2013 Reading books

Reading 2013: Margin

March 8, 2013



Dr. Richard Swenson is a medical doctor (with a physics degree). In Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Liveshe writes about his experience as a physician in encountering the results of overloaded lives. On a more in depth perspective, he writes about his own coming to terms with the need for more margin in his life.

What Is Margin?

“Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.” 

In an interview with Unconventional Parents, I wrote this about margin:

“The concept of margin has helped me immensely in the past couple of years. Margin is the idea that we need to “pad” our schedules with extra time, both for the purpose of being able to integrate the unexpected interruptions, and also to be able to give ourselves room to breathe. When you don’t allow for this, it’s easy to burn out quite quickly. Since we work from home and have our three young children at home with us, the concept of margin is also important in the various needs that arise from just being a family.”

The first portion of the book deals with the evolution of marginless living, moving alongside the growth of “progress.” Swenson states it well by saying, “Because most of us do not yet know what margin is, we also do not know what marginless is. We feel distressed, but in ill-defined ways. We can tell life isn’t quite what it used to be or perhaps not quite what we expected it should be.  Then we look at our cars, homes and big screen TVs and conclude that our distress must be in our imaginations.”

My Encounter with Margin

I first encountered the concept of margin long before I knew there was a term for it. But there was a definite need for it. Daniel and I were on the brink of facing burn-out from being too involved in too many areas of life with too little time. At least, the problem I thought we had was too little time. In reality, we had just as much as everyone else: 24 hours in our days, and 168 hour each week.

We had moved into a lower-income neighborhood for the specific purpose of trying to get to know our neighbors and having a ministry with them (that was linked with our church at that time). Our problem of not enough margin came to our attention both gradually, but also through some very vivid instances. We began to realize that we had no time to actually get to know our neighbors–there was always a church activity, school activity, or work scheduled into every hour. We were working with the youth group of our church, and though we often did yardwork as a youth group activity, our own yard was becoming overgrown because we never had time to be at home much more than to head to bed or make and eat a quick meal. My husband was in seminary during that time, and several times a semester he would get so sick that he would just stay in bed and sleep for a 24-hour period. We couldn’t hear the “you need margin” alarms elsewhere, and so his body was forcing him to slow down.

Gradually, we began to. I was pregnant, and stopped working outside the home several months prior to the baby’s birth. My husband, too, began to slow down, and eventually the problem became much clearer. We heard whisperings of margin as a friend advised, “You don’t have to be back in church the Sunday after having your baby–it does not make you more or less spiritual. In fact, it might be the opposite.” I heeded her advice, and my first months of motherhood were better for it. Although she intended her advice for a specific season, I began to see that I needed margin in many other areas of life, as well. Busyness was not synonymous with godliness, contrary to my previous belief that more busy equaled greater spirituality.

I was excited to learn that there was also a book by this title, and of course, a much more in depth look at the concept of and need for margin. I came across the book in attempt to do further study on the subject, and am definitely the better for reading this book.

Convicting and Encouraging

Although I felt we have moved forward in this area, I was reminded of the importance of continual reevaluation in this area, particularly as members of a society that prizes and honors busyness. As Swenson remarks, “Often we do not feel overload sneaking up on us. We instead feel energized by the rapidity of events and the challenge of our full days. Then one day we find it difficult to get out of bed.  Not all threshold limits are appreciated as we near them, and it is only in exceeding them that we suddenly feel the breakdown.”

Swenson touches on margin far more than it relates to margin in our use of time. He addresses the need for margin in financial matters, simplicity, and many other areas of life. The book is written from a Christian perspective, and I found the latter portion both convicting and encouraging. In the final portion, Swenson broaches on the issue of contentment, taking on a devotional tone.

In some areas, I felt the style of the book to be weak, but overall, the message of the book comes across loud and clear. It is also clear that Swenson practices what he preaches, and is quite passionate about the dire need for lifestyle changes among American people, Christians in particular.  The first few anecdotes that open the book are like far too many sermons I have memories of–you get the idea that the speaker has a really good story that he really wants to tell, but then it has nothing to do with his sermon. I felt like this was what happened in the first two chapters; after that, I either noticed it less or the anecdotes actually connected to the theme a little better. 🙂

I definitely recommend this book for anyone living in our busy culture, and doubt that there anyone who would not profit from it in some way.

Have you read Margin? Do you see the need for margin in your life?


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  • Julie March 11, 2013 at 7:38 am

    I love this book. My sister gave it to me when she learned she would be moving to a country that valued margin. It has been easier for her to practice in a developing country. I’m still working on it in the good ole US of A.

    • Keren March 11, 2013 at 11:21 am

      Very cool! I thought often about living in another culture while reading this book. (And of course, the author himself keeps referring to life in a third-world country.)

      I feel like our family has come to value margin and we do work hard to keep it; at the same time, I do feel a lot of pressure coming from a lot of sources to just “do all the things!” 😉 And thus, my growing desire to just escape to a foreign country and go into hiding.

      Kind of going to do that this summer when we go to Ecuador for 5 weeks!!

      Love hearing about your sister! (And you, and from you… :))

  • 2013 in Books: Books Completed January 1, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    […] Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives (Richard Swenson, Eugene H. Peterson) (Review here) […]