Book Review: Margin by Dr. Richard Swenson

I recently realized that every time I see someone on television sleeping in a hammock, I'm envious. It just looks so appealing! Well, I think I know why. It's because people who have time to nap in a hammock, have margin. Today I finished Dr. Richard Swenson's book of that title, which rates as one of the most important books on life-management that I've read. Swenson is convinced (and I think he's right) that we live in an unprecedented age where the pace and complexity of life conspire to produce exponential levels of stress and overload. Margin is the space in various areas of our lives - physical, emotional, time, financial - that can protect us from overload. When margin decreases, stress increases and burn-out is the end result.

Swenson spends the first part of the book discussing the cultural changes and societal reasons that account for the pain of stress and overload. This is his diagnosis of our pain. Much of this material reads like a sociology textbook and might even be boring to some people, but that should not put one off from reading the book.

The second section, discussing the presription for overloaded lives is really the heart of the book, and easily make the book worth reading. The prescription is margin - margin in physical energy, emotional energy, time, and finances. We don't have margin because we overwork, overcommit, overspend and overeat. We spend too many hours at the office, accumulate too much debt, spend too little time in silence and solitude, neglect nutrition and exercise and rest, and fail to nurture important relationships. What we need is a strict regimen of lifestyle changes which will help us cultivate margin in our bodies, our souls, our calendars, and our budgets. This calls for discipline and intentionality. These chapaters are especially helpful in providing wise strategies to help us along the way. I've read a good bit of this material twice.

The third part of the book deals with the result of building margin into our lives, namely health - health measured in contentment, balance, rest, and relationships. The chapters on contentment and balance were especially helpful to me, partly because they probe deeper than behavioral issues into the motivations of the heart. Other positives in the book include Swenson's extensive quotations from sociological and cultural researchers, his personal anecdotes, and his meditation on Scripture. Some weaknesses are an occasionally corny writing style, some weak interpretations of Scripture, and perhaps assuming too much from less than scientific research. But these are mild criticisms at best and do not really affect the overall message or usefulness of the book.

As a whole, this is a commendable book and one that is needed by most of the people I know. Almost everyone is too busy, stressed, tired, and overloaded. I certainly have been. And I intend to make some changes. One of those just may be purchasing a hammock for my back yard, so that I can enjoy some afternoon naps every now and then while my son plays in his sandbox nearby.


mwh said...

Everytime I hear a discussion about how busy and stressful our lives are in this modern world, I can't help but think about that quote by Spurgeon:

"If by excessive labour, we die before reaching the average age of man, worn out in the Master's service, then glory be to God, we shall have so much less of earth and so much more of Heaven! It is our duty and our privilege to exhaust our lives for Jesus. We are not to be living specimens of men in fine preservation, but living sacrifices, whose lot is to be consumed."

And then think of Paul's comment about pummeling his body so as to bring it into discipline, so that he would not be cast aside. And I can't help but wonder then, if it is not that we live too busy of lives, but rather we live lives busy with the wrong stuff. We consume our margins on frivolous activities.

I don't worry about what the world does, but in the church I often find such comments about not "over-committing", maintaining "down-time", or protecting "family time" often end up acting as excuses for not doing ministry. I have to quote here the comment of my old boss: "Guys need to learn how to unwind with the Word of God!" And I would add, how to unwind with the people of God! When I look at how much time is spent on watching TV instead of reading God's Word, how much money is spent on taking family vacations instead of family mission trips, and how many resources are spent doing home improvement instead of building the house of God, I can't help but wonder if it is not that people don't have enough margin but rather they spend their margins on their own desires (which never really satisfy--hence the exhaustion).

Granted, Spurgeon took his vacations by the sea; but Spurgeon also got more ministry done in a single day than most of us do in a whole month. Whoever said we were supposed to have margin in our life? How would you qualify my comments? Just the words of a naive, over-zealous young man?

Brian G. Hedges said...

No, I think your comments are appropriate and would reflect the perspective of the author of this book. We do fill our lives up with the wrong things. We do overextend in things that don't matter. We do need to simplify and maximize our efforts for the kingdom.

But even then, there is a need for balance. Spurgeon did accomplish more in his lifetime than most of us would in ten - and we should emulate his example in many ways. But not in all ways. He was extremely overweight, didn't take good care of his health, and died at fifty-six years old! And even Spurgeon recommended time off for ministers.

But for most people, the place to start is in a major realignment of one's priorities with the priorities of the kingdom. Your words are well said - but not out of sinc with the heart of this book.