MARGIN IS LIKE oxygen—everybody needs some. If we have too little, we suffer from the shortage. If we have too much, the excess will not benefit us additionally. But having the right amount permits us to breathe freely.
Margin is a space, specifically the space between our load and our limits. It is this space that enhances vitality and resilience. It is this space that guarantees sustainability. It is in this space where healing occurs, where our batteries are recharged, where our relationships are nourished, and where wisdom is found. Without margin, both rest and contemplation are but theoretical concepts, unaffordable and unrealistic.
We do not follow two inches behind the next car on the interstate—that would leave no margin for error. We do not allow only two minutes to change planes in Chicago—that would be foolish in the extreme. We do not load boats until they are nearly submerged—that would invite disaster. Why then do we insist on leaving no buffer, no space, no reserves in our day-to-day?
Not to romanticize the past, but there was a time when people had some margin in their lives—at least more than we do today. People lingered at the dinner table, helped the kids with homework, visited with the neighbors, took long walks, dug in the garden, and slept full nights. None of this was regarded as unusual but instead represented the normal flow of daily affairs. In our current era of unreasoned hurry, however, such activities are increasingly viewed as rare luxuries.
If we are ever to restore such a margin to overloaded lives, it is first essential to understand what margin is and why it disappeared.
In medicine, physicians realize that illness cannot be conquered until it is first identified. All of our therapeutics flow from a correct diagnosis of the disease. If margin is fundamental to healthy living, where did it go and how do we get it back?
That modernity arrived accompanied by so much exhaustion and psychic distress was embarrassingly mispredicted by futurists over the past fifty years. In the previous millennium it was widely believed that education, affluence, time-saving devices, and labor-saving technologies would deliver a world progressively diminished of hurry and tension. The opposite happened, and many are still trying to understand exactly how such a sabotage could broadside an entire culture without warning.
The explanation is fairly straightforward yet still not widely comprehended. Our enemy is also our beneficiary: progress. Progress is helpful but not pure. Even as progress results in many advantages, it is also accompanied by disadvantages. Progress brings blessing, but it also brings pain.
Progress works by differentiating our environment. Thus progress always gives us more and more of everything, faster and faster. Always. This differentiation is not a problem—as long as what we need is more. Of everything. Faster and faster. When overloaded, however, more and more, faster and faster becomes problematic.
The bottleneck is the established fact of human limits. Limits are both real and universal. If we all have limits, that means we all have thresholds to those limits. If we all have thresholds, that means it is just a matter of time before an escalating progress finds these thresholds and exceeds them. This is now being done with frightening suddenness.
As a result, most of us now live beyond the threshold of our limits. Overload is the new human condition. We have too many choices and decisions, too many activities and commitments, too much change creating too much stress. We have too much speed and hurry. We have too much technology, complexity, traffic, information, possessions, debt, expectations, advertisements, and media. We even have too much work.
When on the unsaturated side of our limits, we can be open and expansive. We can say Yes to new opportunities, activities, and obligations. But on the saturated side of our limits, the rules of the game totally change. We cannot say Yes to something until we say No to something equally time consuming or energy draining.
It is important to notice that these trends are not self-correcting. If progress were to slow or stop, our economy would fall apart. To date, this lacks bipartisan support. Therefore, progress will continue to give us more, axiomatically leading to increasing stress, change, complexity, speed, intensity, and overload. Such a list is not as negative as it might first appear, but it certainly implies that discernment must be used and priorities must be clear when choosing any future course of action.
These issues have special significance for spiritually minded people. We have limits just like everyone else. Once these limits are exceeded, we have no margin for prayer, for caring, for service, for stillness, for community. That I have limits, of course, in no way means that God has limits. His most spectacular work is accomplished in the face of human limits. We are yet secure.
For more than a decade now I have employed various formats to disseminate this message. Several of my books and many of my published articles deal with margin. In addition, I have traveled the world for thousands of speaking presentations and participated in hundreds of broadcast interviews.
Several radio producers have remarked that the concepts of margin, overload, and balance would lend themselves well to a daily one-minute radio broadcast. For several reasons I have decided at present against that approach. Instead, I opted for the written reflection rather than spoken commentary.
Many people who perhaps need this teaching most insist they have no time to read. And perhaps with their current levels of busyness, they are right. The format of A Minute of Margin, consisting of 180 two-page reflections, is specifically designed to be helpful in such a setting. Everyone, even the desperately time-challenged, can read two pages.
