Creating a Margin

The following is an excerpt from The Overload Syndrome (by Richard A. Swenson, M.D., published by NavPress in 1998):

“When I look deeper at the life of Christ, I also notice that there is no indication He worked twenty-four hour ministry days. He went to sleep each night without having healed every disease in Israel – and He apparently slept well. Neither did he minister to everybody who needed it. Neither did He visit or teach everybody who needed it. There were many needs that He simply chose not to meet. Even when Lazarus became sick, Jesus was shockingly slow to mobilize. I would have had a helicopter there in twenty minutes. But Jesus delayed for two days.

Is this to imply that He was lazy or didn’t care? Of course not. But it is to imply that He understood what it meant to be human. Jesus was fully God and fully human, and His fully human side understood what it meant to have limits. Jesus understood what it meant to prioritize and to balance in light of those limits and how to focus on the truly important. We can learn a lesson from Jesus – it’s okay to have limits. It is okay not to be all things to all people all of the time by ourselves. At any given moment, the most important thing in life is the person standing in front of us.

When I finally learned these lessons about availability and prioritizing, life changed. For the first time in my life, I recognized the importance of leaving a margin. The more I understood the phenomenon of margin, the more I realized its importance. And the more I understood its importance, the more I yearned for its freedom in my own life.

* * * * * * *

Margin is the space that once existed between our load and our limits. Margin is the space between vitality and exhaustion. It is our breathing room, our reserves, our leeway. Margin is the opposite of overload, and therefore the antidote for that vexatious condition.

Yet overload has recently become the majority of American experience. Because of the rapidly changing conditions of modern living – largely due to progress always giving us more and more of everything faster and faster – we are exceeding our limits in scores of areas all at the same time. From activity overload to choice overload to debt overload to expectation overload to information overload to work overload, we are a piled-on, marginless society.

The contemporary American axiom is to maximize everything. We push the limits as far as possible. Then we push some more. This has become not only business dogma but also standard operating procedure for nearly every sociological experience. We spend ten percent more than we have – and it no longer matters if one is talking about time, energy, or money. We work hard, play hard, crash hard.

For many of us, that once popular axiom is no longer working. It is time to consider replacing it with a new axiom: leave a margin. Most of us need some time in which to rest and some space in which to heal. Our relationships desperately need some margin in which to be revitalized.

* * * * * * *

Without margin, we are self-protective, painfully uninterested in an opportunity to serve our neighbour. Without margin, we tread water and hang on by our fingernails, trying to survive another day. Without margin, we are chronically exhausted, chronically late, chronically rushed. Without margin, we are overloaded.

Margin, on the other hand, tells us to guard our reserves. Create buffers and fortify them. Carve out some space between our load and our limits. Don’t be chronically overloaded, overcommitted, and overwhelmed. Give ourselves space to rest, room to breathe, freedom to move, time to adapt, and money to spare. Only then will we be able to nourish our relationships. Only then will we be truly be available and interruptible for the purposes of God.”


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