Margin #3- Overload: When Our Threshold is Exceeded

Have you ever done one of those points-based "stress evaluations"?

Doug and I always laughed when we'd see those over the last 6 years, living overseas.  With culture stresses, job changes, moving apartments, new babies, changes in our diet/living, and the like, we always ended up scoring far, and sometimes ridiculously far, off the charts.

If you're a parent in this American culture, you likely would score high as well-- job change, relocation, pregnancy and babies, changes in sleeping habits, unemployment, change in schools, increasing dietary allergies and illnesses that lead to diet change-- these things are par for the course.

Overload is a common malady among us.

In this discussion of building "margin" into our lives, a common objection might be, "People have always had to work hard and set priorities for their lives.  'There is nothing new under the sun,' like Solomon said."  But Swenson writes that contemporary stressors affect us all much more than typical "pressures of life" affected the generations prior to this one.  Some highlights: we have much more change coming much more rapidly in our lives; we have more activities to arrive at and more deadlines to meet; intact supportive family relationships have been dismantled; and long-term friendships are increasingly rare.

When the pressures of life mount up to unsustainable levels, and our support systems are arguably weaker than they have ever been, the result is often burnout.

In our interactions with other expats (overseas-dwellers), we would hear about burnout relatively often.  It's a common phenomenon among people who have pushed all their stress levels to the max, particularly when those people lack familiar "pressure valves" (i.e., a close relative living nearby to help with the kids every great once in a while) that they have previously used to relieve stress.

"Burnout: If you bend a small tree and then release it, the sapling will return to its former shape.  This is analogous to stress-- we bend and then recover.  However, if you bend the sapling until it snaps, it stays broken.  This is analogous to burnout.  Something inside breaks."
Swenson points out that we naturally bend to some limitations-- physical limits, for example, limit the number of tables & chairs that can fit in a given room.  While you might be able to cram in 100 piece of furniture into a room, would you really want to?  Of course not, because that would make the space unusable.  

Performance limitations often pertain to both physical limits & the unquantifiable factor of will power.  And while the human will is indeed and incredible force, there are physiological limits on us all...  Swenson points out:
"Runners keep running faster, and swimmers keep swimming faster.  But there must be an end to this, true?  We cannot run the mile in one second.  Neither will it ever be possible for anyone to run it in one minute.  There is a built-in physiological limit beyond which records will rarely be broken."
Like the graph shows, humans' "performance increases with increasing demand and increasing effort-- but only up to a point.  Once we reach our limit, fatigue sets in, followed quickly by exhaustion and collapse."

"Emotional limits are even more vague"-- while there are clearly physical limitations, it is more difficult to understand fully how much one individual person can "take", emotionally speaking.  And yet, we inherently know to deal gently with an emotionally fragile person, and we might say that they're "on the verge of collapse", or near their "breaking point".  

Mental limitations are as difficult to define as emotional, but certainly, the human brain can not store an unlimited amount of facts.  There is an amount of data, or a speed of input, that would cause our brain and/or memory to essentially shut down.  Swenson points to the high stress and frequent burnout among air-traffic controllers as evidence of mental limitations.

In response to the (mis)use of that verse, Swenson answers,
"Does this mean that you can fly?  Can you go six months without eating?   Neither can you live a healthy life chronologically overloaded.  God did not intend this verse to represent a negation of life balance.  Even Jesus Himself did not heal every case of leprosy in Israel.  Think about it.
"It is God the Creator who made limits, and it is the same God who placed them within us for our protection.  We exceed them at our peril."

What happens when we exceed our limits?
  • Anxiety- the load is too great, and nervous breakdowns begin to occur
  • Hostility- people snap; they blame and/or take out frustration on the people around them
  • Depression- their hostility is directed inward, and "they withdraw into a fog of gloom"
  • Resentment- the overloading, demanding job/life that used to be enjoyed becomes the enemy

Swenson takes a long time to list out the way that activities, changes, choices, commitments, debt, decisions, expectations, fatigue, hurry, information, media, noise, people, possessions, technology, traffic, and work overload our lives and leave us weary and worn out.  Here are a few highlights from his expansion on each idea:
"We are a tired society.  Even our leisure is exhausting-- 54 percent of us admit we are more exhausted at the end of a vacation than at the beginning."
 "A single edition of the New York Times contains more information than a seventeenth-century Britisher would encounter in a lifetime."
"We have more things per person than any other nation in history.  Closets are full, storage space is used up, and cars can't fit into garages.  Having first imprisoned us with debt, possessions then take over our houses and occupy our time.  This begins to sound like an invasion.  Everything I own owns me.  Why would I want more?"

