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Philippe Petit, a French high wire artist, is seen walking across a tightrope suspended between the World Trade Center's Twin Towers in New York on Aug. 7, 1974.

Alan Welner/The Associated Press

On the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, New Yorkers rushing to work in their corduroy flares and wedge heels looked up into the blue sky and saw a man suspended between the unfinished towers of the World Trade Center.

A man in the sky, but not falling or flailing: A man perfectly balanced. For seven years, before they were even built, the French wire-walker Philippe Petit had dreamed of crossing between New York's tallest skyscrapers on a wire the width of a thumb. He and his band of miscreant friends snuck into the towers the night of Aug. 6, dodging security guards and setting up their equipment.

In the morning, the 24-year-old Frenchman took up his balancing pole, stepped out onto the wire and grinned. "I was overwhelmed by a sense of easiness, a sense of simplicity," he said later. "I was carrying my life on a path that was the simplest, the most beautiful and the easiest." He was "one-thousand-per-cent alive."

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For 45 minutes, until the police snatched him back, Petit entertained the crowds with his amazing sense of balance – bowing, kneeling, even lying down on the wire at one point. Hundreds of feet below, a huge crowd gathered, faces turned up. For a blessed time, like Petit, they were entirely in the moment. Perhaps they were transported briefly from their crisis-rich lives: The oil crisis, the presidential crisis (Richard Nixon would resign the next day), the crisis of the meddlesome boss and the teething toddler.

We watch wire-walkers not for the danger they represent – no one actually wanted to see a splat shaped like a gingery Frenchman on the streets of Manhattan – but for the awe of that moment, seeing that focus and single-mindedness, the devotion to one task at hand. The luxury of it! The joy of seeing someone achieve balance, perfectly, when the rest of us chase after it, distracted and flailing, and fall.

For thousands of years, balance has been considered an ideal to pursue – but so too were other ideals, such as moral rectitude and piety. Those fallen away, we are left with balance as the shimmering modern grail, always just slightly out of reach. The irony is that the harder we struggle for it, the more shaky the wire beneath us becomes, and the farther away the ground seems.

Once, the equilibrium we sought was meant to be internal. The ancient Greeks wanted everything to be in perfect harmony – your wet and dry ingredients, your vapours and fluids, your bravery and restraint. "Nothing in excess," said the Oracle at Delphi. The Greeks gave us the idea of the bodily humours in sync (eucrasia) and out of joint (dyskrasia). There were four humours, and in each personality a balance existed, depending on which particular juices were dominant: You could be melancholic (black bile), choleric (yellow bile), sanguine (blood) or phlegmatic (I think you can guess the fluid). Illness and emotional turmoil were the result of an imbalance in humours.

For the Greeks and the Elizabethans, balance was an internal mechanism affected by external factors: age, season, temperature. But for us, the concept is flipped on its head: Balance is not so much about what's inside as what's outside. It becomes about juggling competing demands on your time, and competing interests. It is about trying to keep 20 plates in the air, in the dark, with a small person clutching your leg.

Now, of course, the discussion almost always centres around "work-life balance," because the media conversation is dominated by people like me, who are in the scary middle of life, where there are many mirrors reflecting back our reality and none of them is flattering. All our metaphors involve frantic motion: juggling, running, flying, drowning. "I'm run off my pins!" I shriek down the phone at a well-meaning friend who asks how I am. We find weird comfort in our useless, circular motions, perhaps fearing that, like log-rolling lumberjacks, if we actually stop we'll sink.

The phrase "work-life balance" has been in use for nearly three decades. In 1991, the Wharton School of Business founded the Work-Life Integration project, and ever since has been issuing sober reports about the need for more caring, flexible, intuitive workplaces. And yet the wire keeps jiggling: Blame the stormy economy. Blame the gorgeous distractions of technology. Don't look down.

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Periodically, we're transfixed when someone steps off the wire, as Mohamed El-Erian recently did. The head of the investment firm Pimco stepped down from his job, which apparently netted him $100 million a year, to be more available to his family. The breaking point came when his daughter sent him a list of 22 events he'd missed, from a soccer match to a parent-teacher meeting, because he was too busy making money elsewhere.

"Of course I was experiencing what many, if not the majority of working parents experience," El-Erian wrote in Worth magazine. "Work-life imbalance is prevalent in America and is one of our greatest challenges." He went on to note, quite correctly, that the problem is worse for low-income parents. What was left out of his message is that most of us do not have the luxury of spending our lives in search of balance. We search for clean socks instead, and settle for ones that have only been worn once.

You would need another lifetime to read all the books about work-life balance, never mind the studies, never mind the research. The quest for it is now yet another thing to be anxious about. And in our swim-class-versus-project-deadline solipsism, we forget about all the other people seeking equilibrium: The grieving, the ill, the lonely, the people who wish they could complain about the busyness of their lives.

