I’m choosing to write about this book as it has really made an impression on me. I have my younger sister, Mary, to thank for introducing me to it and so I’ll dedicate this post to her. 🙂
When mentioning this book to others I often err by calling it a devotional, which it’s not. It’s a book of reflections (so titled by the author as well). To me the difference lies in its construct and purpose. Dr. Swenson is not trying to lead us into a time of devotion and prayer; rather, he is encouraging introspection on our part to critically examine our lives and do a vitals-check of sorts. Ultimately his points can direct us to be more contemplative and spiritually minded, but his approach is much more down-to-earth.
His recurrent theme is the need for margin, hence the book title as well as his life’s work. He defines it as “…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.” Perhaps it’s easier to process with an example he gives of what lacking margin looks like: “…being 30 minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were 20 minutes late getting out of the hairstylist’s because you were 10 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.” Does this sound anything like your life? It does mine, and I know it’s not just me. It seems that so much gets packed into each day with no gaps, no breathing space, no margin of error for those times when it all doesn’t go perfectly like a well-greased machine.
So what does he blame all this on? After all, it’s just stress, right? And stress is unavoidable in life, right? Well, margin-less living is certainly stressful. But he blames a lot of it on progress. By progress he means all the items that advance us as a civilization: electricity, automobiles, computers, the internet, cell phones, etc. While these items certainly have their benefits, they are also a double-edged sword. They have invaded our private space, our ability to disconnect, to say no, to get some sleep, to be unavailable, to spend time with family/friends, to swing in a hammock all afternoon reading a good book. Progress has raised the expectation of what we should be able to produce. The trouble is we’re still only human, and need that space – that margin – to recharge. He cites this lack of margin in our modern-day our lives to be quite prevalent, and also as destructive as any life-threatening disease. Call it stress if you want, but it’s killing us, especially here in the U.S where we are so wired to always be producing, advancing, and getting ahead. Other cultures may not be as “advanced” as the U.S., but their slower pace is likely also more in touch with what humans can sustain. Maybe this is why camping is so popular.
So what can we do about all this? After all, we can’t stop progress. This is where he encourages his readers to look at their lives, the pace, the choices being made, and seriously contemplate making changes. He offers examples and stories, some from his own life, about the changes he and his wife made to let them build more margin and ultimately more happiness into their lives. He touches on a broad span of related topics such as limits, simplicity, and expectations just to name a few. I like to read one reflection on the days that I am not dashing out the door to work. I’ve also gotten into the habit of re-reading the last reflection so as to let it sink in more – each one takes about a minute to read. On that note, it’s not the kind of book you just sit and read from cover to cover. I like how he opens each reflection with a quote related to the topic for that day. He provides a “prescription” or call to action that readers can choose to act upon. Then he closes with snippets of wisdom from all over the world – he seems to have a never-ending supply of these!
I’ll close with one of those snippets, and hope that you’ll consider this book for yourself or as a gift for someone.
“Happiness is a place between too little and too much.”Finnish Proverb
Wishing you health and joy,