The Dancing Puritan

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Margin: A Review.

Swenson, Richard. Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives.  Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2004.

Ray Rhodes

It is appropriate that a physician wrote Margin. If anything, Margin is a diagnosis and a cure for an “affliction” that is common to many people in modern day America. Margin is space, extra space.
Do you have margin in your life? Many people do not. They are running behind, running late, and running on empty.  Swenson writes:

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 car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station —and you forgot your wallet. (13)

Perhaps that picture is painfully familiar to you. Swenson clarifies: “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.” (13) Swenson’s words offer hope to the weary. The possibility of breathing more freely in the midst of a busy life sounds refreshing.

Swenson lists several axioms that apply to every person. Axiom three argues: “All humans have physical, mental, emotional, and financial limits that are relatively fixed.” (27) It is obvious that we often do not practically live as if there are limits. Many of us take on more physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially than we are able to bear.

A major adversary in the war against margin is the rapid increase of progress. Swenson asserts: “The profusion of progress is on a collision course with human limits. Once the threshold of these limits is exceeded, overload displaces margin.” (27) The problem is that in the past 25 years the movement of progress has risen upward exponentially at an “incomprehensible” rate. (41)

A major factor is, that in the midst of a seemingly limitless potential for progress, that few of us recognize, in a tangible way, that we have limitations. Theoretically we believe that we are limited but we live as if we have no limitations. The result is felt emotionally, spiritually, physically, and financially. Swenson’s analysis: “Margin, the space that once existed between ourselves and our limits was an early casualty. When you reach the limits of your resources or abilities, you have no margin left.” (42) What happened? “So as history and progress picked up speed we hit limit after limit. Slowly, margin began to disappear. Then when exponentiality took over the controls, margin vaporized.” (42)

Swenson wonders why in the midst of such prosperity and so many “time-saving” devices that we enjoy, do we have such loss of margin? The simple answer is that with every moment captured, a thousand other things quickly fill in the gaps. Examples abound, especially regarding technology. Our not-to-distant forefathers worked hard but they had time and space. They could pull up a chair and talk when a neighbor needed help. A distressed person, on the other hand, displays the symptoms of brokenness and burnout. Those symptoms are classified under headings of psychological, physical, and behaviora.l (51) In everything from depression, to rashes, to irrational behavior, unhealthy stress manifests itself. (51) The remedy is to take “a dose of margin against the pain.” (52) Swenson asserts, “It is God the Creator who made limits, and it is the same God who placed them within us for our protection. We exceed them at our peril.” (57)

The analysis is sobering. Many of us have acted as if we can carry the world on our backs and not feel the pain emotionally, physically, or otherwise. Part of the problem may be that we do not have a good practical theology of rest and renewal. It is the design of Margin to change that, and to give relief to an overloaded life. None of us can “tolerate (an) ever-escalating overload without eventually feeling its painful weight.” (58) That weight will manifest itself in anxiety, hostility, or resentment, but it will be manifested. (58) The result: “Activity overload takes away the pleasure of anticipation and the delight of reminiscence.  It also takes away the ability to enjoy the moment.” (61)

In Margin, Swenson offers helps for recovering space. He asserts: “We must learn the art of setting limits. We must learn to accept the finality and nonnegotiability of the twenty-four-hour-day. We must learn not to overdraw on our account of emotional energy. And we must learn to respect such limits in others.” (65) Furthermore, he declares: “To be healthy, we require margin in at least four areas: emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances.” (78)

The good news is that “margin grants freedom and permits rest.” (69) According to Swenson: “It nourishes both relationship and service. Spiritually, it allows availability for the purposes of God. From a medical point of view, it is health enhancing.” (69) Margin is restorative!  What exactly is margin? According to Swenson, “Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond what is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.” (69)

Prescriptions offered in Swenson’s work include helps to restoring margin in emotional energy, physical energy, time, finances and time (79-148). Regarding emotional energy, Swenson writes that we need to ‘cultivate social supports.” We need friends. Concerning the need for physical energy he proposes that we need good sleep, good eating habits, and a good exercise routine. Regarding time, Swenson writes, “The clock and Christ are not good friends.” (121) What he means by that is that Christ was not driven by a schedule. He was not looking down at his watch as he served people. He never seemed to be in a hurry.  How different we are.  In dealing with margin and finances he discusses everything from budgeting to destroying credit cards (144-45).

What Swenson is aiming for, is health (149). Health is cultivated by contentment, simplicity, balance, and rest (151-204). Swenson writes as a Christian. None of the remedies offered are isolated from the Bible.

Margin us a helpful book. It is not always an enjoyable read because it has a way of exposing sin, crushing pride, and offering counter-cultural solutions. However, even with Swenson’s remedies, he leaves us hanging a bit. I was looking for more specific help in maintaining margin in a truly overwhelmed life. For example, how do we maintain space if we work numerous jobs to pay the bills, or if we have a sick relative hundreds of miles away that needs help? How do we keep margin when we are closed in by various and legitimate responsibilities?  I wish that Swenson had given more detailed prescriptions for people who are staggering under the heavy load of necessary responsibilities? However, reading Margin will stir up ideas as you seek to make practical application to your particular situation.

Margin is convicting, encouraging, and instructive. Margin will help you to live in a way that focuses on the greatness and generosity of a rest-providing God (Psalm 127).  Margin aims at the root of our problems and then offers solid solutions.