Arthur Chandler


The other day I was glancing through the persomneals column of my local newspaper, which covers the community just north of San Francisco. I was surprised to see a notice for “Marin County Jugglers.”

“Aha!” I thought.  “Maybe an International Jugglers Association affiliate. “Wonder why I hand’t heard of them before?”

When I looked closely at the notice, though, I discovered that the “Marin County Jugglers” is an organization for single parents. It has nothing to do with deft manipulations of juggling props (balls, clubs, diabolos, etc.). Juggling, for the Marin county group, is simply a metaphor, an evocative term for…

For what?

Why would a group of single parents associate themselves — unwittingly, I’m pretty sure — with the likes of famous jugglers such as Enrico Rastelli, Bobhy May, or street performers in on the sidewalks of big cities? What does raising junior have to do with juggling?

Over the years, I’ve seen the term “juggling” in a number of contexcts just like this: newspaper articles titled “Juggling Family and Career” andfriends complaining to each other about “juggling too many commitments.” The public at large seems to be adopting juggling as a figure of speech for trying to keep parts of life in synch with each other. Juggling, in its recent usagge, becomes a metaphor for the attempt to attain a state of dynamic equilivrium in which several on-going commitments are kept in balance through constant, and often frantic, effort.

AT first glance, it would seem that this new usage should give jugglers a boost in status and morale. At last, it seems, the world is taking juggling at its true value for the human psyche. Deft manipulkators of jugglign props aren’t just wasting time and effort in a trivial sport: they are balancedThye demonstrate, by analogous example, that kids, careers and physical fitness (or any other major personal commitments) can not only be kept mving: they can be manipulated with style and complexity. Maybe even with ajoke or a song to accompany the moves. 

But not so fast. The “Oh wow, watch this!” mood doesn’t coke  out in the voices that talk earnestly about “juggling commitments.” In almost every instance, juggling as a metaphor for dealing with life’s complexities carries connotations of frantic activity, a strained effort to keep the whole things from crashing. Those single parents don’t call themselves jugglers because they take pride and joy in the enterprise. Juggling the kids without a partner is a strained and serious enterpriser, one that requires a support group and earnest discussion in an effort to keep the psychic health of parents and children from crashing to earth. 

Juggling now becomes a metaphor for dealing with life’s major hassles — not just the little annoyances of waiting in line at the checkout stand, or even getting audited by the Internal Revenue Service. “Life juggling” is a defensive activity: not a skill for keeping the objects flying in synch, but strategies for fending off disaster. In this instance, there is no sense of style, grace, or joy in the mastery of moves, much less a positive anticipation of imrpoving your ability to manage even move events or learn new strategies for equilibrium. 

The words juggling and juggler have often, in the course of history, carried negative connotations. In the past, a juggler might have been a sorcerer, a trickster, or just an idle water of time. Juggling might mean conjuring up the devil (witchcraft), deceiving the locals with sleight of hand (shell gaming), or doing dishontest tricks with financial records (embezzlement). Never, so far as I know, have the terms juggling or juggler in Western culture, enjoyed connotations of honesty, wholesomeness, or even reputable fun, except in the minds of jugglers themselves. The life juggling metaphor continues that negative tradition. 

“An inconvenience,” write G.K. Chesterton, “is only sn adventure wrongly considered.” If the folks leading unbalanced lives could only find in the act of juggling a determination to make the downward forces of the world work in concert, made to move in a rhythm and style under control of the human will, the metaphor and the reality of juggling could restore at least a measure of harmony to life juggling.