Margin #2: Progress, Relationships, & Mental Stress

As I continue reading Margin, I've enjoyed the things author Richard A. Swenson has to say about modern life and its lack of margin.  Margin is the idea of building "reserve" into your life, so that you have room for what's most important in life.  He observes:
"Progress's biggest failure has been its inability to nurture and protect right relationships. ...Margin, however, knows how to nurture relationship.  In fact, margin exists for relationship.  Progress, on the other hand, has little to say about the relational life.  Even our language gives us away.  When we talk about progress, we do not mean social, emotional and spiritual advancement.  [Rather, we mean progress in areas of] money, energy, transportation, housing, communications, technology, and education.  People, however, have relational needs that go much deeper."  
His challenge in these chapters (chapters 3 & 4) is that God would have us use our spiritual gifts, and the "overflow of our hearts" to invest in the social, emotional, and spiritual environments of life, rather than following where progress would have us invest our efforts-- solely in the cognitive and physical environments of life.

Society looks for the answers to social problems in physical solutions and education-- give people more money, and/or set up more classes to educate people (i.e., Think of Oprah's classic response, "when we know better, we do better"-- is that really true?  Is modern society "doing better" now that we "know better"?).  In reality, while these temporary solutions may provide short-term relief, they do not solve matters of the heart.
"Discerning Christians have long known that God is not impressed with our wealth, education, or power.  Nevertheless, we have labored eagerly in those fields.  What if, instead, we were to begin measuring our progress not by our wealth but by our virtue; not by our education, but by our humility; not by our power but by our meekness?
"Graduate degress and DNPs will never usher in the kingdom-- only love can do that.  And love brings us back to [William] Wilberforce: 'Above all, measure your progress by your experience of the love of God and its exercise before men." 
The final idea I want to share from these chapters is a contrast of physical vs. mental exertion, by E.F. Schumacher:
"The widespread substitution of mental strain for physical strain is no advantage from our point of view.  Proper physical work, even if strenuous, does not absorb a great deal of the power of attention, but mental work does; so that there is no attention left over for the spiritual things that really matter.  It is obviously much easier for a hard-working peasant to keep his mind attuned to the divine than for a strained office worker."
Interesting observation, isn't it?  It is obvious when you think about it-- I often get my best thinking done when I'm doing purely physical tasks-- folding laundry, washing dishes, mowing the lawn.  These type of tasks give mental "margin", and give me room to analyze life with sobriety and clarity.

Now, of course we all deal with stress differently, and we all can manage different levels of it.  Generally, though, I think our society pushes too hard, too fast, and too full... this book is definitely causing me to rethink some of the ways that I thoughtlessly ramble along with "progress" and technology in ways that might actually be detrimental to my family and myself.

What about you?  Do you see areas where progress has actually hurt your relationships, or increased your stress?  How do you manage this in your life?

Image: vichie81 /


Kate said...

Trading physical stress for mental stress. This is a huge piece of the modern-life pie. I was just thinking today about how mind, emotions and body all connect, and for the most part one doesn't suffer on it's own, it takes all else down with it.

I heard someone (on Mr. Rogers LOL) talking about the "good kind of tired" and I've been thinking about that. The kind of tired that we seem to be immersed in as a culture is brain fry, and that wasted feeling that comes from processing to much stimuli, and it is actually very physically exhausting even if we've been seated all day. 2 Timothy 3:7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.

It is such an uphill battle. Our whole modern world is ever more seperating physical activity from doing the things that need to be done each day in the world and in our homes. And labor jobs like construction are dwindling. In order to actually move our bodies we have to turn on a silly DVD or pay a monthly fee to a gym. I often wish I had no choice but to work physically hard each day.

These are really good things to be thinking about. Being aware of the problem is huge.

julie said...

This makes me want to order this book on Amazon! It is interesting that I understand the principle of a margin when it comes to money or a budget, but not so much with time.

A few things have come up recently that have made me think about the value of not having a really draining job. For a one-year period, I have taken on a more strenuous position than I normally work, and you know what? It would not be worth it to live this life long-term. This life of being too tired for relationships outside of work, of struggling to making time for the Word and for prayer because I feel drained and exhausted. I have seen good examples in friends' lives: a friend who dropped out of nursing because she thought that both the program and the job itself drew her away from the Lord by causing her to have no time for Him; and another friend who "tithes" her time, works fewer hours to have time to spend with God and serving in her church. I need to learn to be more intentional about leaving margin in my life, for renewal, for refreshing, to refocus on that which is important.


Anonymous said...

Wow, these are hugely important concepts and some great quotes too. Thanks so much! Now I am curious about the book.

I enjoy reading your blog so much! Your posts are often thought provoking and very pertinent to my own life.

<3 Jordan

Jamie Butts said...

Hi Jess!
My friend just mentioned this concept a few months ago to me. The idea of needing "wider margins" and so I've enjoyed thinking through your latest posts. We recently moved, and in the desire to grow friendships to a deeper level more quickly, I've felt really busy the last few weeks. And convicted that I've gotta leave wider margins - to make a home and also time to enjoy it a bit - sit on the couch, snuggle kids more, etc. You mentioned resources on your last post, and we did read a book (secular, but overall very helpful) called Hamlet's Blackberry that you might enjoy. Sort of about technology and margins.

Glad you guys got to see Mike and his crew in LA recently.

With love,

Phyllis said...

This is neat! I was just coming over here to get contact info for you, because I wanted to see if you had thoughts to share about a blog post I just read. Here it is:

Why ask you? Because you're the most thinking and writing missionary mom I know of. :-) Also, because I keep remembering a little thing that you said somewhere on here a while back. You said that you like yourself as a mom better in the states. That got me to thinking, because it's the opposite for me: I can't stand myself when I'm in America! The blog post I linked to explains it all for me. I really hadn't been able to figure out why I have such a hard time on those visits, except that I always feel rushed and frazzled. Life is harder here, so why should it be so much easier for me? Hee hee. Ashley expressed the thoughts that I hadn't been able to find in my own head.

And then, why do I say that this is neat? Because it ties into exactly what you're writing about here! My life has wonderful margin to it, while I'm in Russia or Ukraine. That goes out the window when I have to switch locations. So, maybe if I really try to carve out some margin next time we're in the states (HOW?!?!?), I won't be such a monster?