Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Margin and Living Gracefully. . .

I've been sorting through papers again today (determined to finish this job before school starts a week from this coming Monday), and I ran across some notes I wrote for a talk I gave at a woman's brunch way back in 2005. The pastor's wife who invited me to speak asked me to talk about the importance of living with margin in our lives, so I did. As I read through these notes, I realize how quickly things continue to change, and while I may have worded my notes differently if I were writing them for this blog, I'll leave them intact (here and there, I did add a few words and sentences to this).

Because I think the message remains important, I'm going to post it as a reflection of my value system, which remains unchanged from when I put these notes together. I love Gift from the Sea, and I believe Anne's words in that book retain their power if we will heed them.

Because it's long, this is divided in half. I'll put up part two tomorrow, and that section could be called "Artfully Decluttering Life." :-)

Feel free to speak up and differ with me in comments! (I hope I didn't post this on my HDH blog! But, if so, it's just a visit to the archives!)

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In her book Gift from the Sea Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes of her desire to live a life of integrity, of loving her family well, and of carrying out her obligations to man and the world as a woman, an artist, and a citizen:

 I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact—to borrow from the language of the saints—to live ‘in grace’ as much of the time as possible. . .

I am seeking perhaps what Socrates asked for in the prayer from Phaedrus when he said ‘May the outward and inward man be at one.’ I would like to achieve a state of inner spiritual grace from which I could function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God.

I mean to lead a simple life, to choose a simple shell I can carry easily—like a hermit crab. But I do not. I find that my frame of life does not foster simplicity. My husband and five children must make their way in the world. The life I have chosen as a wife and mother entertains a whole caravan of complications. It involves a house in the suburbs and either household drudgery or household help which wavers between scarcity and non-existence for most of us. It involves food and shelter, meals, planning, marketing, bills, and making the ends meet in a thousand ways. It involves not only the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, but countless other experts to keep my modern house with its modern ‘simplifications’ (electricity, plumbing, refrigerator, gas-stove, oil-burner, dish-washer, radios, car, and numerous other labor-saving devices) functioning properly. It involves health, doctors, dentists, appointments, medicine, cod-liver oil, vitamins, trips to the drugstore. It involves education, spiritual, intellectual, physical, schools, school conferences, car-pools, extra trips for basketball or orchestra practice, tutoring, camps, camp equipment and transportation. It involves clothes, shopping, laundry, cleaning, mending, letting skirts down and sewing buttons on, or finding someone else to do it. It involves friends, my husband’s, my children’s, my own, and endless arrangements to get together, letters, invitations, telephone calls, and transportation hither and yon.

For life today in America is based on the premise of ever-widening circles of contact and communication. It involves not only family demands, but community demands, national demands, international demands on the good citizen, through social and cultural pressures, through newspapers, through magazines, radio programs, political drives, charitable appeals, and so on. My mind reels with it. What a circus act we women perform every day of our lives. It puts the trapeze artist to shame. Look at us. We run a tight rope daily, balancing piles of books on the head. Baby-carriage, parasol, kitchen chair, still under control. Steady now!

This is not the life of simplicity but the life of multiplicity that the wise men warn us of. It leads not to unification but to fragmentation. It does not bring grace; it destroys the soul.

Wow. Those are strong words. This fragmented life “destroys the soul.” And Lindbergh wrote this in the mid-1950’s. The life she describes almost seems quaint compared to life now, and in ten years, life now might just seem like “the good old days.” Lindbergh didn’t include television in her list, or email, or the internet, or cell phones (whatever is the latest do-it-all iteration of them), or Skype, or fast food, or stores that are open all night, or electronic anything and everything! We are now unable to escape, and we no longer have to wait more than a minute or two for anything! If someone wants us, they can find us. We complain if our fast food takes more than just a few minutes to be rung up and handed to us.

We’re hurrying faster than ever, we have too many choices for everything, emails pile up quickly in our inboxes, our cell phones ring or buzz, and we’re expected to respond instantly no matter where we are or what we are doing. Even at the top of Mt. Everest, it’s possible to conduct business via cell phone.

Our lives are more fragmented now and moving much faster than Lindbergh could have possibly imagined when she wrote Gift From the Sea. Technology has brought us many benefits, but it has also sped up our lives to the point that we can easily lose our bearing. As Christopher Lasch wrote, “The characteristic mood of the times is a baffled sense of drift.”