To the question, "Why do we allow these things to continue?", the author offers these reasons:
  1. lack of understanding-- the problem is relatively new, and thus we are blinded to it, "even when it has us by the throat"
  2. a sense of conscientiousness-- feeling that we should "do all we can" or that we should always/only "give til it hurts"
  3. follow the leader- "our economy and our society are run by the driven.  They climb to positions of power by force and then demand the same over-commitment from those under them."

Here, I think Swenson offers a helpful, discerning point for Christians:
"I am not suggesting that we should strive to have a pain-free, stress-free life.  The Christian walk will always be full of problems and work.  Many times we must be prepared to suffer willingly.  What I am suggesting, however, is that given the unbiquity of overload, we need to choose carefully where our involvement should come.  We must not allow ourselves to be hammered by distress in the many areas of life that have absolutely no transcendent importance.  It is not the will of the Father for us to be so battered by the torment of our age.  There must be a different way-- a way that reserves our strength for higher battles."

Finally, after 3 parts, I get to share *PART* of Swenson's solution to this lack of margin that affects nearly all of us:
"The problem is overload.  
"Each of us needs to seek his or her own level of involvement and not let the standard be mandated by the often exorbitant expectations of others.  Some around us who are much more involved than we are may not understand why we choose to hold back.  Others might be much less involved than we are-- we assume they don't care.  We must understand that everyone has a different tolerance for overload and a different threshold level when breakdown begins to occur.  It is important for us to set people free to seek their own level. " 

He suggests that the answer is in learning to set limits, and to respect the limits of others.  And he devotes the rest of the book to learning to allow for margin in each area of life.

So as we think about this, I think it is helpful to see this in terms of how we react to and interact with others.  Do we expect them to be involved in every church event?  Are our expectations grace-giving in this area of commitments and involvement, as we wish for others' expectations toward us to be?

What thoughts do you have? I've enjoyed reading your comments and reactions thus far in the series-- did these quotes/ideas bring any new ideas to your mind?

Donkey image: m_bartosch /


Conn Family said...

I definitely agree with the solution. I am at a season in life where I keep things very simple. Minimal guests, only Church on Sundays, no outside activities except for 1 day for the library, and even minimal work around the house. We have purposely striven to keep it simple. We are expecting our 3rd child, and I know from past experience that pregnancy is difficult especially with the addition of the other two children and the long hours that my husband works. I know in a few years, they'll be grown up a little bit more and my physical stress on my body will be less (Lord willing!)- then we'll be able to include a few more things into our life. But we still want to be sure we do not become too busy. We don't want to all be in different locations every night of the week with activities, no matter how "good" they are.

flyinjuju said...

After the addition of baby number 4, all in 5 years. I hit my threshold and had to slow down. I still feel like it would be awesome to take the next year and just stay home, but that isn't our life. We travel to visit family 4 times a year and have family visiting us almost monthly so we are still learning how to balance it all. Great food for thought. Thanks for sharing what you are learning.

Kati said...

I've really been enjoying these posts too Jess. I liked this one especially because I feel that I'm one of these people who doesn't commit to as much as others sometimes because it is emotionally/physically draining as opposed to energizing. I need that alone/down time and right now that is after the baby is in bed :) I also know how easy it is to overload with technology...facebook, blogs, etc. and feel so busy and not rested. It's a struggle to find balance when I tend to lean towards all or nothing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Cat said...

Just checked in after several days away and am interested in your synopsis and discussion of this book. I have it saved in my Kindle for PC app but have yet to read it...sounds like I should do so.

Kate said...

Don't know if there was a hiccup in the system or my comment didn't get published because it was too rant-like. But I wanted to say, I am really glad you are doing this series. I am so appreciating the author's thoughts and yours as well. Just reading these posts has been comforting in as much as I'm thinking "Okay, maybe I'm not crazy".

The insights about emotional, mental, physical, relational margins is dead-on, and yet somehow this concept is invisible at the same time. What has been said here really resonates with me. We have limits because of finite bodies, circumstances, dispositions etc. Constantly being maxed out is not a good goal, even though that is the message we get constantly.

These posts have sparked connections for me in areas all across the board.

Jess said...

Kate, this is the only comment I got from you on this post-- but you did have a great comment on the last post (not rant-like, just honest).

I'm really appreciating all the comments, and the way that this is resonating with so many people. :)