The Search for BalanceIs it possible to achieve contentment in a world with such high expectations? Learn how to find balance.
Vanessa Ballam, Idaho State University professor, former Miss Utah and recipient of the Bert Parks talent award while competing in the Miss America Pageant, spoke at Devotional on July 10, 2018.
The Search for Balance
Good morning, brothers and sisters. What an honor it is to be here with you today, and such a treat for me to be able to sing with the choir. I want to thank the choir and Brother Decker for extending that invitation.
Today, we are going to be talking about something called balance—the very elusive idea of balance, and the search, I feel, required of us to find that balance. I also feel that the search for balance is a very personal endeavor, because it deals with our roles, our identity and what we are searching for overall in our lives.
The question we’re going to examine today is, is finding balance really possible? Can we get that equilibrium that we are so often seeking?
I mentioned identity. Identity is very much tied to your definition of balance, so I’d better start with my identity. (Singing) “I am a child of God, and He has sent me here, Has given me an earthly home, with parents kind and dear. Lead me, guide me, walk beside me. Help me find the way. Teach me all that I must do to live with Him someday.”
You thought I was done singing at you. I might not be. There may be more; we shall see. The reason that I wanted to sing that beautiful and simple hymn with you today—there are a couple of reasons why. First of all, identity. I am a daughter of God. Also, I feel that the sweet and simple truth of “I Am a Child of God” is directly tied to what we are going to be talking about today, in the search for balance.
Other things that define me—I’m going to show you some dazzling photos, so if you start dozing off from what I’m saying, you’ll have things to distract you on the screen—as was mentioned, I have the great blessing in my life to do what I love, and I have always been blessed to be able to do that, as an artist. I’m an actress, a singer, a director, and I’m going to show you some photos as I talk.
I grew up watching my father as a professional opera singer. We lived in New York City until I was five. And whenever he would be cast in a production, the family would initially go with him. Once the family got larger and larger, one child would be the lucky one to go with my dad wherever he would go. We built a home in Northern Utah, in Logan, and I always thought that was such a treat to be able to go, and felt like I was getting to know my father. I am the only one of the six children in my family that was—dare I say—crazy enough to pursue theater as a career. You’re singing some pictures of shows that I’ve done in the recent past.
I also direct. That’s been a more recent development in my life. I direct professional theater companies around the country as well as at the University where I teach, and I feel very blessed to do that. As mentioned, I’m also the education director for Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theater, in addition to being a professor and the head of the acting program at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho. So I have two full-time jobs.
There are many professions that require a lot of you, and I would say being an artist can be all-consuming. Right? More on that later. I am also a mother to a beautiful little boy named Sebastian. He is six years old. I am going to show you a picture of him, because I can’t resist. And I am a wife. This is one of those ideas of balance. I had a baby, and I had been cast in a summer season playing Eliza Doolittle—you saw some photos posting up, and you saw that black and white image—and also Lilli Vanessi in “Kiss Me Kate,” the shrew, you saw me yelling at someone or getting my face twisted—that’s that show.
The balance that we found there was a husband who was willing to sacrifice and bring Sebastian—there he is; that’s me as Eliza Doolittle—backstage, so that he felt like he was getting to know his mommy as well. And then we talked about family—wife, mother, daughter, sister. All of those things tie to my identity. And all of you, as I’m talking today, there are things that I want you to consider. One of those is identity.
How do you define yourself, if you had to define yourself? Not as the world is defining you. What would be some of those hats that you wear in your life? Many of those hats you wear on a daily basis. Every single day I am a different variation of the different hats that I wear.
In life—at least for me, and maybe you identify with this—often, those expectations can feel somewhat overwhelming. I know for me, I have always been driven to give everything 175%, which is a blessing and perhaps a curse as well. I also feel being a member of the Church gives an added expectation of spiritual perfection or spiritual balance.
This scripture, Matthew 5:48, says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Right? Trying to strive for perfection. I feel like, as a young girl I started down that path and I’m going to talk to you about the “Parable of Young Vanessa.” That’s what we’re going to start with today.
