Have any of you read this book by Richard Swenson? He talks about the need for a cushion around your life. Whether it’s our finances, physical energy, sleep, emotional stress, or time, we are not made to live right at the edges. If we live within the American culture, he encourages us to intentionally carve out extra space within our lives. This enables us to live and minister sustainably, and avoid disease and burnout.
This is an appealing topic for most of us, and begs some questions. Is it biblical to set limits on what we will do and how much we will give? Is it loving to construct boundaries towards certain people in our lives? Can these concepts be taken to an extreme, and used to justify selfishness and unhealthy introspection?
Probably, and I won’t attempt to dice out all the possible scenarios here. Certainly even good advice (or Scripture) can be twisted and distorted by a deviant heart. But the popularity of both “Margin” and “Boundaries” speaks to a need within the American Christian subculture.
We are a productivity driven culture, and seem to derive our self-esteem and meaning in life from busyness. As nature abhors a vacuum, we seem to have a need to fill empty places in our lives and calendars with more activities. We need a career, a full social life, a happy family life, and some kind of altruistic activity. All this is done in the name of “balance” and “pursuit of happiness”, or maybe the abundant life.
But somewhere along the road we find ourselves frazzled, irritable, looking old and feeling tired all the time. In trying to “have it all” we may feel that we’ve lost the essence of what we have. We love our kids, but how often do we really enjoy them, and just stop and marvel at the ever-changing miracle they are? We are committed to our spouses, but do we remember what it felt like when we fell in love with them? We stop enjoying exercise, cooking, yard work, and just perform it for it’s utilitarian benefit. We can’t remember our vocational calling, and work is full of tedium and drudgery. We are still devoted to God, but it has been awhile since we felt His presence or clearly sensed Him guiding and speaking to us.
How is it that this life, vitality within us gradually erodes? Perhaps it is the result of living in a culture that abhors margin. Mothers feel inadequate for not “working”. We return from a weekend or vacation to the question “What did you do?” Hardly anyone sleeps 8 hours a night, though we all know it’s needed. Stores skip Thanksgiving to open early for the shopper scramble. We cause accidents by trying to type and drive simultaneously.
So now comes the hard question; how can we take back our margin?
This is what it has looked like for me personally. When I was in residency, I felt like medicine was a hungry amoeba that had sucked up everything else in my life. I no longer had time for friends, my hobbies had mostly disappeared, and the stress I brought home was testing my young marriage. I made a resolution then, that my life would not always be that way. And when I graduated I rejected the prestige of fellowship training and the shiny full-time salary, and took a locums job. This part-time doctor has never looked back. I work two days a week, and the rest of the time I’m with my kids. Medicine is really fulfilling part-time because I have a chance to refill my compassion tank before taking on the problems of two dozen more hurting people. Hobbies like gardening, music, language study, cooking and reading have come back into my life. I actually have time for quality conversations with friends. I have some energy to pray and do Bible study with others. My husband and I have time to build new memories together and hear each other’s hearts.
And yet, it is still a struggle. Children (gift that they are) have become the new margin stealers. They wake me up at night. My days at home are filled with distraction and minor crises. Space to think must be stolen during nap time (if I’m not taking one myself) or at night if I choose to stay up and pay for it later. I still must be intentional to cling to that sense of higher purpose in life, in all I do, and not become the task performing hamster on the wheel. I am learning, slowly, not to fill up every blank in the calendar with something I need to do or someone I need to see. I am learning to stop and take a breath and really see these little gifts before me, to see them in their beautiful transient cuteness, and savor the myriad fleeting moments of life, both past and present. I am learning to invite God into these moments, to ask Him what He has for me in them, to believe that (in some way) they are a good gift from Him. Margin is a practical word, something you can be intentional about and work on, but in the end it is a state of mind. It is carving out and building in order to protect what is most valuable.