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.