I was a certain type of student in school. Maybe you are a student that is like this, or you’ve seen students like this. I always sat on the front row; this started from kindergarten on. I raised my hand to answer every question. I always had the answer, and it was always right. It’s a good way to make a lot of friends. I was definitely a teacher’s pet. I was involved in every extracurricular activity you can imagine. I was in the choir, I was in the band, I was in the orchestra, I was in the drama club, I was in the French club. I attended early morning Seminary, and even participated in something really cool called “Academics Decathlon.” If you don’t know what that is, just believe me when I say it’s really cool. If you do know what that is and you were paying attention to the things I was listing, I might have been what was considered to be a nerd in high school. That’s okay; I wasn’t aware that I was, so it worked out just fine.
I was also dating a star athlete in my high school, who was also a student body officer, and I had a 4.0 GPA, I had from pre-school on. I’m sure I was everyone’s favorite classmate. I graduated as valedictorian from Logan High School, so I got to my graduation feeling pretty good about myself. I had a full-ride academic scholarship to Utah State University. I knew that I wanted to get two degrees, just to make it interesting, so I did two degrees simultaneously, a BFA and a BA. I studied theater education and political science, because the goal was to be a courtroom lawyer by day and perform on Broadway by night, because that’s what most people do, correct? So that’s what I was aiming for. I was also in the Honors Program, and I took at least 21 credits every semester.
Being a theater student—I mentioned it can be, being an artist can be all-consuming—so on top of my course load, I was also in plays and musicals at Utah State University, which meant, on top of the course work and the additional course work from the Honors Program, I was in rehearsal in the evening from 7:00 to 10:00 almost every night, and sometimes later. There was a time that I was doing three shows simultaneously while being a student, and I also had a couple of jobs. And from the outside, everything was perfect. I was keeping it all “in balance.”
Until my second semester. I got a bad grade on a test in a law class, an “Introduction to Law” class. And I knew—I thought, “Mayday, Mayday,” my life is over, the world is coming to an end, and what is going to happen? I truly believed that. This is where I had a major epiphany, with the help of a friend.
This friend sat me down, because he noticed that my perceptions of self were perhaps a little skewed in relationship to the grades that I was receiving. And he was right. So he sat me down and he said, “Let’s pull out the syllabus. Let’s look at the rubrics. Let’s look at the points you have received.” I don’t know if any of you have done this. “Let’s look at the points possible and see what is the worst that could happen.”
We did, and we realized that if I got every single point possible for the rest of the semester, I could get an A. And you’re thinking, “Yes! Story of triumph, Vanessa.” Well, it is a story of triumph, but I did not get every single point possible for the rest of the semester. I missed just a couple. I got an A-. And that was probably the most important thing that happened to me in my freshman year at Utah State University, because I had many realizations about this.
Somewhere along the way of being that student on the front row, always raising my hand, always having the answer, I had started putting pressure on myself that I don’t think I even realized. I had started tying rewards—or grades, most specifically—to my own identity. And that’s a dicey thing to do, and I didn’t even realize I was doing it. In my conversation with my friend, I found myself saying to him, “But if I don’t get an A, who am I? Who am I even anymore? The world will stop turning.”
And I realized in that circumstance that the world did not stop turning. Heavenly Father did not stop loving me, neither did my family. My friends were still my friends. And maybe most importantly, I was still Vanessa Ballam. And I think I was a better version of Vanessa Ballam, to realize that it has to be intentional—that somehow, even though from the outside in, it seemed as if everything was perfect and everything was balanced, because I was doing everything, and doing it all 175%, and doing it well—but I was turning into someone I didn’t like, because my priorities were off, if that makes sense. It wasn’t intentional, and I actually felt like I was a victim of these circumstances that I had created for myself, if that makes sense.
I am certainly not advocating all of you to go out and say, “Vanessa said it’s okay to get an A-.” No, not at all. But I’m asking you to recalibrate. I’m asking you to look at that idea of identity and this concept of balance.
