“When you reach the limits of your resources or abilities, you have no margin left. Yet because we don’t even know what margin is, we don’t realize it is gone. We know that something is not right but we can’t solve the puzzle beyond that. Our pain is palpable, but our assailant remains unnamed.”Richard Swenson, Margin
Sound familiar? Have you ever found yourself on overload? Devoid of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy with no time to stop and find the way to change? Perhaps you’ve felt as if there is no legitimate way out of this place you’ve found yourself in.
I’ve found myself in that place more than once in my life. I am a spiritual leader and yet there are times when I find myself living without margin and as Mammy said in Gone With the Wind, “It ain’t fittin’…It ain’t fittin’…It jes ain’t fittin…It ain’t fittin’.” If you’re not a Southerner and need that language interpreted, it’s just not right.
Yet our American lifestyle and even beyond that, our American church, encourages such a lifestyle. If a spiritual leader gives of themselves in ways that are clearly out of balance and yet it seems to profit the church, most will applaud that leader. That ain’t fittin’. And truly, it ain’t fittin’ for anyone to live out of balance. Living without margin is a prescription for disaster. Swenson describes margin as the space between our load and our limits.
The high cost of living out of balance, without margin, is a fresh memory like wet paint on the interior of my heart. I can still smell the fumes and if I touch the walls, they are still damp. And yet, I still struggle with living within appropriate boundaries. I still find myself overcommitting at times. Saying yes when I should say no. Oh, I am much more aware of this danger than I used to be, but as of late I’ve found myself evaluating my life again. I feel overloaded. So I am beginning to throw some things overboard so that my personal boat will stay afloat.
I find it is a never-ending journey – the type of self-evaluation where we ask ourselves, our spouse, our truest friends, and even our children, “What do you see in my life? Am I too busy? Am I overcommitted?”
And more importantly, asking God, “What is true about my life right now? Do I need to make changes in order to live within Your margins?”
Most of the things we find ourselves doing that overload us are good things. It’s that extra committee we agreed to serve on. It’s volunteering one-extra time at the school. It’s one more thing we add to our lives without taking time to take one more thing off our plates.
But what can we do about it? It seems impossible to change in today’s world!
I distinctly remember praying, earnestly, as honestly as I knew how, about four years ago. My calendar was so covered up it was difficult to see the dates. I cried to God, “What can I take off this calendar?” It was all good stuff. Meeting with the senior adults at church. Staff meetings. Taking the kids to the dentist. Having lunch with friends. Counseling a church member. Ladies’ ministry meetings. On and on the list went. I couldn’t find anything that I could take off the calendar. Everyone needed me.
Six months later, I took my pencil and erased months of events that before had seemed non-negotiable. I found that many of those urgently important obligations were, well, not so important. They were a matter of prioritizing my life. They could be changed and now were being changed because my life had crashed and burned.
I found myself face to face with a hard truth. I was not indispensable after all! I had lived without limits and it had cost me dearly. I had gone so fast for so long that I had buried my heart and the voice of God somewhere under the endless busyness.
Ruth Barton Haley provides a list of symptoms that indicate that we are living beyond limits in her fabulous book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership.
Irritability or hypersensitivity
Disconnected from our identity and calling
Not able to attend to human needs such as exercise, eating right, sleeping enough, going to the doctor
Slippage in our spiritual practices
What about it? Do you find yourself in this list of symptoms? If so, you are probably headed for burnout or some sort of crash.
Take some time right now to stop and breathe deeply. Quieten your heart and mind before God. Begin the process of seeking His direction about what the proper boundaries for your life are and commit to making the changes necessary to live your life with margins.
Oh, it’s difficult for sure. Some will protest when you begin to reprioritize your life but in the end, what is true is that God established boundaries right from the very beginning. If you want to live well, if you want to run your race with patience and one day cross the finish line in victory, there will always be adjustments that you must purposefully make.
Living within margins. Living within the boundaries of your own life and calling. It is the place you will find God and your own heart and the peace and joy you need. May the grace of God empower you – and me - to live within our margins.