by Martin Yip
‘Have I told you about my egg?’ asked my counsellor, in the middle of a session.
“No,” I said.
My counsellor took out a piece of paper and drew an egg-shaped oval. She then drew a horizontal line across the middle of the oval. She wrote the words “reason” and “emotion” in the upper and lower halves of the figure respectively.
‘You know, there has to be a balance,’ she said. ‘When people get too emotional,’ she explained, placing her pencil on the horizontal line, then shifting it to the upper half of the egg, ‘they might say things or do things that they wouldn’t necessarily say or do in normal circumstances.’
Yes, I thought to myself, I know that very well.
She shifted her pencil back to the line, then to the lower half of the egg. ‘But you can’t suppress this either,’ she said.
‘That’s sort of what I’ve been trying to do,’ I replied.
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘When you do that,’ – and she made a suppressing gesture by shifting her pencil – ‘you lose a part of yourself. You become disconnected with it.’ She took her hands off the pencil for emphasis. ‘There has to be a balance.’
I had no response but a wry smile.
She seemed to have anticipated the concern in my mind. ‘Of course it’s not always possible to keep it right in the middle. Sometimes it goes up a bit, sometimes it goes down a bit. But you have to keep it controlled.’ Her control of the pencil was certainly quite good.
There has to be balance, and there has to be control because that is what brings balance.
It feels good to be in control. Control reduces uncertainty and consequently fear of the unknown. Control brings confidence because it seems like our future is in our own hands, not subject to external influences. Most of the time, we are in control of ourselves (or at least we think). We decide when to sleep, what to write in our essays, which events to attend, and so on. But sometimes we lose control. Maybe because there is too much alcohol in the system; maybe conscientiousness has given way to complacency and laziness.
Or maybe it’s not our fault.
It took me some time to learn that there is nothing to be ashamed about having mental health issues, just like having physical health issues. Sometimes people lose control of parts of their bodies, and they try to remedy that by getting medical treatment. We all understand that it is not the patient’s fault for suffering from a stroke, or an injury, or even just the common cold. We support them so that they can regain control and get on with their lives. Having issues with mental health should be no different. It is not of anybody’s own choosing or control. Admittedly, it is harder to see that someone has these issues, and it is harder to understand the workings of these issues, because they are in the mind. It is easier to think of people as simply not being resilient enough, or positive enough. That is not true.
But I digress. Perhaps there can be balance without control. When we think of equilibria in nature and in game theory, there isn’t necessarily any controlling force that brings about these equilibria. Put a hot object next to a cold object, and heat energy flows from one to the other. Put two players in the Prisoners’ Dilemma, and both will betray the other. Yet, the mind is not something we can leave to sort itself out on its own.
Interestingly, this ties into some of Plato’s thoughts I came across in my study of the ‘Republic’. Plato divides the soul into three parts: the rational, the appetitive, and the spirited. The ideal soul is one which is ruled by the rational part. The rational part takes into consideration the concerns of the three parts, as well as the soul as a whole, and mediates accordingly. The other two parts, meanwhile, agree that the rational part should rule. Thus, there is no conflict within this soul. There is no succumbing to harmful desires and temptations; there is order and harmony. Control brings balance.
When my counsellor cut her egg into two parts, she made them of equal size. One might think that is what balance is: to have each part be equally important and be given an equal stake in the mind. That would miss the point. Cooking a dish requires several ingredients, but balance is not achieved by adding the same amount of each ingredient. It is by having the right amount of each ingredient, so that they each perform their own function, not intervening with other ingredients but supporting each other – the Platonic conception of the ideal dish, if he were to have one.
So, ultimately, it is all about control. When the going gets tough, it is easy to point fingers – at other people, at “the system”, at luck. But these are often exogenous variables: changing them is either impossible or not worth the effort. In contrast, it is always productive and perhaps even easier to look inward. If my mind is disturbed and filled with turmoil, I cannot be in a good spot to address anything external to it.
And so this is my fight, against myself but also for myself: to gain control, so there can be order and stability – so there can be balance. A well-balanced mind is like a roly-poly: you can push it however you like, say whatever you want, and it might wobble this way and that way and it might look fragile and for some time you might think it would topple any moment. It won’t. I have not succeeded as yet, and I may not for some time to come; but I will persist. When I succeed, that will be my triumph.