The other challenge was, I was doing all of those things, but I really wasn’t enjoying them. I really wasn’t. I was a basket case of stress. And I was reminded by this friend of mine, whose name was Nate Kofford, of the scripture in 2 Nephi 2:25: “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” I was finding no joy, only the fear of failure, which again, is a terrible place to be.
I also want you to consider—I’m much older than most of you out there—so when I was an undergrad, social media was not a thing. Right? And I do feel like there is an added expectation, an added pressure, when we are so aware of everyone’s lives around us, or the lives that they choose to put out there on social media. I felt that everything was my responsibility, I felt very isolated, and I was not very good at asking for help.
Another scripture that came to me during this time in my life was Isaiah 41:10. We are told in this scripture, “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.”
I hadn’t even asked Heavenly Father for help. Somehow, in my skewed perception of expectations on myself and perfection that I was pushing on myself, I felt like that was all my responsibility. And I was going down a very scary path. So, I got that A- and the rest of my life has been perfect. Just checking to see if you are awake. No, that was just one of those moments of recalibration, of recognition.
I also wanted to say how lucky you are that you have this opportunity to come together once a week to recalibrate. Really, the fact that you are already here, we are already on that path—if you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, you are there.
What are we balancing in our lives? All of us have things that we are trying to hold up in the air—our balls that we’re trying to balance, and I would imagine that all of these things fall into five categories: 1) Our work—our occupation right now. Our occupation can mean school, can also mean an additional occupation that allows you to get through school. 2) Relationships, which could be romantic, familial, friendship, all of the above. 3) Your physical health. That’s one of those things that, for me, usually falls by the wayside, because I’m so busy taking care of other things that that one I don’t always pay attention to. 4) Spiritual health, which I think is religion, and also much, much more than that—relationship with God, mental well-being. It could be volunteerism, the way that you, whatever you need to find that path to spiritual health, and 5) Our passions, things that we love. For me, there is a big overlap between my occupation and my passions, which, again, can be a wonderful thing but also—if I let it—can be all-consuming, which isn’t necessarily good, right? Everything in moderation; too much of a good thing.
So how do we do this? I reached out to some of my friends—I am constantly reaching out to friends that I admire and asking them how they find balance. I’m going to have a couple of quotes for you. This is from a colleague of mine from Idaho State University, Dr. Diana Livington Friedley. She is the voice faculty there. She says, “In my humble opinion, balance is about picking your battles. For example, the constant struggle I have with needing to clean the house versus playing with my family on a Sunday afternoon is quickly diminished when my daughter smiles or laughs.”
I also like this one—I’ve tried to use this in my own life: “I wait until just before I go to bed to do the dishes. The dirt isn’t going anywhere, and most importantly, if it weren’t for the ‘last minute,’ I’d get nothing done.”
So again, this is not something that Dr. Diana Livingston Friedley puts on Facebook, but it was certainly helpful for me, as her colleague, to hear I’m not alone.
Tara Young is a professor of costumes at Idaho State University. She gave me an analogy for her life. She said, “For me, an analogy for the balance in my life would be a bike wheel. My work is a large portion of the wheel, but my family and faith are at the center of it. If the center of the wheel is not in balance, then the outside would be lop-sided and would eventually throw me off the bike.”
This is a friend I met a few years ago, Melanie Maxfield Huscroft, who is the co-founder of the make-up empire Younique—maybe you have heard of it—founded in 2012 with her brother, with the mission to uplift, empower, and validate women across the globe. What she said to me was—she gave another great analogy. She said, “I wanted to imagine life as a game in which you are juggling, let’s say, five balls in the air. You can name them—work, family, health, friends, and spirit.” The ones she listed to me were very close to the ones I had identified for myself.
She says, “You are keeping all of these in the air, and you will soon understand that “work” can be identified as a rubber ball—if you drop it, it can bounce back. But the other balls—family, health, friends, and spirit—” she says, in her mind, “are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they could be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered, and perhaps never the same.”
She said, “Understanding this, and striving for that balance in your life, and identifying for yourself”—so we already talked about who you are, which is a big part in identifying what it is that you are trying to seek balance within, right? What are those metaphorical balls? Which are rubber, which are glass? “What are the things that you are able to let go of for a moment so that you can attend to something else?”