In 1992, Dr. Richard Swenson—in an attempt to convince people that progress has a threshold and that our “progress” might just be leading us toward an abyss—wrote a book called Margin. Margin, Swenson writes, is “the space between ourselves and our limits” or “the amount allowed beyond which is needed.” Just as a page of a book has margins—blank space around the edges—so we should have margins in all areas of our lives. But instead we often push ourselves clear to the limits, hurrying about, living on the emotional, physical, financial edge, rushing meals and relationships, scheduling too many activities, doing far more than we should be doing and never realizing why we are tired and don’t seem to have time to get the important things done.

I sometimes wonder if we have any idea that we have limits?! Do we feel guilty when stop and truly relax and rest? Are we always thinking in the back of our minds of some pressing thing that needs doing? Do we feel that we can’t or shouldn’t say no if someone needs us? That there’s always someone who needs to be helped or served? Or, perhaps, we like to push ourselves and stay crazy-busy. Maybe we think it’s fun, adventurous, or exciting. Maybe we’re the kind that wants to fill life with all of the living we can because there’s just so much to do and see and enjoy. Maybe we’ve gotten so used to busyness that we feel bored, depressed, guilty, or lazy when we slow down.

But Swenson writes, “We are not infinite. The day does not have more than 24 hours. We do not have an inexhaustible source of human energy. We cannot keep running on empty. Limits are real, and despite what some stoics might think, limits are not even an enemy. Overloading is the enemy.

“Some will respond, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ Can you? Can you really? Can you fly? Can you go six months without eating? Neither can you live a healthy life if chronically overloaded. God did not intend this verse to represent a negation of life-balance. Jesus did not heal all. He did not minister to all. He did not visit all, and He did not teach all. . . It is God the Creator who made limits, and it is the same God who placed them within us for our protection. We exceed our limits at our peril.”

In his book, Dr. Swenson lists and describes specific ways we are overloaded—activities, changes, choices, commitments, competition, debt, decisions, education, expectations, fatigue, hurry, information, media, ministry, noise, people, pollution, possessions, problems, technology, traffic, waste, work. And this was written before the internet and everything instant and electronic. Technology is developing at such a fast rate that what is new now will be outmoded, or even obsolete, in just a few short months.

Our lives are becoming more complex all the time. Technology has changed our world from one that was family-oriented and community-based to one that is globally-oriented. This can seem exciting because it brings so much that is interesting and possible right to our fingertips, but is this healthy? There’s so much information, news, images, and video footage available to us 24 hours a day that we feel directly connected to those who suffer tragedies or disasters like the Asian tsunami or the London bombings. And while it seems important to have access to all of the latest world news so that we can be informed, pray, donate, or help, how much global news and information can we really handle? Might this “connectedness” to the rest of the world undermine our connectedness to our own places—our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities, our churches?  We do have limits.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh addressed this in Gift from the Sea, and, again, this was in 1955, before we had arrived at anything close to the global connectedness we have today:

Today a kind of planetal point of view has burst upon mankind. The world is rumbling and erupting in ever-widening circles around us. The tensions, conflicts, and sufferings, even in the outermost circles touch us all, reverberate in all of us. We cannot avoid these vibrations.

But just how far can we implement this planetal awareness? We are asked today to feel compassionately for everyone in the world; to digest intellectually all the information spread out in public print; and to implement in action every ethical impulse aroused by our hearts and minds. The inter-relatedness of the world links us constantly with more people than our hearts can hold. Or rather—for I believe the heart is infinite—modern communication loads us with more problems than the human frame can carry. It is good, I think, for our hearts, our minds, our imaginations to be stretched; but body, nerve, endurance and life-span are not elastic. My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds.

Environmentalist Alan Thein Durning wrote in his book This Place on Earth that after years of traveling the world as an environmental activist, he realized that the way to make a difference was to plant some local roots—to build a home and to become involved in a community. He discovered that it’s in building relationships in the places where we live that can make a real difference. He made the switch from global activism to local relationship building, believing that this was ultimately the best way to change the planet, and I think he is right.

Richard Swenson in Margin says “a frightful consequence of the dramatic changes of the last few decades is how rapidly and thoroughly the relational life has come unglued. . . Nearly all the indices of the scripturally prescribed relational life have suffered major setbacks over the last three decades. Marriage—worse; parenting—worse; the extended family—worse; the sense of community—worse; and one-another in the church—worse. And it happened seemingly overnight.”

“Margin,” writes Swenson, “exists for relationship.” God created us for relationship with Himself and with others, and lack of margin makes healthy relationships impossible. We’re too frantic to live, as Anne Lindbergh writes, “at grace” with others.

