Overloaded Lives p1 [v73]

MARCH 2005

MARGIN: RESTORING OVERLOADED LIVES—Last month I mentioned that I was going to be getting together a couple groups of people to discuss the ‘concepts’ of the “good life” and the “great life.”

I also mentioned that, in conjunction with our ‘materials’, I was going to read a recent book called, “Margin,” by Doctor Richard A. Swenson. The following is a ‘summary’ of the first third of the book; the Introduction, talking about “marginless living,” and the first of three parts of the book, “The Problem: Pain.” (The other two parts, “The Prescription: Margin,” and “The Prognosis: Health,” will come in my April ‘newsletter’ to you).

[It’s a little long, but the content could be life-changing! Since you have a month to read it, maybe you could make it a ‘scheduled activity’ once a week—a time just for you).

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The conditions of modern-day living devour margin.

Marginless is being 30 minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were 20 minutes late getting out of the hairdresser’s because you were 10 minutes late dropping the children off at school because the car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station—and you forgot your purse!

Margin, on the other hand, is having breath left at the top of the staircase, money left at the end of the month, and sanity left at the end of adolescence.

Marginless is being asked to carry a load five pounds heavier than you can lift; margin is a friend to carry half the burden.

Marginless is not having time to finish the book you’re reading on stress; margin s having the time to read it twice.

Marginless is fatigue; margin is energy.

Marginless is hurry; margin is calm.

Marginless is anxiety; margin is security.

Marginless is the ‘disease’ of the 90’s; margin is the cure.

Most people don’t realize that pain and the absence of margin are related.

Progress has given us unprecedented affluence, education, technology, and entertainment. We have comforts and conveniences other eras could only dream about. Yet somehow, we are not flourishing under the gifts of modernity as one would expect.

Why do so many of us feel like air-traffic controllers out of control? If we are so prosperous, why are the therapists’ offices so full? If we have 10 times more material abundance than our ancestors, why are we not 10 times more content and fulfilled? It is because we find ourselves in the midst of an unnamed ‘epidemic’—the disease of marginless living is insidious, widespread, and virulent.

No one likes to be ‘sick’—or in pain. We all want to get rid of it as soon as possible—in any way possible. But physical pains are usually there for a reason—to tell us something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Emotional, relational, and societal pains, too, are often indicators that all is not well. As such, they serve a valuable purpose—they help us focus.

Modern-day living, however, opposes focusing. Surrounded by frenzy and interruptions, we have no time for anything but vertigo. So our pain, it turns out, is actually an ally of sorts. In the hurt is a help. Pain first gets our attention—as it does so well—and then moves us in the opposite direction of the danger.

So, is there a cure for marginless living? Of course there is! But this kind of ‘health’ will seldom be found in “progress” or “success.”

The rest of the book is composed of three parts:
– The Problem: Pain
– The Prescription: Margin
– The Prognosis: Health

It will examine the following topics: Progress; Problems; Stress; Overload; Emotional and Physical Energy; Time; Finances; Contentment; Simplicity; Balance; Rest; Health; and Relationship.

PART ONE—THE PROBLEM: PAIN

CHAPTER 2: The Pain of Progress

There are many advantages granted to America today that other countries can only dream about. Yet the ‘formula’ for happiness has proven to be more elusive than the simple bestowing of these benefits. Food plus health plus warmth plus education plus affluence have not quite equaled Utopia. We live with unprecedented wealth and all it brings. We have leisure, entertainment, convenience, and comfort. We have insulated ourselves from the unpredictable ravages of nature. Yet stress, frustration, and oftentimes even despair unexpectedly accompany our unrivaled prosperity.

How can this be? Aren’t we advancing, improving, ‘evolving’? Aren’t technological development and social learning bringing us an ever better world? That progress might be in trouble today is unexpected news, for we always assumed it could ‘do the job’. Never did we suspect that pandemonium and progress would one day join forces against us.

People everywhere are in anguish, and progress does not seen to ‘care’. It’s time to reexamine our assumptions.