It is my desire that margin will draw you to a new freedom lived on a higher plane, even as it nourishes your life in the direction of things that matter most.
If you attempt to talk with a dying man about sports or
he is no longer interested. He now sees other things as more important.
People who are dying recognize what we often forget,
that we are standing on the brink of another world.
WILLIAM LAW, EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY BRITISH THEOLOGIAN
THE SKIES WERE partly cloudy, the temperature was 68 degrees, the wind was out of the west at 10 miles per hour. A beautiful day. At 8:45 A.M., people working on the 103rd floor were pouring their morning coffee, straightening their desks, reviewing their Tuesday appointments, bantering with office mates, glancing at the harbor . . .
One minute later, none of that mattered. Twenty floors below, a 757 transected the building, leaving the 103rd cut off, trapped, hopeless. But not yet dead.
When you have ten minutes to live, what are your thoughts? What is important in the last seconds? As a tribute to those nameless faces staring down at us from the smoky inferno, can we stop what we are doing long enough to listen to them? Seeing death from this perspective is not morbid: on the contrary, it can help us see life.
Those who found phones called—not their stockbrokers to check the latest ticker, not their hairstylists to cancel the afternoon’s appointment, not even their insurance agents to check coverage levels. They called spouses to say “I love you” one last time, children to say “You are precious” one last time, parents to say “Thank you” one last time. Through tears they called best friends, neighbors, pastors and priests and rabbis.
“I just want you to know what you mean to me.” And surely those standing on the brink of another world thought of God—of truth and eternity, judgment and redemption, grace and the gospel.
Imminent death has a commanding power to straighten life’s priorities with a jolt. At such dramatic moments, people suddenly realize that priorities matter.
Tragically, however, chronic overloading obscures this truth. How we live influences how we die, and misplaced busyness leads to terminal regrets. If we don’t move to establish and then guard that which matters most, the breathless pace of daily overload will blind us to eternal priorities, until one day we too stand at such a window and look down.
Perhaps with regret.
Slow the pace of living until you again remember that day. If that were you on the 103rd floor, what would have been important? Live it. Don’t hide behind the excuse of overload. Daily make space in your life for the things that matter most.
The afternoon knows what the morning never dreamed.
I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer
having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway
from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery.
HENRY DAVID THOREAU
THE CONDITIONS OF modern-day living devour margin. If you are homeless, we direct you to a shelter. If you are penniless, we offer you food stamps. If you are breathless, we connect you to oxygen. But if you are marginless, we give you yet one more thing to do.
Marginless is being thirty minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were twenty minutes late getting out of the hairstylist’s because you were ten minutes late dropping the children off at school because the car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station—and you forgot your wallet.
Margin, on the other hand, is having breath left at the top of the staircase; money left at the end of the month; and sanity left at the end of adolescence. Marginless is the baby crying and the phone ringing at the same time: margin is Grandma taking the baby for the afternoon. Marginless is being asked to carry a load heavier than you can lift: margin is a friend to carry half the burden. Marginless is not having time to finish your stress book: margin is having time to read it twice.
That our age might be described as stressful comes as a discomforting surprise when we have so many advantages.
Progress has given us unprecedented affluence, education, technology, entertainment, and convenience. Why then do so many of us feel like air traffic controllers out of control?
Somehow we are not flourishing under the gifts of modernity as one would expect.
The marginless lifestyle is a relatively new invention and one of progress’s most unreasonable ideas. No one is immune. It is not limited to a certain socioeconomic group or a certain educational level. Even those with a deep spiritual faith are not spared. Its pain is impartial and nonsectarian—everybody gets to have some.
Marginless living is curable, and a return to health is possible. But the kind of health I speak of will seldom be found in the direction of “progress” or “success.” For that reason I’m not sure how many are willing to take the cure. But at least we all deserve a chance to understand the disease.
Make an intentional decision about how much marginlessness—that is, how much overload—is acceptable in your life. Some enjoy a high-stimulus life of continuous multitasking.
Others prefer a more controlled, peaceful pace. Once you understand where on this spectrum you function best, attempt to stay within a range of tolerances. Exceeding these parameters will put your productivity and passion at risk, eventually resulting in exhaustion, disorganization, and irritation.
Happiness is a place between too little and too much.