Living with Margin

margin-heroOne of my favourite things to do while on summer holiday (aside from lying on the beach and eating ice-cream) is reading.  I typically take an assortment of books with me and believe it or not, manage to get through most of them.  I went to pick up the pile I had gathered from my office when a book on my shelf caught my eye.  Remembering Spurgeon’s words about the merits of re-reading good books, I grabbed it, added it to my pile and walked out.

And I’m glad I did.

The full title is “Margin – Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives.”  It’s author, Richard Swenson is a medical doctor as well as a committed Christian.  You don’t have to be a Christian to get something out of this book.  In fact, you could be anti-Christian and get a lot out of this book.  Much of it is about common sense – sense that our Grandparents and Great-grandparents survived on and we, for the most part, have forgotten.

Swenson wrote this book because day after day he sees patients whose lives are literally falling to pieces.  He writes, “Some people come in for broken legs; others, broken hearts. Some have irritable colons; others, irritable spouses.  Some have bleeding ulcers; others, bleeding emotions.  And compounding these wounds, many patients show signs of a new disease: marginless living.”

So, what is “marginless living”?

“Marginless,” writes Swenson, “is being thirty minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were twenty minutes late getting out the hairdresser’s because you were ten minutes late dropping the children off at school because the car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station – and you forgot your purse.” (p.13)

Sound familiar?

My grandparents didn’t go around complaining about how “stressed” they were (nor for that matter, did my parents).  As Swenson points out, no one talked about stress until the 1950’s.  Now almost EVERYONE is stressed.  But why?

The problem, Dr. Swenson argues, is PROGRESS.  Progress is moving ahead at a speed that we are no longer able to keep up with.  If we don’t create sufficient margin in our lives, this progress creates more and more problems.  The problems then create more stress in our lives and in trying to deal with this added stress, we add more and more activities which results in overloading.

Overloading occurs when the expectation placed upon us (or the ones we place upon ourselves) exceeds that which we are able to bear.  This can occur physically, mentally, emotionally, financially or spiritually.  Camels can bear great loads.  But if another straw is placed on an already overloaded camel, it’s back is broken.  Its back is not broken by the straw, but by the overload (hence the common phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back”).

We all have our limits – physical limits, emotional limits, mental limits, financial limits.  When these limits are pushed beyond what we can bear, the result is overload.

WP_20180125_003The perscription says Swenson, is margin.  Margin is the amount allowed beyond what is needed.  Margin gives freedom and allows for rest.  Margin is the breath we have at the top of the stairs, the money we have at the end of the month, and the sanity we have at the end of a working week.  When we are overloaded, we have no margin (or we have negative margin).  If, however we are careful to avoid overloading, margin reappears.

Re-reading this was refreshing as well as enlightening.  Because this is exactly what I need in the coming year.

All well and good, you say, but is this notion of his biblical?  Is it prescribed for us in Scripture?  Yes.  It just comes under a different name: availability.  Swenson points out that the modern assumption for the Christian life is “all that is good and all that God wants us to accomplish is possible only in a booked-up, highly efficient, often exhausted way of life.”  But is this true?  Swenson argues no.  Instead God calls us to walk the second mile, carry other’s burdens, and witness to the truth of God at any opportunity.  And in order to do that we need margin in our lives, so we can be available.

“God expects us to be available for the needs of others.  And without margin, each of us would have great difficulty guaranteeing availability.  Instead, when God calls, He gets the busy signal.” (p.99)

Ouch.

What it all comes down to is a call to reorient ourselves to what really matters in life.  And what really matters are relationships.  When we look at the great progress western civilization has made in the past five decades, it is all in the area of the physical – better technology, communication, transportation etc.  But there has been little or no progress in emotional, spiritual and social wellness.  And it’s in these areas that we are all feel the most pain.

“God has shown us the road to health, the path to blessing – it is the way of relationships,” Swenson writes.  “Somehow we just keep taking our expensive automobiles to our posh offices to make another hundred thousand dollars, while all the time our relationships vaporize before our eye and our loneliness deepens.” (p.239)

How very true.

But we do not need to despair.  There is hope.  Relationships can be restored – we just need to create margin for them.  We just need a little more space, a little more breath at the top of the stairs and sanity left at the end of the week.

“If stress crushed your spirit by poisoning you with despair, then either conquer stress or walk away – but don’t stop relating.  If that malignant, universal enemy of relationship health, marginless living, leaves you panting for air and desperate for space, then go and take margin back.  Hack it out of your cultural landscape.  And guard it for the sake of your God, yourself, your family and your friends.  Health cannot be too far behind.”

Wise words.  I recommend you get the book.

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