Exactly what is progress? Simply stated, progress means proceeding to a higher ‘stage’ of development.

Progress is so ‘natural’ and axiomatic an idea that 20th century Westerners can’t conceive of life without it. Most of us, no doubt, ‘trust’ the idea of progress more than we realize.    It is the ‘train’ we all boarded for the ride to the good life. “Development has been touted as the ‘cure’ to a multitude of human miseries” (Nicholas Wolterstorff). In our most ‘idolatrous’ moments, we actually began to assume that the solution to ANY problem could be confidently entrusted to ‘progress’. Thanks to its blessings, we came to perceive the future as a safer place to live.

But then, almost without warning, failures began to take place on stage alongside the successes. Historian Robert Nisbet stated “that Western faith in the dogma of progress is waning rapidly in all levels and spheres in this final part of the twentieth century.

Polls reveal many Americans no longer believe their children will have a better life than they did. We are not sure whether progress is a cause for celebration or a reason to run and hide. After all, we did not have acid rain and ‘holes’ in our ozone layer until progress gave them to us. Margin was as abundant as prairie grass until progress took them both away.

Though America has lead the world in successes, we also lead in far too many failures. Through much of the last decade, we have the developed world’s highest rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy, illicit drug abuse, crime, homicides, AIDS, litigation, functional illiteracy, national debt, and foreign debt. We even make more ‘garbage’ than anyone else.

If progress is so wonderful, why are we plagued by such “a baffled sense of drift” (Christopher Lasch). Why do we drink and drug to forget our problems? Why are we divorcing and suing at such rates? Why are people killing themselves—and others—in such numbers?

With the aid of ‘progress’, perils now encircle us—and not only has progress been unable to solve crises, it has not even been able to slow them down. Our culture finds itself “tumbling from crisis to crisis” (E.F. Schumacher).

We are immersed in every imaginable crisis—and ‘breakdown’ on a large scale is now within our reach. Every time the ‘powers to be’ address a problem, it seems that even greater problems emerge.

These days, people don’t know what to do or where to turn. They are depressed, stressed, and exhausted—with some being desperate. Their jobs are insecure. Their farms have been repossessed. They are over their heads in debt. Their marriages are in trouble. Their sons are using drugs, and their daughters are getting pregnant. When you ‘add up’ all the hurts, we hurt more than we used to.

The promise of progress has soured into epidemic personal, relational, and environmental pain. Margin has been stolen away—and progress is the thief! If we want ‘margin’ back, we’ll first have to do something about progress. There are four ‘points’ germane to this discussion of trying to understand all of this.

First, we all MUST have some ‘room’ to breathe; freedom to think; and ‘permission’ to heal. Our relationships are being starved to death by velocity. No one has the time to listen, let alone love. Our children lay wounded on the ground, run over by our high-speed good intentions. It’s fair to say that the lack of margin is a much greater component of our pain than most of us realize.

Secondly, the automatic development of a society under the ‘tutelage’ of progress leads to stress, overload, and complexity. Suffice it to say that progress, as it is currently defined and practiced in American culture, flows strongly in the direction of increased pressure on the individual and on the ‘system’.

Thirdly, We do not know what we do not know, and we cannot foresee the unforeseen—the future will always hold ‘surprises’—even man’s best intentions do not ‘guarantee’ problem-free outcomes.

Fourthly, progress has been based on ‘faulty’ premises—and within the American society, our notion of progress was first defined and later dominated by money, technology, and education. Each of these has value, but none of them ‘cares’ much about our transcendent needs.

So, did progress ‘betray’ us? Not really—we should have never expected material and cognitive well-being to ‘carry’ us very far. Until we understand what progress is and isn’t, we will remain trapped in a paradigm that is not taking us ‘where’ we need to be going.

Then again, we can’t ‘blame’ it all on progress. If progress ‘gave’ us the gun, we pulled the trigger. Trying to solve man’s problems by giving him more power is like trying to tame the wolf by letting it play with the lamb!

