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  • Writer's pictureBill Berger

Do you have Margin?

Our society is focused on progress. We have so many things that are supposed to make life easier and manageable. Lou Whitworth observes, “we acknowledged that modern life brought problems but considered that such were inevitable and could be dealt with and eventually overcome. Over the past few years, however, discerning people have begun to ask, "What went wrong? With all the advancements we have made, life should be better. Instead, many aspects of our lives are worse than they were just a few years ago. What happened?"

Richard Swenson, a medical doctor, in his book Margin: How to Create the Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves You Need, argues that ‘though scientific progress benefits us in numerous ways, it also brings with it inevitable pains that must be ruthlessly resisted if one is to live a balanced life, and especially a life that reflects Christian values/virtues.’

Dr. Swenson notes that our problems have no precedent because of the rate of change. In the past, we faced a slightly upward pattern of linear change; now we are looking at a skyrocketing pattern of exponential change in practically every area of life. Yet most of us still think and live with a linear mind-set. Suddenly we are encountering limits in our time, energy, health, finances, ability to concentrate, to care, to even feel. We are watching our minds, bodies, systems, plans that were adequate on a linear timescale self-destruct at warp speed. Many of us live on the brink of burnout. We hope beyond hope that things will level out and slow down, but even if that happens, much that makes life worthwhile and manageable will be destroyed in the meantime.


Examples abound of life without natural boundaries. Once it was a given that the night was for sleeping, and the day was for work. Now, we are up late into the night, sacrificing sleep and rest to complete a project, answer an email, or get the latest bargain. A mere hundred years after the electric light bulb, whole cities never sleep. Sunday was once a day of rest; nearly everyone had one day off from work. Now the boundaries between work and play and home and the office are so confused some people can never relax or rest. Thus, we constantly live with the stress of how we are going to do it all?


The Problem of Stress


Because of the unprecedented level of problems, issues, and fears people live with, we tend to have very high levels of stress. Furthermore, Swenson says stress is ‘the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it.’ Note that stress is not the circumstance but the response to the circumstance. 

We normally think of such a crisis as the "fight or flight" reaction which pumps adrenaline into our system, makes us stronger and more alert, etc. Health care professionals note: If these responses are occasional there is little harm done, but if triggered too often or if "stuck" in a constant state of anger, rage, anxiety, fear, or frustration, we begin to overdose on our own adrenaline. This can bring about irreversible damage to the body and set it up for heart attack, stroke, cancer, etc. 

Our stress levels are unprecedented. One reason is that most of us today experience constant mental strain without the offsetting benefits of strenuous physical work or exercises. Thus, we need to make exercise a priority. We can make margin for walks, runs, dancing, maybe even take the stairs instead of escalator.

Closely related to stress is overload; in fact, overload is a primary cause of stress. Our culture adds detail on top of detail; one more choice, one more option, one more change, and the details never end. "We must now deal with more 'things per person' than at any other time in history. Yet one can comfortably handle only so many details in his or her life. Exceeding this threshold will result in disorganization or frustration.

We are overloaded with activities, change, choices, commitments, competition, debt, decisions, education, expectations, fatigue, hurry, information, media, ministry, noise, people, pollution, possessions, problems, technology, traffic, waste, and work.

Swenson says, learning ‘to accept the finality and non- negotiability of the twenty-four hour day’ will help us avoid overload and excessive stress.

Building Margin into our lives

Of all the areas in which we need margin, having adequate emotional energy is the most important because with emotional margin one can work to gain the other margins.

The amount of emotional energy we have is finite and must not be squandered. Though it is difficult to measure and quantify we must not be embarrassed to admit to ourselves or to others when our emotional reservoir is low. Then we need to replenish our emotional reserves for the good of others and ourselves.

Restoring emotional margin is aided by cultivating our social and family support network. Serving others or doing volunteer work is proven to enhance and lengthen life. Extending forgiveness and reconciling relationships can stop the negative drain on our emotional stores. Cultivating a spirit of gratitude, a hopeful outlook, and love for God and our fellow human beings is energizing, whereas their opposites are negative and debilitating. Finally, establishing appropriate limits and boundaries will help in maintaining emotional reserves.

A plan of action


Suzanne Jones lists some of the benefits of Margin:

·       Peace

·       Ability to nurture my relationships with God, myself, and others

·       Spare energy to really be present for those God puts in my path

·       Spare time and energy to handle inevitable issues and crises

·       Spare money to be generous

·       Less anxiety about unexpected expenses

·       Mental “space” for creativity

·       Less “stuff” to keep, clean, organize, and store

·       Time to reflect on what really matters, to practice awareness and gratitude

join us on this journey to create the needed margin in our lives for overall health, vibrancy, and peace. This is the way of Jesus.

‘But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’ – Jesus (Matthew 6:33)


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