‘The Under Toad,’ Walt said. ‘I’m trying to see it. How big is it?
And Garp and Helen and Duncan held their breath; they realized that all these years Walt had been dreading a giant toad, lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea. The terrible Under Toad.
Garp tried to imagine it with him. Would it ever surface? Did it ever float? Or was it always down under, slimy and bloated and ever-watchful for ankles its coated tongue could snare? The vile Under Toad.
In John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp, the Under Toad is a monster created in the mind of young Walt Garp when he misunderstands a warning to beware of the undertow. For Walt’s parents, T. S. and Helen Garp, it becomes a code word for anxiety. “When the traffic was heavy, when the road was icy – when depression had moved in overnight – they said to each other, ‘The Under Toad is strong today.’“
Lately I’ve been contemplating balance and what disrupts it. A cousin of the Under Toad I’m dubbing the UnBalancer comes to mind.
In physical objects, things go out of balance when there’s a design flaw, when something breaks, when unequal forces press on an object. Unbalance typically worsens over time, gradually compromising the whole structure. An unbalanced tire rattles the car. A leak in a roof leads to a ceiling falling in. When winds vibrated the Tacoma Narrows bridge to its resonant frequency in 1940, the whole structure danced briefly and then catastrophically collapsed. When an O-ring failed in the Space Shuttle Challenger, the spacecraft exploded.
The same thing happens to us, individually and collectively, when the myriad forces that throw us out of balance are at play. We begin to wear and to ripple, sometimes to the point of collapse, sometimes to explosion.
These myriad forces have a common source in the UnBalancer. It’s not yet clear to me what the UnBalancer is, but I do know what it is not, or more accurately, not only.
The UnBalancer is not only Chaos, though Chaos can be its ally, nor is it only Entropy, Chance, Accident, Misfortune, Obliviousness, Fear, Greed, Distrust, Anger, Hatred, Passion, Illness, or any of the other internal and external forces that sometimes knock us out of alignment. It’s all of these things, and it’s also more.
The UnBalancer is subtle, a magician that draws our attention to whatever’s in the foreground so it can work its mischief unseen.
When the teeter-totter of work and leisure gets too heavily weighted toward one or the other, things go awry. When our diet gets out of sync with the balance our bodies need to function, the system starts to break down in a multitude of ways. The same goes for waking and sleeping, time to connect and time to be alone, thinking and doing, yin and yang.
The UnBalancer revels in our unawareness, and it loves to spread the joy.
Like the frog (or toad) contentedly sitting in gradually heating water, the path to a multitude of forms of imbalance is almost imperceptible at first. When the books are out of balance, for example, the road to ruin has already been paved but nobody notices. The sh*t hits the fan when there’s nothing left to borrow. Witness the financial collapse of 2008. Or 1929.
The UnBalancer is also patient. On the global scale, the inventions first of agriculture and then of manufacturing have, over thousands of years, unbalanced the Earth itself.
The UnBalancer is strong today. So how do we reckon with it?
That’s the question I’ll be exploring in future installments.
David J. Bookbinder
P.S. This is a first draft of what will eventually be a chapter in a book. Responses, corrections, and any other observations are welcome, either via email or, preferably, as comments on this post.
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