Respect the tension line


A thought popped into my head as I sat down to write. I wanted to hear my Sweet Al’s perspective, “What comes to mind when I say the words tension line?”

Al pondered for a moment, “It’s like trying to walk on a tight rope while you are jumping up and down on it. Like when I want to go turkey hunting and you have things for me to do.”

That was not what I expected to hear, but my Sweet Al had unknowingly validated where my thoughts were on the topic. With him, life is always about hunting season. No matter how much he stays focused and clears a path for the big day, I always find something else for him to be doing.

If you have read my column over the years, you undoubtedly know that Al and I have proven to be a worthy tension line for each other. We are as different as night and day, but have learned to embrace our differences as valued strength.

To an artist, a tension line is a restriction. Artists do not want any kind of a line drawn around them, especially a tension line. They feel trapped. It’s contrary to the free space they need in order to function.

How does the colorful artist who runs around the outside of the box become attracted to the black-and-white accountant who prefers to stay inside the box? How does an outgoing personality who thrives around people become drawn to an introvert who prefers to be left alone?

Do you ever wonder how opposites get together and miraculously stay together? It’s because of a tension line. Seen or unseen, it’s a tether that holds a relationship together.

I painted for years before I heard the term “tension line.” Artists might not be familiar with it, but their creative eye knows when something is off or needs something to hold a piece together.

Whether being in a relationship or trying to create a painting, tension lines are an innate part of what makes things work. Unfortunately, and until we understand them, we fight against them in our lives, even stretch them to a breaking point. It can feel like we are fighting an enemy. In reality, those things that hold us down can actually save us from ourselves.

In a painting, for instance, a tension line is an opposition to a subject. It is used in many of Norman Rockwell’s paintings. In his famous work of the old man falling down, you see a baby on his back, rearing back. The baby keeps the man from rolling out of the picture. The eye is deceived so that the man appears upright and sure footed.

In a painting of a ship with a tall mast in a vast ocean, the horizon becomes the tension line. It is a line that crosses behind the subject that helps to steady the ship. In a painting of a tree leaning too far to the right, it’s a single strong limb growing to the left that keeps it in balance.

A tension line in a relationship works the same way. When something feels off, we need our partner to push or pull us in order to line us up. Otherwise, we will topple over by our own demise.

My Sweet Al and I often mirror two bridled wild horses. The strength of each of us is enough to crush the other. But, by God’s grace, we find we are equally yoked. Instead of playing a winner-take-all game of tug-of-war, our tension line has become an ornament of grace that helps us walk together.

We are told in the Old Testament, “Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.” In jest, it is easy to see where I could go with that statement, but I’ll keep things in context. The two beasts are of different natures. While they may share the same space, they are not compatible. To the contrary, like the many different colors of oil paint on a canvas, humans can blend together in a way that creates something beautiful. Then they understand each other’s strengths and know their compatibilities.

Final brushstroke: In life, how many times do we feel like we are strapped by a tension line? In our relationships, how many times do we find ourselves fighting for who we are instead of looking at what “we” can become? These tension lines can feel like a burden heaped on our shoulders or a chain around our ankle. Call it what you will, but recognize it for what it’s worth. That burden you are holding may just be lightening someone else’s load. That chain around your ankle may be holding you back from stepping off the curb. Embrace the things that can otherwise make you fall out of the picture and learn to respect the tension line that keeps you balanced.

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