Maybe we invest too much in this race for balance. Maybe chaos is where it's at. I once interviewed the Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway, mother of four, who had recently forgotten one of her kids at school. How, I asked gingerly, did she think she was managing? She sighed. "We just muddle through." I seriously thought about having that cross-stitched on a tea towel and hung above my door.

Or, as the late, great Nora Ephron said in a commencement speech at her alma mater, Wellesley College, in 1996: "In case you're wondering, of course you can have it all. … It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like you think it will be, but surprises are good for you."

At some point, this juggling act became a competition: I can keep 30 plates in the air. No, 40! As Brigid Schulte writes in her superb book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, "busyness is now the social norm that people feel they must conform to … or risk being outcasts." She goes to visit Ann Burnett, a professor of communications at North Dakota State University, who studies round-robin Christmas letters for clues to how we transmit this particular anxiety-status to our loved ones. The letters, increasingly, are full of words like "hectic," "frantic" "whirlwind" and "consumed." It's boasting disguised as lament.

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Schulte points to a survey of more than 30,000 Canadians which revealed that 90 per cent of them feel "role overload" – that is, they're doing too many things at one time. Neuroscience has shown over and over that we are not designed to multitask: We are not meant to drive and text, or eat and walk. Philippe Petit was able to keep his balance on that wire high above New York because he had one job to do.

A story from my own life: As I'm writing this essay, I'm trying to do 10 other things, all of them badly. I have two speeches to write. There are 6,587 unread e-mails in my inbox and Microsoft is threatening to cut my electronic umbilical cord. Unlike the people in Schulte's book, I don't feel smug. I just feel slightly nauseated, because there's a mysterious message written on my hand, and I have no idea what it says.

I am constantly writing notes on my hand because all the remembering-places in my head are full. On this day, though, the combination of my terrible handwriting and indelible ink combines to foil my best intentions. There is an important message scrawled on my body, in Sharpie, but I can't read what it says. This is doubly tormenting: There is something I should be remembering, but now I can't, and it will be there forever.

At dinner, I show my hand to my family. "Can any of you read what this says?"

"Wow," says my husband. "If only you had a magical electronic device that could record these things for you."

"Does it say 'hi-bye?'" my son asks.

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"Why would I write 'hi-bye' on my hand?" I say, perhaps a bit too shrilly.

My daughter grabs my hand, ponders it for a minute. "I think it says, 'worry.'"

I snatch my hand back and stare at it. Maybe I've become the kind of madwoman who writes "worry" on her hand, just in case she forgets, for five minutes, to worry. Then the absurdity of the situation hits me, and I burst out laughing.

"You know what I'm going to do?" I say. "I'm going to cut off my hand. Then I won't have to think about it any more."

"I have a knife," my daughter says.

The next day, with the ink still mockingly black on my hand, I realize that the scrawled message is actually the set of initials of someone I've forgotten to e-mail. One more plate hits the floor, but it doesn't matter. I've become used to walking around ankle-deep in crockery. We all have. If I may paraphrase T.E. Lawrence, or at least Peter O'Toole playing T.E. Lawrence: Certainly it's a mess. The trick is not minding that it's a mess.

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The metaphorical plates appear again when I survey friends about their search for balance (most of them have abandoned the search, and are instead drinking brandy from the rescue dog's collar). "That exact moment when I feel I am juggling too many plates I ask myself, 'Why am I doing this? Who am I doing this for?'" says one of them, a single mother of two. "Am I trying to be perceived as 'busy' so that people will approve of me? Am I trying to prove my self-worth? Am I insecure about the way I am raising my children? Am I trying to please someone?"

Another wise woman said: "Is there some magical still spot that I can settle into in the eye of the storm? I think so, but I can't seem to stay in it very long. I find it at yoga and during morning walks … and then I lose it at work and end up looking for it in the fridge all night. I figure I ain't never gonna find it, so I might as well chill about being out of whack most of the time."

What if balance is overrated? Not for wire-walkers, of course, but for everyone else. The British philosopher and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips makes an elegant case in his essay, On Balance. "Faced with the stresses and strains of everyday life it is easy now for people to feel that they are failing; and what they are failing at, one way or another, is managing the ordinary excesses that we are all beset by: too much frustration, too much bad feeling, too little love, too little success, and so on."

But what if we accepted a simple proposition: That we are, as Phillips says, "too much for ourselves." We are overstuffed with longing and frustration and ambivalence, but these are home-base emotions, and we should not flee from them.

In fact, we are most alive when we are off-balance: We speak of being "swept off our feet" by love, or "bowled over with happiness" when a child graduates. We lose balance when we're captivated by a person, or a thought, or the sight of something beautiful or disturbing. All the best art is about someone who is truly messed up; nobody wants to read a novel about Ned Flanders. But Mr. Burns? He's worth a whole library.

It's been 40 years since Philippe Petit hovered like a scrawny, leotarded bird over the streets of Manhattan. You can see his walk in the great documentary Man on Wire. His balancing act was a thing of beauty, to be admired from a distance. Just don't try it at home.

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