Should we ‘jettison’ progress and start over? That probably wouldn’t be wise—progress has ‘given’ us many benefits.

Is there perhaps another option available to us? Well, one approach would be to regain ‘control’ of progress, and then ‘redirect’ it.

To control progress will not be easy—it has built up a good head of steam, and doesn’t depend on us to ‘push’ it along. Has the servant become greater than the master?

We are addicted, and progress ‘knows’ it. We now do ITS bidding. So, to break this addiction, we must work on the concepts of contentment and simplicity—and Scriptural ‘teachings’ concerning money, possessions, education, and priorities can help.

If we once again assert than jobs are only jobs, house will one day fall down, and cars are only piles of metal and plastic—then we can ‘focus’ on what has been said to be valuable beyond description—people. We can then, once again assert that love stands supreme above ALL other ‘forces’.

Sociologist Robert Bellah pointed out that, “Progress, modernity’s master idea, seems less compelling when it appears that it may be progress into the abyss.”

Bellah also warned that, “Unless we begin to repair the damage to our social ecology, we will destroy ourselves long before natural ecological disaster has time to be realized.” Only when progress begins to ‘show’ discipline and restraint, as well as a respect for the inward and transcendent needs of human beings—including our need for margin—will we again be able to ‘trust’ it.

Progress’s biggest ‘failure’ has been its inability to nurture and protect right relationships—it builds itself up by using the tools of economics, education, and technology—not the tools required to ‘build’ relationships (that being emotional and spiritual).

Margin, on the other hand, ‘knows’ how to nurture relationship. In fact, margin EXISTS for relationship.

There are five ‘environments’ we live in—the physical; cognitive; social; emotional; and spiritual. Most of our progress is related to the first two and most of our pain to the last three. The crucial task for our society today is to reverse the order of emphasis and visibility of these environments.

So, ‘where’ should we look for answers regarding drugs, crime, divorce, suicide, depression, teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and litigation? The answer is LOVE. With the establishment of a proper emphasis, all appropriate needs will be met—and should we fail at this task, progress will only bring us more pain. Our wallets will get fatter, our houses bigger, our cars faster, and our brains smarter. Yet when we neglect the most important priorities, our final ‘reward’ will fittingly be all the unhappiness money can buy!

William Wilberforce, an eloquent English statesman in the 1800’s who battled tirelessly, and successfully, against the evils of slavery, said it well: “Above all, measure your progress by your experience of the love of God and its exercise before men.

CHAPTER 3: The Pain of Problems

We live in a problem-laden world. Not only have they picked up ‘speed’, but so has history itself. The ‘throughput’ of change, information, and people has accelerated explosively. Now we count ourselves ‘fortunate’ if we are even able to track it…let alone predict it, interpret it, or manage it.

The astounding acceleration of change and the increasing complexity and interrelatedness of issues have ‘time-warped’ us into a new era. We live in an unprecedented day with unprecedented problems. We have been ‘disarticulated’ from our own past and do not yet know how to deal with the present, let alone the future.

Some say that we just conveniently remember only the good things of the past, and therefore think that today is really ‘bad’ in comparison. Yes our ancestors had problems and advantages compared to today, but almost ‘overnight’ an entire new wave of social, technological, and economic experiences has descended upon us—and has thrown us into a new ‘trajectory’.

The following partial list illustrates how, in a very pervasive sense, our day is unique:

– Speed of travel
– Information age
– Power of computers
– Litigation levels
– Speed of communications
– Specialization
– Shrinking world
– Technological advances
– Tightly coupled world system
– Personal/Corporate/National indebtedness
– AIDS
– Pollution
– Terrorism
– Prevalence of divorce
– Litigation levels
– Energy usage and dependence
– Destructive weaponry
– Electronic money
– Mobility
– Complexity
– Media pervasiveness
– Abortion
– Disintegration of extended family
– Daycare for children
– Changing role of women
– Availability of illicit drugs
– Disappearance of traditions

Each item listed (and many more) have plated a significant role in making our era different from all those that preceded it. When we factor in the interrelatedness of the issues, the dimensions involved, and the speed at which they are changing, “unprecedented” become a ‘mild’ word.