None of these thoughts that I have shared with you, myself included, has said, “This is how you find perfect balance.” Right? These are ideas along the way, along the journey. I’m going to propose something to you. This idea of being intentional and purposefully off-balance. Now, if your mind is blown, that’s great, because I’m going to explain.
I mentioned that I’m a director. This fall, I directed a production of “The Cat in the Hat,” Dr. Seuss’s wonderful children’s book come to life on the stage. It was a very physical show; it asked a lot of my cast. I had this zany idea that I wanted a cast member to ride a unicycle. Why not, right? But none of my cast members came in with that skill set, so that was part of our rehearsal journey, our rehearsal process, was trying to understand the ins and outs of a unicycle. I’m going to share with you what I learned with that experience.
Trying to find balance on a unicycle—there is never a moment on a unicycle where you are like, that’s it. I have just achieved balance on a unicycle; I can stop doing anything else. No, it’s a constant give and take. It’s a constant effort in order to just stay on top of that unicycle. And then, I had this expectation of asking this actor to just move around the stage. He couldn’t just balance in one place, but I actually wanted him to progress in the show. I wanted him to move forward.
What we learned in that endeavor on the unicycle was that, wherever he put his focus was where he would go. If his focus was out, he would go out. If his focus was down, he would go down and so would the unicycle. So shifting his focus and relating it to intention—what he wants, what he is working for. The other thing we learned is that if you want to move forward on a unicycle, you actually have to lean forward. Are there any unicyclists out here in the audience? Great! In order to move forward, you have to do something that is really scary, because you have to shift your balance forward, as if you feel you are going to fall.
I’m not an expert, this is just what we learned during that process. So this student had to lean forward—do something that was rather scary—and then get the legs to come into play to keep that balance. So an eternal struggle on the unicycle, with a focus that was—the best focus for him was to keep it up and out instead of straight ahead, because then he could take in the world around him.
I thought that was so interesting as a metaphor for my life. Here’s my takeaway: there are always going to be multitudes of things that can pull your attention. We listed some categories of what those could be. And if you’re not careful, they can overtake you. This is where the caveat is of balance versus purposefully finding, being a little bit off-balance. But it is a choice, right? Not being a victim of your circumstance, instead saying, “In this moment in my life, I know what I am working toward, and I am going to let the rubber ball go, and I’m going to make sure that I am picking up those glass balls as well.”
For me, in my life right now, I would say I am probably even busier than I was in undergraduate school at Utah State University. There are more things that I am asked to do and, even though I try to simplify, it seems like whenever I take one away, ten more come rushing in. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that, but that has been the story of my life, specifically in this past year.
I have had the great opportunity to perform in a number of wonderful companies, and this summer season, because of some circumstances, my contract changed from being a performer to just being a director. That started in May in Northern Utah, and I went into it going, again, sort of like the Vanessa from undergrad: “Well, if I’m not performing, who am I? What does that mean?” I didn’t fully understand that there was a plan for me, even in just this one circumstance of my life, of this summer. We’ll get into more of that in just a moment.
Being an acting teacher, there are a lot of wonderful things that I teach that are great for actors and also absolutely applicable to our lives. I teach from a methodologist or a theorist named Constantine Stanislavsky. It’s okay if you haven’t heard of him. You’ll be fine. Basically, how you break it down is that everything is related to intentionality and action—everything that we do.
Finding that equilibrium, in order to have intentionality, you have to decide right now, right in this moment. I’ve already asked you to think about what is your identity, what are those balls that you’re holding up, what are the expectations that are placed on you, and decide right now that you are not going to be a victim of circumstance. Know that you actually are in the driver’s seat. And you should be. Sometimes we forget. I think we get, at least for me, so caught up in the day-to-day, so caught up in trying to do everything 175%, which I still do. Sometimes I lose sight of why I am doing this. It shouldn’t be because of expectations that are being placed on me from the outside; it should be something that I am choosing to do.
