Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Margin #1: Progress, and the Modern Life

For the last few weeks, I've been reading (and greatly enjoying!) a book called Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, by Richard A. Swenson, M.D.  If you're not familiar with the idea of "margin", here's a telling snippet from the 1st chapter:

"Progress has given us unprecedented affluence, education, technology, and entertainment.  We have comforts and conveniences other eras could only dream about.  Yet somehow, we are not flourishing under the gifts of modernity as one would expect.  ... How is it possible that the homemaker is still tired despite the help of the washing machine, clothes dryer, dishwasher, and vacuum cleaner?  If we are so prosperous, why are the therapists' offices so full?"
"Margin," he writes, "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 being asked to carry a load five pounds heavier than you can lift."

He makes the point that some people believe that nothing's different now; "we've always had stress, it's just different stress now", they say.  His reply?
"I'm not the one who's making the fuss; I'm only writing about it.  I'm only being honest about what I see all around me.  Something's wrong.  People are tired and frazzled.  People are anxious and depressed.  People don't have time to heal anymore."

Dr. Swenson boils it down to this simple situation:

  • Symptom: Pain
  • Diagnosis: Overload
  • Prescription: Margin
  • Prognosis: Health

He prescribes building margin into our lives in order to restore sanity and build up a "reserve" in our lives, so that we can focus on and do what is most significant.

The Link Between Progress & Margin
I'm interested to read his recommendations for how to deal with stress and "marginlessness" in our lives, because he makes the point-- an interesting one-- that the decrease of margin in our lives is directly correlated to the march of progress.
"In a general sense, those cultures with the most progress are the same as those with the least margin.  Margin has been stolen away, and progress was the thief." 
One example offered is that when progress meets a tree, it makes "tables, chairs, bowls, and toothpicks."  Progress always changes, and gives us increasing amounts of things at increasingly faster speeds.  And yet, in the midst of all these efforts to make things bigger, faster, more intense, and better, human beings still exist with fixed, human limits.  There is only so much we can do in a day, only so hard we can push our physical bodies, only so much pressure our emotions can handle, etc.

From what I can tell of Dr. Swenson's recommendations just four chapters in, the goal of this book is not to encourage us to stop progress, hide in a cave, or become Amish.  I like how he closed up chapter two:
"Please understand: progress is not evil.  Similarly stress, change, complexity, speed, intensity, and overload are, for the most part, not enemies.  But we have different conditions at play than at any other time in our history and we must discern our course carefully lest we be overwhelmed by forces out of control.   
"We must have some room to breathe.  We need freedom to think and permission to heal.  Our relationships are being starved to death by velocity.  No one has the time to listen, let alone love.  Our children lay wounded on the ground, run over by our high-speed good intentions.  Is God now pro-exhaustion?  Doesn't He lead people beside the still waters anymore?  Who plundered those wide-open spaces of the past, and how can we get them back?"

Do these questions and concerns resonate with you?

Do you feel maxed out and spent?

Do you see a connection between the rise of technology/progress, and the lack of "margin"/space in your life?  Isn't it ironic that the more "in touch" we are with one another (Facebook, Twitter, texting, etc.), the less human-to-human interaction there really is?  Perhaps you've read this book, or another one on this subject?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Image: m_bartosch /


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