One major reason our problems today are unprecedented is that much of the past can be described in a “linear” (slow/incremental) growth pattern and much of today (and the recent past) is being described as “exponential” (fast/abundant) growth—with the issue of limits now suddenly becoming an important issue.

Previously there was abundant margin in the world ‘system’—but no longer. We have exceeded limits in scores of areas, and don’t know how to ‘pull back’ (sort of like a car careening out of control with the throttle stuck wide open). All things have limits, and when you get close to it, all kinds of dangers arise.

Some may say we have so many benefits to living in our modern world, and if we measured them against the bad, we would still come out ahead. The trouble is that today the negatives are sufficiently ‘dangerous’ and cannot be offset by the positives—no matter how beneficial the positives are.

A serious question that presents itself: Is there a ‘critical mass’ of problems beyond which a society—and for that matter, an individual—will be destroyed no matter how wonderful the benefits it enjoys?—and have we reached it?

Pollster George Gallup, Jr. writes, “If swift, forceful steps aren’t taken to defuse the political and social time bombs facing us, we may find ourselves on a track that could lead to the destruction of civilization as we know it.”

Again, many say that the problems we have today are not new—but what is new is the ‘intensity’ with which they demand our attention.

Of all the implications related to our problems, the relational ‘collapse’ is the most frightful consequence. Nearly all ‘indices’ of relational life have suffered major setbacks over the last three decades—marriage; parenting; extended family; community; church; and social support. Little wonder our ‘pains’ are so acute.

So, now that we have exceeded so many of our limits—personal, emotional, relational, physical, and financial—we have no margin at all. Yet because we don’t even ‘know’ what margin is—and have experienced it—we don’t realize it is gone! We know ‘something’ isn’t right, but just can’t put our ‘finger’ on it.

When we have no margin and our limits have been exceeded; when we are besieged by pain, stress, and overload; when our relational life is ailing; and when it seems the ‘flood’ of events are beyond our control, then problems take on a totally different dimension—and become unmanageable.

If we are ‘strong’, we can confront our problems—even if they are real, systemic, serious, and unprecedented. If, however, we have been ‘bled’ to death by stressful, marginless living, we may be defeated before we even start.

CHAPTER 4: The Pain of Stress

High levels of stress follow as naturally after progress as does exhaust after traffic. It’s a byproduct of our age, yet another societal pollutant.

Four out of five Americans report a need to reduce stress in their lives. More and more tranquilizers, stimulants, and other ‘happy’ pills are handed out every year, but they serve only to hide the cause of the problem.

Stress is ‘not’ the circumstance, but our ‘response’ to the circumstance. It makes little difference if the situation we react to is a positive one, such as buying a new home, or a negative one, such as bankruptcy.

Our bodies have an incredibly sophisticated communication ‘network’ that continuously monitors for changes in our surrounding environment—preparing us for any necessary response. The ‘system’ is vitally important, but when overactive, damage can result.

Some of us ‘use’ stress to our advantage, by allowing it to ‘energize’ us. It is what football player’s call “psyching up” before a game. It (Eustress) is what makes us especially creative before a deadline, when concentration and efficiency are so much easier. Some people ‘love’ this feeling, thrive on it, and almost become ‘addicted’ to it.

Stress has been called a national epidemic, but is it a ‘modern’ disease?

Humankind has always had problems, and many of them were caused by stress or resulted in ‘distress’. Yet our current stress ‘plague’ differs both quantitatively and qualitatively from the experience of our ancestors. Conditions of our modern age tend to ‘overstimulate’ our stress-response system more than previous times, and many of the issues are far too complex for successful resolution.

Psychologist Davis Elkind believes that there are at least three sources of stress that mark our age as a difficult one. First, due to the alarming increase in violence and crime, we are more ‘afraid’. Second, due to the rapidly changing job markets, technology, and economic factors, we are more professionally ‘insecure’. Finally, due to widespread separation and divorce, we are more ‘alone’.

