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When I was a couple chapters into Richard Swenson’s book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, I was already convinced that both his diagnosis and prescription were on target. It is self-evidently true in my own life and in the lives of those I observe around me. The modern world, with all of the benefits of progress and its great comforts, has brought us to the brink of overload and then kicked us over.

He begins by painting a picture of “marginless” vs margin:

  • Marginless is being thirty minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were twenty minutes late getting out of the bank because you were ten minutes late dropping the kids off at school because the care ran out of gas two block from the gas station - and you forgot your wallet.
  • Margin on the other hand, is having breath left at the top of the staircase, money left at the end of the month, and sanity left at the end of adolescence.
  • Marginless is the baby crying and the phone ringing at the same time; margin is Grandma taking the baby for the afternoon.
  • Marginless is being asked to carry a load five pounds heavier than you can lift; margin is a friend to carry half the burden.
  • Marginless is not having time to finish the book you’re reading on stress; margin is having the time to read it twice.
  • Marginless is fatigue; margin is energy. 
  • Marginless is red ink; margin is black ink.
  • Marginless is hurry; margin is calm.
  • Marginless is anxiety; margin is security.
  • Marginless is culture; margin is counterculture.
  • Marginless is the disease of the new millennium; margin is its cure.

Progress This generation has seen an unparalleled exponential growth in progress. It has helped us to eliminate many problems that plagued former generations - access to food, health, warmth, education, affluence, leisure, entertainment, convenience, and comfort. Despite enjoying unprecedented wealth and progress in our society, we are generally unfulfilled, overwhelmed, and discontent. The symptoms vary from person to person, but the problem is pervasive. Swenson argues that the lack of margin in our lives is the natural consequence of progress:

  1. Progress differentiates our environment, bringing more and more of everything faster and faster. It is impossible for progress to give us less and less slower and slower.
  2. The spontaneous flow of progress is toward increasing stress, change, complexity, speed, intensity, and overload.
  3. All humans have physical, mental, emotional, and financial limits that are relatively fixed.
  4. The profusion of progress is on a collision course with human limits.
  5. On the unsaturated side of their limits, humans can be open and expansive. On the saturated side of these limits, the rules of life totally change.

He goes on to emphasize that progress is not inherently bad, but that there is a fundamental flaw in the way we’ve defined and approached progress. Humans have needs in five environments (1) Physical - the material world, (2) Cognitive

  • the intellectual world, (3) Social - the societal world, (4) Emotional - the psychological world, (5) Spiritual - God. Our modern progress has centered on 1 and 2, while causing pain to 3-5. We need to redefine the measure of true progress to include all 5 environments, reorienting our priorities around the most important foundations - healthy relationships with others, with ourselves, and with God. 

Stress and Overload Stress is an important part of life and is the normal result of change. Stress spurs action and creativity. However, it also takes a toll on us mentally and physically, and too much of it can lead to health problems and burnout. Our society faces a daunting number of stressors at an intensity that no other generation has faced. Some of the contemporary stressors are high amounts of change, greater mobility, increased and increasingly unmet expectations, time pressure, work, fear, lack of supportive relationships, increased competition, and consistent frustration. The effects of this stress are numerous and varied:

  • Psychological: Depression, withdrawal, apathy, mental fatique, anxiety, negative thinking, difficulty deciding, worry, impatience, forgetfulness, confusion.
  • Physical: Rapid pulse, palpitations, blood pressure, hyperacidity, ulcers, irritable bowel, tightening muscles, headaches, weight changes, immune system effects, fatigue, rashes, insomnia, shortness of breath.
  • Behavioral: Irritation, temper, changes in eating and sleeping, accidents, shopping, drug use, alcohol, cigarettes.

When we have reached our limits, burnout occurs.

Overload is simply the taking on of more than we can bear. We all have physical, performance, emotional, and mental limits. The physical ones are usually acknowledged because they are obvious, but the others are less often recognized. Overload happens when we exceed those limits, whether it be by pushing our performance too far, taking on too many burdens in our desire to help others, or becoming overloaded with information and mentally short-circuiting. Since our limits are not always obvious, overload can sneak up on us, and just like the straw on the camel’s back, the thing that breaks us may not be all that significant on its own.

Some examples of overload that we face:

  • Activity - trying to do too much, and losing the pleasure of anticipation and reminiscence.
  • Change
  • Choice
  • Commitment - overbooked and unable to say no.
  • Debt
  • Expectations
  • Hurry
  • Information - buried by data. ”A single edition of the New York Times contains more information than a seventeenth century Britisher would encounter in a lifetime.”
  • Media - 24/7 news, television that is watched 55 hrs/week, and more books per capita than ever before.
  • Noise
  • People - Crowding vs. true community
  • Possessions - More “things per person” than any other time in history
  • Technology - Devices to learn and maintain
  • Traffic - More cars per family than drivers
  • Work - Total family work hours often exceeding 80 hrs/week

Restoring Margin and Health

After laying out the problem, Swenson spends the remaining 10 chapters giving immensely practical advice for restoring margin to four areas: Emotional health, Physical health, Time, and Finances. The goal of this margin is to find health through contentment, simplicity, balance and rest. Our purpose is not just to have time or money to spend on ourselves, but the reverse - to be free, available, and equipped to give of ourselves in loving service to others. It is to restore the prior of the transcendent over the trivial, to foster our relationships with God and other people. Essentially, restoring margin is an exhortation that we crucify to ourselves the idols and slave masters of wealth and progress, and return to living our creaturely life within the guidelines set by our loving Creator.