Friday, November 18, 2011

Margin #2: Progress, Relationships, & Mental Stress

As I continue reading Margin, I've enjoyed the things author Richard A. Swenson has to say about modern life and its lack of margin.  Margin is the idea of building "reserve" into your life, so that you have room for what's most important in life.  He observes:

"Progress's biggest failure has been its inability to nurture and protect right relationships. ...Margin, however, knows how to nurture relationship.  In fact, margin exists for relationship.  Progress, on the other hand, has little to say about the relational life.  Even our language gives us away.  When we talk about progress, we do not mean social, emotional and spiritual advancement.  [Rather, we mean progress in areas of] money, energy, transportation, housing, communications, technology, and education.  People, however, have relational needs that go much deeper."  
His challenge in these chapters (chapters 3 & 4) is that God would have us use our spiritual gifts, and the "overflow of our hearts" to invest in the social, emotional, and spiritual environments of life, rather than following where progress would have us invest our efforts-- solely in the cognitive and physical environments of life.

Society looks for the answers to social problems in physical solutions and education-- give people more money, and/or set up more classes to educate people (i.e., Think of Oprah's classic response, "when we know better, we do better"-- is that really true?  Is modern society "doing better" now that we "know better"?).  In reality, while these temporary solutions may provide short-term relief, they do not solve matters of the heart.
"Discerning Christians have long known that God is not impressed with our wealth, education, or power.  Nevertheless, we have labored eagerly in those fields.  What if, instead, we were to begin measuring our progress not by our wealth but by our virtue; not by our education, but by our humility; not by our power but by our meekness?
"Graduate degress and DNPs will never usher in the kingdom-- only love can do that.  And love brings us back to [William] Wilberforce: 'Above all, measure your progress by your experience of the love of God and its exercise before men." 
The final idea I want to share from these chapters is a contrast of physical vs. mental exertion, by E.F. Schumacher:
"The widespread substitution of mental strain for physical strain is no advantage from our point of view.  Proper physical work, even if strenuous, does not absorb a great deal of the power of attention, but mental work does; so that there is no attention left over for the spiritual things that really matter.  It is obviously much easier for a hard-working peasant to keep his mind attuned to the divine than for a strained office worker."
Interesting observation, isn't it?  It is obvious when you think about it-- I often get my best thinking done when I'm doing purely physical tasks-- folding laundry, washing dishes, mowing the lawn.  These type of tasks give mental "margin", and give me room to analyze life with sobriety and clarity.

Now, of course we all deal with stress differently, and we all can manage different levels of it.  Generally, though, I think our society pushes too hard, too fast, and too full... this book is definitely causing me to rethink some of the ways that I thoughtlessly ramble along with "progress" and technology in ways that might actually be detrimental to my family and myself.

What about you?  Do you see areas where progress has actually hurt your relationships, or increased your stress?  How do you manage this in your life?

Image: vichie81 /


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