Specifically, our stress ‘diet’ has many options, and without proper isolation, we can become ill equipped to ‘defend’ ourselves. The following are some of the most prominent items: Change; Mobility; Expectations; Time pressure; Work; Control; Fear; Relationships; Competition; Overload; Illness and death; and Frustration and anger.

We might be able to adapt successfully to one or two  ‘assaults’ on our internal response mechanism, but when six to eight major stressors ‘gang’ up on us, the chances of success are diminished.

But avoiding stress in ‘not’ an alternative to our overloaded condition. Those who have ‘no’ stress are as miserable as those who have too much. Hence, personalized ‘balance’ is the key—and that’s where “stress management” comes into play.

The following are some suggestions for ‘decompressing’ our stress-filled lives:

– Practice gratitude
– Generate goodwill
– Do volunteer work
– Set realistic expectations
– Laugh
– Play
– Meditate
– Pray
– Accept what cannot be changed
– Avoid frustrations
– Exercise
– Learn to relax
– Reconcile conflicts
– Above all, avoid anger and the desire for revenge

Just remember…even racehorses have their limits. Underestimating the effects of stress and be literally deadly!

CHAPTER 5: The Pain of Overload

One can comfortably handle only so many details in one’s life. ‘Exceeding’ this threshold will result in disorganization or frustration—this is called “overloading.”

Overloading occurs whenever the requirements upon us exceed that which we are able to bear. For example, breathing is obviously ‘good’ for us. If, however, we start breathing 30 times a minute—instead of the normal 16—we hyperventilate and become sick. Air and breathing are not the ‘villains’ here. Too much, however, causes “overloading.” A threshold is exceeded.

All ‘systems’ have limits—and human beings have physical, performance, emotional, and mental limits. Researchers strongly agree on two basic principles: first, that man has limited capacity; and second, that overloading leads to a serious breakdown of performance.

Physical limits are easy to recognize. A room of a given size can hold only so much ‘stuff’. Bridges are designed to have a maximum “load limit,” after which it fails and falls down.

Performance limits are related to physical limits, but also introduce the factor of “will.” This is where stress ‘fractures’ come from—people want to push themselves just beyond the limit of breakdown.

Sleep might serve as another example. We all need sleep, but how much? Those who regard the need for sleep as a sign of weakness might try to push the limit and see how few hours they can get along on. But when they impinge on their ‘limit’, there are painful ‘consequences’.

Emotional limits are even more vague. How much ‘straining’ can the psyche withstand before being overloaded? Physically, most of us could carry one 100# person on our backs—but none of us could carry 20 people—we wouldn’t even try.

What is clear to us in the context of physical limits is less clear regarding emotional limits. Emotionally, all of us could probably ‘carry’ one person—but what about 5, 10, 20, or 100? What ‘boundaries should we establish?

The limits of emotional overloading are hard to define, and helping people is one of the easiest places where emotional overload is manifested. Ulcers, migraines, nervous tension, and a dozen other symptoms mark our psychic overload. We are concerned not to live beyond our means financially; then why don’t we do the same emotionally?

Mental limits are as difficult to define as emotional limits, but the existence of such limits is indisputable. Information overload soon results in mental ‘short-circuiting’. Air traffic controllers are a prime example of too much mental stress too fast—and ‘burnout’ on this job is routine.

All of life has limits. The day does not have more than 24 hours. In the same way, we humans do not have an inexhaustible source of energy. We cannot keep running on empty. Despite what some ‘stoics’ think, limits are not even an enemy—overloading is—and our bodies have these limits ‘designed’ within us for our protection. We exceed them at our peril—it’s a phenomenon known as ‘saturation’—often the effect of the limiting factors is not felt gradually, but all of a sudden.

Returning to the high school chemistry lab may help us better understand the principle of saturation. Take a flash of water and dissolve as much of a chemical salt into the hot water. Then, all of a sudden no more dissolves, and instead it just sinks to the bottom. That’s the “saturation point.”

