The old story of 'The Red Shoes' serves as a metaphor for the difficulty many have in finding a work/life balance. Can having a spiritual practice be the answer?
The old story of ‘The Red Shoes’ serves as a metaphor for the difficulty many have in finding a work/life balance. Can having a spiritual practice be the answer?

Work seems never-ending for lots of employees; many feel their work-life balance is completely unhinged and unhealthy.

“The days just blurred into one another. I didn’t feel I had space to think,” explained Myrna (not her real name), a young sales manager. She worked long hours, responding to and travelling to customers across the globe. She felt trapped – if she did not meet the demands, she feared losing her job.

Myrna is not alone. Many people within the business community feel their lives spinning out of control from work that demands much of their time, bringing with it challenges to their mental and physical health. And, try as she might, Myrna found she could not find time to balance this with a spiritual practice to help bring some order to her life.

Too often we make the mistake of attempting to add a spiritual practice into a busy work life. That’s going about it backwards. Instead of thinking of a spiritual practice as a defence against stress, think of it as a proactive beginning that brings about a healthier, better view of ourselves. It is this view that enables us to feel more balanced and able to handle any trials of the day with equanimity and confidence.

After all, work overload isn’t a new problem. It just looks different because of recent factors like new technology. “One difficulty is that technology doesn’t need to rest or sleep. It is ‘on’ all the time making its demands. It’s me that needs to switch off and find time for spiritual renewal,” Myrna noted.

My friend’s description of her problem reminds me of the cautionary and tragic tale of “The Red Shoes.” Adapted from a fairy story into a compelling movie in 1948, it tells the story of a talented young dancer who was given a pair of red ballet shoes by the company’s manager for the title role in his new ballet. The shoes would make her dance even more beautifully, he told her.

But she quickly found that when she put the shoes on, she could not stop dancing, nor could she remove them. She was at the mercy of the shoes. This story highlighted, even in the mid 1900s, the challenges of the work/life balance.

One group in downtown Vancouver is quietly working to help people like Myrna re-discover their equilibrium. Once a month, The Workplace Centre for Spirituality and Ethical Development brings together people of all faiths (or none) for a monthly “Spirit at Work Lunch.”

Dr. Glo McArter, member of the Centre for a decade or more and a former board member, is a counselling therapist who helps many clients struggling with this very problem of finding a balance between work and life.

Describing the Centre’s meetings, and how they help her personally, McArter said,  “Coming together with like minds and like souls is nourishing. The meetings bring me back to my core. When I listen to someone explain how they bring spirit with them to the workplace, I feel it within me also.”

She went on to explain, “Finding balance is in large part about the emotions. We work so hard because we fear losing status, or losing our job and the needed paycheck to feed a family or pay off our debts. Acknowledging that can be the first step to freedom.”

It was only when Myrna’s health and family relationships began to seriously deteriorate that she acknowledged her fears and decided she needed to reacquaint herself with her spiritual roots in order to feel freedom from the pressures.

She turned to ideas in the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, which she had often used in the past to help her, but had shelved, feeling too busy to really give it the thought it needed. Eddy was a woman who understood a thing or two about heavy work, society and personal demands, and the importance of putting spiritual things first.

One sentence really stood out to Myrna, and it became the keystone to a new approach for understanding her life and relationship to the divine – both at work and home.

“I will gain a balance on the side of good, my true being.”

This idea encouraged her to ask: “So, what is my true being? Is it what I am seeing today?” Instead of seeing herself as an isolated, stressed mortal trying to get through the day, she began to see herself as an expression of the divine Spirit. That Spirit and its expression could not be overwhelmed by or lost amid the demands of the day. It was her true being that she could hold onto. She reasoned that spiritual qualities such as calmness, peace, and freedom are never lost, but that they do need to be consciously cultivated every day.

This is the healthier, better view that Myrna felt was the key to her balance. Her former view of herself as separated from Spirit and just a victim of her work circumstances – not the work situation itself – was what needed to change.

Slowly, as she consistently developed a practice of prayer, Myrna found the fears about her work dissipate. Her confidence returned as she rediscovered the very qualities that would help her. Her health improved, and she felt more energetic. With that came ideas about how she could do her work more effectively and creatively. Resentment and hopelessness gave way to a sense of empowerment. Her job had not changed, but her sense of her own identity in relation to the job had. She no longer feels the job is in charge of her life.

During this experience, Myrna had her own “taking off the red shoes” moment – she learned that she could turn off her cell phone at night. These days, she sometimes goes away for a whole weekend with her family – sans cell phone or computer. She feels a freedom she has not known in years.

Balance is not something organized by time management and work sheets. It begins with a regular spiritual practice, which, of itself, enables us to meet life’s demands. Starting with divine Spirit, we find that the red shoes are not glued to us. We can take them off and regain control of our lives.

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My interest in the relationship between health and spirituality propelled me to begin writing about this topic a couple of years ago.

I am a regular contributor to several news outlets, including The Times Colonist newspaper both in print and online with the blog, Spiritually Speaking which is hosted by the Times Colonist. I also write on an interfaith blog, A Spiritual View, hosted by the Vancouver Courier.

My long-time Christian healing practice and more recent writing journey has resulted in many interesting connections with health professionals with different perspectives lead sometimes to more questions, as well as discoveries about the healing needs of – and answers for – our world.