We’re too busy, and there are too many demands on us. Between our commitment at home, at work, volunteering, being involved at church or in Bible studies, shuttling children to sports and other activities, getting food on the table, cleaning house, keeping up with friends, shopping, staying beautiful :-), and all of the other million things we do, how in the world are we supposed to relax? Where’s the margin? Instead of margin, we’ve created fast food and fast service wherever we go. There’s drive-through service for food, for coffee, for getting an oil change, for banking , for pharmacy prescriptions, and on and on! So, with all of this quick service, where is our time going? Why do we rush ever faster?

My sister told me about a family whose children are so involved in sports and other activities that the family doesn’t get home in the evenings until 9 p.m. So, each evening they meet at McDonald's or another fast food restaurant for their family dinner. The dad said, “Well at least we are having dinner together!” And, yes, “at least. . .”, but can this be healthy?

I know how old-fashioned and out of touch it seems to say this, but whatever happened to a relaxed pace of living? Because I really believe that good relationships require leisure. Whatever happened to making time at the end of each day to set the table and sit down together to share good food and to talk over the events of the day or whatever is on the mind of each person at the table? Whatever happened to neighbors knowing each other and taking time to visit or help each other with work? Whatever happened to kids building forts or exploring the outdoors for hours, either in the country or in the suburbs or in a city park? Whatever happened to the long, lazy days of childhood when one could lie in the grass, stare at the sky, and wonder about whatever it was that crossed the mind? Whatever happened to hard work during the day and evenings spent together reading, talking, relaxing, resting from work (of knowing when to say, like God, “it is finished” for the day)? Whatever happened to a quiet Sunday of rest?

Remember when vacations were supposed to be restful and rejuvenating, and now we almost need to recover from them because they are so jam-packed with action? Whatever happened to family time—and not the kind of family time that happens in the car together as we shuttle back and forth between activities and commitments? Whatever happened to saying no? To know when to say “enough”?

I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with playing a sport or taking music lessons or eating a quick meal now and then, but I think we’ve gotten into such a habit of fast and furious, living and pushing every part of our lives to the margins, that we’ve lost touch with the most important things. Many parents fill every bit of their child’s time with activities because they are afraid they’ll be bored without them and then maybe they’ll get themselves into trouble. Children no longer learn to work through slow times during the day when they could develop creativity and self-sufficiency. Nowadays, children are often defined by their activities, and parenthood is reduced to shuttling children around and catering to their schedules.

People may say they enjoy their busy lives. Or, possibly, this fast pace has become so much the norm for today, that we may not think our speed is quick. We may not sense that anything is amiss. It may feel just right to us and quite enjoyable, thank you. I don’t know what to say to that except that possibly the pace is just right. I really can’t be the judge of anyone’s life but my own. But I do think that many busy people might not realize what they are missing.

Studies have shown in recent years that kids’ diets have suffered from too much family busyness, they are chronically sleep-deprived, they don’t have enough free playtime and solitude to learn to think creatively, and little ones are not even getting the kind of conversation that will teach them to talk. And if they aren’t getting the kind of conversation in baby and toddler-hood that will help them learn to talk, they probably aren’t getting the kind of conversation as they grow older that will develop deep and meaningful relationships. These are probably not concerns of most homeschooling families, but I believe it is true for everyone that too much structure and activity undermine family health, true togetherness, and peace and order in the home—all factors that profoundly affect our relationships.

In today’s world, creating broad margins is a very difficult task that requires great discernment, determination, and almost ruthless resolve, but I believe it is essential that we keep airy spaces in our lives. Harsh, narrow, and old-fashioned as it may sound, I’m with Anne Morrow Lindbergh—busyness and the constant, instant demands of our electronically-driven lives fragment us, and this does not bring grace, peace, order, or beauty but destroys our souls. And then what happens to our families? And to our communities? And to the world?


  1. Well said. Very well said. It adds another (though needed!) stress: how to get back to that place with margins. C.S. Lewis said something about that too, this is a paraphrase from a long-ago reading: We are not meant to know about everything that happens around the world--it's more than we can manage. He said it much better, but the gist of it is the same as what you said. And the texting world is creating young people who do not even know how to talk, really deeply and meaningfully communicate, with people face to face. It is all very sad. I also know the tension of all the wonderful blogs I like to keep up on, and how they keep me from the things I should be-- and want to be doing--with my own family and in my own home.


  2. Another really thought provoking blog Susan. I do agree with the sentiments and with Judi's comment about blogs. When my children were small margins seemed easier to find but we now just get busier and busier. A lot to think about and work on! Penny xx

  3. Swenson's Margin book was one of the most brilliant things I read in my first few years of motherhood - in time to build awareness and good habits before the craziness of having older kids arrives. We are prone to not giving the time to thoughtful planning of our days and schedules - "we're too busy!" - so your words I'm sure hit a familiar tune with many of us. What is it about our human hearts that is so easily tempted to overdo it? For me, at least, it's a self-importance if I was truly essential to every sphere of life and no one could do it without me. I constantly need to work on being an important part of things in a different way: being a prayerful, thoughtful, loving participant of a few things instead of pseudo-participant of many.