Now let’s take the experiment one step further. We will add a little more hot water to enable all of the salt to be dissolved. As we cool the salt water down, the solution ‘finds’ itself in a dilemma. Cold water can’t ‘hold’ as much dissolved salt in solution as hot water can—but neither can the salt find a way to ‘precipitate’ out. This is termed “supersaturated.”

A very interesting thing happens if we introduce a salt crystal into this supersaturated solution. Suddenly, all kinds of crystals precipitate out. The solution ‘knew’ it was overloaded, and the additional salt crystal allowed it the opportunity to ‘dump’ its overload.

This works the same way with us. We keep adding things to our lives until we are ‘saturated’. We ‘force’ more into our lives until we are ‘supersaturated’—then, a really small piece of ‘salt’ causes us to ‘precipitate’ out all over the place! We hit our limit—we are overloaded.

Overload in America is similar to the poverty in India—it’s inescapable—compliments of ”progress’. Despite its universality, the syndrome manifests itself differently in each person—each has a different ‘tolerance’ level. More often than not, physical or nervous breakdown is the only way out of the ‘impasse’. Each one of us needs to seeks his or her own ‘level’ and not let the standard be mandated by the often exorbitant expectations of others.

Unfortunately, when given this ‘freedom’, some will use the overload principle as an excuse for laziness. “Balance” is the key.

The overload syndrome comes in a variety of manifestations: Activities; Changes; Choices; Commitments; Competition; Debt; Decisions; Education; Expectations; Fatigue; Hurriedness; Information; Media; Noise; People; Pollution; Possession; Problems; Technology; Traffic; Waste; and Work.

So, if overloading causes such widespread social and personal dysfunction, why do we do it?

One reason is, since it is a relatively new phenomenon, we lack understanding. Secondly, we try to be overly ‘conscientious’—considering it a ‘duty’ to all we can. The third ‘dynamic’ is probably the worst—following the leader. Our economy and society are run by the ‘driven’—continually demanding an ‘overcommitment’ that exceeds people’s limits.

There must be a different way—a way that reserves our strength for ‘higher’ battles. And indeed there is—it’s setting limits.

Chronic overloading has a negative effect on all areas of our lives—especially spiritual. We have less time for prayer and meditation, less energy for service, and less interest in relationships.

If we don’t move to establish effective priorities, overloading will continue to fill up our schedules and keep us ‘captive’. We must learn the ‘art’ of setting limits. We must learn to accept the finality and nonnegotiability of the 24-hour day. We must learn not to overdraw on our emotional energy ‘account’. And we must learn to respect such limits in others.

Margin can teach us these things. Margin can restore to us that which has been taken away. It is an idea whose time has come!

[Excerpts from: Richard Swenson]

Blessings…Mark

LIFE’S DEEP THOUGHTS (v73) for MARCH 2005
If you have a ‘neat’ story or some thoughts about an issue or current event that you would like me to try to respond to, I would be glad to give it a try…so, send them to me at: mbesh@comcast.net

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“Constant activity is a characteristic of our age. If we are not active, we feel slothful. If we are not productive, we feel guilty. A healthy 28 year-old man sitting on a lawn swing for an entire Sunday afternoon would more than likely feel the need to apologize to his neighbors should they discover him.”   [Richard A. Swenson, M.D.]

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DEEP THOUGHT
The only reason a great many American families don’t own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments.  [Mad Magazine]

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I hope you enjoyed some of these insights. Share them with your friends and colleagues, so we can have a larger ‘pool’ to receive from—and more to share with! Also, remember to include your name as the “source,” especially if some of this wisdom is of your doing—I would like to give credit where credit is due!

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” [Matthew 11:28].

Mark

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Disclaimer: All the above jokes & inspirations are obtained from various sources and copyright are used when known. Other than our name and headers, we do not own the copyright to any of the materials sent to this list. We just want to spread the ministry of God’s love and cheerfulness throughout the world.

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