I want to share with you one of my favorite poems, by William Ernest Henley, entitled “Invictus.” This is related to that idea of choosing our future, choosing intentionality in our search for balance.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
This is the most important part for me:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
And this, for me, my friends, is something that I need to remind myself of, again and again. Like I said, it didn’t end when I was 18 years old at Utah State University. I do always have a choice in any circumstance. And Heavenly Father wants me to have that choice. We talked about intentionality, being intentional. Create a personal mission statement. How do you know where you are going unless you know what it is you are aiming for?
I teach my acting students as well as, in any given moment, a character is fighting for something, in everything they say, everything they do, every move they make, whether they are singing or dancing or speaking, they are pursuing that intention. They are pursuing that goal. And they’re doing it in a variety of tactics. I also tell them that we always need to play for the positive. We need to fight for what we do want, instead of living our lives trying to avoid what we don’t want. So, playing positive actions.
We realize in theater that obstacles are a good thing, because it creates conflict. And in life, the obstacles will come. So again, a lesson from acting is the idea that obstacles will always arise. Our job is to work through them instead of playing into them, trying a variety of tactics. If your approach isn’t succeeding, try something else.
Actively engaging in your pursuit for your best balance—the third reason that I sang “I Am a Child of God” to you is that it has an interesting history. It was first performed at a stake conference in 1957. After hearing the performance, then-apostle Spencer W. Kimball asked the Primary General Board if the phrase, “Teach me all that I must know to live with Him someday,” could be changed to “Teach me all that I must do to live with Him someday.”
President Kimball later explained: “To know is not enough” (Teachings of the President of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, Ch. 1, “To Live with Him Someday”). The devils know and tremble, he says. The devils know everything. We have to do something, to accept that challenge that you do have the ability—your right now is not your forever. You have the ability to do that.
Service is a huge part of this recalibration for me. Shifting my focus, turning my focus outside of myself to heal. One of the circumstances of this summer is that we are staying with my grandmother, who is towards the end of her time here on earth. Unexpectedly, I have been the caregiver for her. Simultaneously, I am directing the production of “The Secret Garden,” which—if you haven’t read the novel, you need to—which is all about turning outside of self to actually heal self. Mary Lennox, finding that forgotten garden and seeing that there is life inside, and investing herself in something that is not herself, which then, in turn, helps her to feel love, which is very important for all of us.
Finally, ask for help. I know you hear this a lot, and I know I hear it a lot, but I don’t know that I always fully embrace that idea of knowing that Heavenly Father knows me so well, and He is there, always. All I have to do is turn to Him and ask for help.
The final scripture I would like to leave with you is Doctrine and Covenants 12:5: “Therefore, if you will ask of me you shall receive; if you will knock it shall be opened unto you.”
I would like to leave you with my testimony that I know that the search for balance is probably more important than what that idea of balance is—that journey, that intentionality that Heavenly Father wants me to find. I know that He knows me. I know that He knows what my struggles are. I know that He knows all of the intricacies of my life, and I am so grateful and feel so blessed every day that I have the ability to turn to Him and ask for His help in that spiritual balance.
Thank you for having me today, and I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Vanessa Ballam currently serves as an associate professor and head of acting in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Idaho State University. She’s also the education director for Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre.
Vanessa has been performing professionally, directing and teaching theatre around the country for the past nineteen years. She has worked with such companies as Theatre Under the Stars, PCPA Theatrefest, The Utah Shakespeare Festival, Pennsylvania Shakespeare, Anchorage Opera, Oregon Cabaret Theatre, Music Theatre West, Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre and the Old Lyric Repertory Company.
Vanessa spent three years as a resident actor at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, where she oversaw the first year acting program. She has also served as a visiting assistant professor of theatre at Utah State University.
Some of her favorite roles include Eliza in My Fair Lady, Peg in Peg O’ My Heart, Desdemona in Othello, Gertrude McFuzz in Seussical the Musical, Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest, Helena in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Fantine in Les Misérables.
A proud member of the Actor’s Equity Association, Vanessa received a BA and BFA from Utah State University and an MFA from Indiana University. She is a mother to Sebastian and spouse of actor Stefan Espinosa.