  4. Oh Susan, what a fantastic post!
    I get called "old fashioned" all the time and I smile :) I can live with that!
    Finding some balance and slowness of pace seems alien to so many these days, but I could NOT survive without it. I have a deliberate kind of self care plan that I stick to in order that my life is peaceful. This enables me to also give of myself without burning out. I spend a lot of my working life helping other people to identify the "stresses" in their lives and then we work to reduce those by developing a self care plan that will work for them. I agree with one of the comments above about us not needing to know everthing that happens in the world. We're not made for that! Is it any wonder people become overwhelmed! As individuals and as families we need to value ourselves and see ourselves the way God does. We need to slow down to be able to appreciate and embrace that gift of life and what's important. Taking the phones out of the socket and switching off our cell phones (for an hour or two or three or...) etc are simple ways to start clawing back some space, that is so essential. We need ever more time with God. I need that nourishment for my very soul, in order that everthing else has purpose and meaning. Quiet time of reflection, rest, relaxation where we can enjoy our own and each others company seems sadly lacking for many today. Families, so distanced from each other through busyness or distance seems so normal these days. I couldn't imagine a day that I couldn't go see my sister, brothers or dad (mum passed, 7 yrs ago, now) if we wanted. We've always been a close family and my own children are still at home so I have never experienced family life with distance, thankfully.
    I love your post, never stop writing stuff like this, it's sooooo relevant and important in this fast paced world!
    God Bless, Susan & thanks for posting this.

  5. Yes, yes, and YES! I am so thankful for parents who gave me this kind of life- quiet and time to play and read and time to relate over the dinner table every night and delight in the simple pleasures: good food, good conversation, a good book, a puzzle or a game, or a day of hard work. Having that makes it so much more natural to pursue that in my own home, with my own children. I truly feel like it's a gift I get to give them, this kind of life.

    (On another note: I am right there with you regarding eating a perfectly-ripe peach in season! I'm always oohing and aahing over a good peach when I can get my hands on one. And I am so sad that I've not once even considered making peach jam. Now that you mention it, it's all I want, and I fear our season for those perfect peaches is over. Next year!) :)

    Blessings to you, Susan!

  6. If you were giving this speech at a podium, I would be the first one behind you supporting you with I sign that says I TOTALLY AGREE!!! I wish you could see me waving my arms here with a big YES!

    I have/am living that life of hurry. It seems to have been ingrained somewhere down the line. I think the slick increase of technology, microwaves, drive thru's and such have made us think "this will save me time", not so! Gratefully I don't use micorwave's, I don't do drive thru's and I cook from scratch everything but bread. Others think I've lost my mind. Hmm, I say, no I think I'm finding it.

    I have tried to slow down and not rush while I'm "doing", besides jumping in with too many classes and choosing to let a couple go, I am challenged to slow down with a husband who thrives on technology. It is amazing to just sit on the back porch with a hot cup of tea when the moon is full. I am learning what my margins are. If I just pay attention to my Serenity, and note that when it is disrupted I need to do something about it..quickly.

    Thank you for sharing the name of the book, Margins. I have never heard of it but I think that will be the book on my wish list for "something to read" in my stocking. (It's a family tradition: Something to eat, something to read, something to play with and something you need.)

    I look forward to the second half of the post. I hope you are able to write a bit before classes start.


  7. These are really good thoughts by you all! I love it when you share your own ideas on a topic in comments. I hate not being able to respond individually right now, but if there is time while I'm away, I'll do so then. Each comment deserves a reply. Thank you all for your taking time to respond! :-)

  8. I just linked to your blog and love it! Your post is the very thing I have been so consumed with lately. I just want everything to slow down. I will be reading it several more times and can't wait to read part two. I went on over to Amazon and ordered both books! Thank you so much.

  9. This piece reminded me of my first years out of college trying to do it all... Raise a baby, a toddler, teaching full time with a husband that traveled with his work. How crazy was that!

    Why did I do it? The cultural message of the time was that women could do it all ( part of the feminist movement mantra) and my mother had commented several times that she found staying home raising children was very boring. I was influenced by both but natural consequences taught me that it is impossible to do anything well when stretched beyond limits. It also taught me to question the different cultural messages and how they influence us .