Book Recommendation: Margin by Richard A. Swenson, MD

As I mentioned earlier this year, I am using our time in a small space with fewer distractions to evaluate my family’s life plan in general, and my life, in particular.  We are making some shakey steps toward a more simple lifestyle…owning less, doing less, enjoying life more.  My reading choices are reflecting this move toward less is more.  A few months ago, I read Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives by Richard A. Swenson, MD.  I thought a medical doctor might know a little bit about being overloaded.  He does.  I also wondered how he might tie emotional overload with physical ailments, and he laid out a fascinating argument for the contribution that a too busy lifestyle plays in poor physical and emotional health.

He describes in intricate detail the progress that Americans of the 20th century have achieved.  Medicine.  Affluence.  Education.  Transportation.  Technology.  Yet, as a whole, our society is sicker than it’s ever been.

Thankfully, doctors don’t use leeches anymore, but people still die from infections, which we thought would be eradicated by antibiotics decades ago.  Other physical maladies, such as heart problems, digestive issues, and emotional distress, have increased, despite so many technological advances which were supposed to make our lives easier.

The wealth of our society has become more of a burden than a blessing because it has enslaved many to a never-ending quest for more of everything we already have.

Our children have more opportunities for higher education than even our parents had, yet unemployment remains high and job satisfaction has plummeted.

We can travel anywhere in the world we want to go in a matter of days, so we don’t stop to smell the roses in our own yard because we’re pining for some perceived paradise half a world away.

We never have a moment’s peace because we’re always plugged in to a steady stream of noise…Facebook, email, Twitter, texts, phone, etc.  No vacation is spent in solitude, much less a weekend.

Dr. Swenson discusses the consequences of abundance, called axioms.  Two which rang a bell with me are:

1. “The spontaneous flow of progress is toward increasing stress, change, complexity, speed, intensity, and overload.”  I feel this so completely.  It’s like the more I try to streamline, the more stressed I feel.  I keep thinking a particular schedule will help me get my act together and bring me peace, but it doesn’t happen.

2. “All humans have physical, mental, emotional, and financial limits that are relatively fixed.”  There is no magic schedule which will allow me to do 25 hours of work in a 24 hour day.  It’s just not possible.

He continues through the first section of the book discussing different societal stresses.  “Why, in such a prosperous age, is it necessary to sedate so many?”  I wonder this, myself.  Sometimes, I think I must be the odd one who doesn’t have a medicine cabinet full of drugs for every conceivable discomfort.  The medical profession has become less concerned with cause than quieting the symptoms.  Got a headache?  Pop a pill and don’t worry about the brain tumor that might be forming.

To dismiss our assumption that we can do everything we set our mind to, he reminds the reader that “even Jesus Himself did not heal every case of leprosy in Israel.”  God put limits in place.  We shouldn’t exceed them.

The second section of the book discusses his prescription for overload: Margin.  Why do we leave 15 minutes before an appointment 20 minutes away, in good traffic?  Because we push the limits, setting up the entire day to rushing from one thing to the next.  While many poorer countries have fewer things than we do, they also have less stress than we do and more time to enjoy friends and family.

Dr. Swenson offers a number of prescriptions:  A few that I plan to implement are:

1. Rest.  I am going to start planning an evening a week to do nothing.  I’ll fix an easy meal with easy cleanup.  I’ll read or play with the girls.  I’ll go to bed early.  I won’t work.  I won’t worry about whose email I’m missing or what anyone on Facebook is doing.  I’ll just breathe deeply and smile.

2. Laugh.  I have a house (or apartment, in our case) full of laughter if I’ll stop long enough to enjoy it.

3. Change your habits. I’m working on improving my exercise and diet.  By breaking old habits and creating new ones, I am beginning to feel better than I have felt in four years.

4. Get less done, but do the right things.  Busyness is not always productive.  I am working on sorting out the two.

5. Discipline desires and redefine needs.  Another area which needs some sorting.

Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives is an in-depth discussion of some of the things that are causing angst in our society.  It opened my eyes to many of my own problems and gave me practical suggestions for curing my busy ills and avoiding the traps that try to distract my goals for a less overloaded life.  This book isn’t a light read, but it is interesting, informative, and encouraging.  It is available in hard copy or electronic format from Amazon.

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