It doesn’t take much to see that our contemporary pressured culture isn’t offering much that looks like the abundant life Jesus promised. We have an abundance of money, things, and services. We have access to the best health care the world can offer, that is if we can afford it. For the most part we don’t live in fear of the diseases and catastrophes that wiped out thousands in the past. Antibiotics and vaccinations alone have dramatically changed our world in less than 100 years. We can now expect to live long healthy lives, provided we do our part.
We have the finest and the best that science and technology can offer, along with a plethora of time-saving devices. We have apps to help us manage our money, organize our time, and even lose weight. We can reach anyone around the world, any time. For that matter, we can be on the other side of the world in less than 24 hours. We have access to comfort, travel, leisure, and pleasure that many in the past never dreamed of.
Are We Happy?
So it would be logical to assume we would be so much happier and fulfilled than our forebears or those in the third world, right? Look around. Is that what you see?
What I see are tired, frazzled, pressured people. Granted, I am a therapist and people usually don’t come to see me because they are so happy they just want to talk about it. But I am referring to people in general. We are a hurried, hassled, anxious, depressed, exhausted culture. Something is terribly wrong.
I’d like to tell you about a timely and important book, Margin by Richard A. Swenson, M.D. I want to offer you insights from his book because I know many of you won’t have the time to read it. Ironically, that is exactly what his book is about. The complete title is: Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives.
Bigger, Better, More
Dr. Swenson points out that pain serves as a warning that something is wrong. Our modern culture is in psychological, emotional, and spiritual pain. Progress has offered us more and more, faster and faster. But what if we become oversaturated? What if increasing change, stress, intensity, complexity, and speed of progress have overwhelmed our mental, emotional, spiritual, and financial capacities?
Progress isn’t bad! That isn’t the point. The point is we have become addicted to bigger, better, more. We suffer from a sort of chronological snobbery that makes us feel superior to previous generations. We have more things, more wealth, more options, better education and healthcare than those who lived before us. More is better, right? Swenson points out that we have indeed made progress in the areas of our physical and cognitive environments, but we have lost ground socially, emotionally, and spiritually. We have “all the unhappiness money can buy.”
If a cholera epidemic broke out in a particular region, we would blame the environment not the people who caught it. The epidemic of mental and emotional pain in our culture is a result of unhealthy things in the environment–namely stress, overload, fractured support systems–things that need to be addressed. And yet, part of why it is hard to talk about this issue is that we are a culture that respects and rewards the very things that may be harming us. We are ashamed to admit we are hurting. Just snap out of it, right? You have every good thing money can buy and you still aren’t happy? What is wrong with you?! And so we miss the point. That’s like blaming someone who contracts cholera for getting sick!
Stress: A Response to Change
Stress isn’t just a response to bad things
It doesn’t really matter if what is happening to us is good or bad. Our physiological response is often the same. Check out the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. Death and divorce are high up on the scale, but so are happy things like marriage and pregnancy, job changes and vacations. We are designed to adapt to a changing environment. The problem comes with unmanageable amounts of stress and change. We are a stressed people in large part because life is moving at break neck speed and we don’t have the support systems and margin in place that generations in the past have enjoyed.
So now let’s talk about what we can do about our overloaded lives. This is where the idea of margin comes in.
Let’s start by defining margin. Margin is the opposite of overload. Margin is running against the cultural grain. It is about white space between the letters, words, and paragraphs on a page. Think about it. All those letters don’t make sense without that white space. Life doesn’t make sense when we cram one activity so close to the next that we don’t have time to reflect.
Time for Reflection
I love to travel. One of the great pleasures for me is anticipating the trip and then for years afterwards reflecting on what a wonderful time I had. But there have been times in my life when I had so many trips back to back that they became a blur. No time for anticipation, no time for reflection, and not surprisingly, no fond memories.
Margin is about being selective, sometimes doing less, scheduling less, and learning to say no. Margin is about having extra time, energy, money…not because we worked harder but because we changed our expectations and our definition of success. Margin is about learning to be content with what we have.
Suzanne Jones, BSN, MA is a Licensed Professional Counselor. In addition to being a registered nurse with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, she holds certification as a National Certified Counselor (NCC). She is a member of the Louisiana Counseling Association and the American Mental Health Counseling Association. [email protected]