The balance of things

My father always insisted that there was no such thing as justice. There was only balance. According to him, everything was in precise balance, locked into some larger, often invisible pattern. Each thing—each tile in the pattern—fit precisely with everything the pattern demanded of it. That was how it got to be there in the first place.

I remember an argument between my father and a dinner guest when I was a kid. We were allowed to stay up late when there were guests, as long as we kept quiet.

The argument was between my father and the husband of one of his colleagues. The man was a lawyer but kept using a pseudo-scientific vocabulary to make his points. Then he held forth on the state of the world, on how humans had messed everything up.

“Only two percent of people work the land these days,” the man said, swirling his wine, “while ninety-eight percent of us actually should. It’s not right. There’s no balance in that.”

“What do you mean, no balance?” my father asked.

“The numbers aren’t balanced—two percent rural, ninety-eight urban.”

“But that’s exactly right,” my father said.

“Only two percent?”

My father got up and fetched an empty wine glass from the table. He held it out at arm’s length.

“Is this glass in balance?” he asked.

The man looked puzzled.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Yes or no?” my father insisted. “You know, like you’d ask in court.”


“Watch carefully,” my father said and dropped the glass.

There was complete silence in our living room. My father ignored the pieces of glass on the floor.

“Was that in balance?” he asked.

“No,” the man stammered, “of course not. What are you doing?”

My father started to collect the larger pieces off the floor.

“I’m showing you what balance is,” he said. “The glass was in perfect balance when I held it, weighing down on my hand exactly as much as I was pushing it up.”

He straightened and took a brush and scoop my mother held out for him.

“Then,” he continued, “as it fell, it was balanced exactly with the demands of gravity.”

“So—?” the man said.

“So,” my father went on, “the fact that only two percent of people work the land is in exact balance with the desire to live in the cities. The moment food becomes scarce enough, or cities too crowded, fewer will do so.”

“That doesn’t make it right,” the man insisted.

“To you and me it wasn’t right that the glass fell either, but the glass did the only right thing there was, the only balanced thing.”

The man laughed uncertainly. He wasn’t in his own house and couldn’t start dropping glasses to make his point. To better my father he’d have to kick in a window, at least, and so he was stuck.

“You’re unbalanced,” he said.

Many years later, when my father and I took what was to be our last walk together, he mentioned balance again. We walked along the beach and talked about his illness, about the nature of time and the meaning of our lives. When he got tired we sat down to watch the waves smear themselves into the sand. There was a half-buried piece of plastic that moved with the water.

“It pleases me to know,” my father said, “that this piece of plastic is here as the result of an infinity of other things working together—the currents, the hands that made it, the hand that tossed it overboard, the last wave that carried it to this place.”

He lit a cigarette. Now that he was dying he’d given up on the idea of quitting.

“Seen like that,” he went on, “it isn’t bad that it’s here. It could be nowhere else.”

The water washed over the plastic and poured itself into the line it negotiated with the dry sand.

“There’s great beauty in that,” my father said. “This piece of litter complies precisely with all the things that impose on it. It moves with them effortlessly, like the clouds move, unaware of the wind.”

We sat in silence while he lit another cigarette. Then we talked about the connections between things and how you could choose to see the reflection of one thing in any other.

“It’s a mirror,” my father said, “all of this. One giant, invisible mirror. If you haven’t yet seen that it’s so, you’re like someone who’s never seen the sea. There’s a large and beautiful thing you know nothing about.”

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