness than Shakespeare. But nobody could be more light-hearted either -- more in step with twelfth nights and midsummer dreams.

To be light-hearted is to see the evidence, and, for the moment at least, to transcend it in favor of another kind of evidence. Out of bravery or innocence or sheer silly exuberance, the clowns, the kings, and the cobblers and tinkers find within themselves the irresistible reasons to celebrate -- in spite of everything.

Our moods today are seldom light -- seldom the sort of thing you balance on a pirouette. "Serene" just doesn't pump the adrenalin. We authenticate ourselves , we like to say, only at the boiling point. We rage after justice. We even rage after happiness. We are forever on the verge of violence -- or total apathy. We threaten to become the stuff orgies, riots, and wars are made of.

Can we develop again a taste for balance in more than our stereo systems? An appetite for the light-hearted, the serene, and the harmonious rather than all that sturm-und-drang.m In short, a preference for good Mozart rather than bad Wagner. It is one way to put the predicament of the '80s.

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