Over the summer, we took a trip across the United States to visit my husband’s parents. As we ticked the states off the list (Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota) we were shocked to see the harsh amount of flooded farmland along the way. We knew the spring and early summer had been wet, but until we drove 1,200 miles, we weren’t aware of just how much of the country was affected. Big swaths of fields held water, severely shrinking the amount of tillable land.
I could see by the deep tire ruts that farmers had tried to get as close as possible to the standing water. The rain forced them to squeeze in and tighten up.
As we passed mile after mile of soggy farmland, I began to evaluate my own recent season. I was living life ragged. Crazy schedules, the stress of raising kids, the way money was slipping through our fingers, late nights and early mornings left me feeling frazzled. Our family was over-scheduled, overstimulated, overburdened and over it. Like the fields of corn racing past me, I felt like I was living a life with thin margins. In my busyness, I had forgotten to make space for my soul to breath. I had been so used to the constant hum of our schedule that I barely noticed the shrinking margin. By the time I realized what was happening, I was scattered and insecure, exhausted and short-tempered.
Margin. Open any book and you’ll notice the white space around the edges. Without it, our eyes wouldn’t be able to seamlessly jump to the next line. Photographers use margin when they frame a picture. You use it when you sit down next to someone. Interior designers teach us the importance of empty space when decorating our homes—drawing our eye to what’s important. If we pay attention long enough, we’ll notice that margin plays a part in almost everything we do.
Why then do we drift toward complexity when it comes to our finances, our time, our activities, and our morals? What makes us think that it is okay to live with razor-thin margins in the areas of life that matter the most? What we know in our heads doesn’t always translate to our hearts or propel us to change. The problem isn’t in convincing us we need to carve out more margin; it’s in finding the discipline to follow through. Building white space into our lives is so much more than saying ‘no’ to the next invitation. Margin comes when we take stock of our whole self—body, mind, and soul.
ESTABLISHING HEALTHY EMOTIONAL MARGIN
My fifteen year old son answers most questions the same way: “I’m fine.” How was your day? I’m fine. Did you do your homework? I’m fine. Are you nervous about your game tonight? I’m fine.
We live in an “I’m fine” world. We bury our emotions with hustle, doing our best to convince ourselves that we don’t need any emotional margin. We say yes when we should say no because we just don’t want to offend that other mom who seems to have it all together. We let our fear of missing out dictate our activities and days, instead of taking the time to stop and listen.
There is hurt and pain in the world and very few of us come out unscathed. We hold heartbreak and disappointment, sin and anger. “I’m fine” doesn’t take it away or sweep it under the rug. Numbing our pain with more and more to do is not the way we’re meant to live.
When my daughter died, I was so tempted to stay busy. Keeping my mind occupied with other things gave the illusion that I could control my sadness. I’d push away my sorrow and fill up my time with activities (even good, meaningful ones). I soon realized that the hurt couldn’t be buried. I could push it down, but it would eventually come bubbling to the surface. So I went through a period of time when I intentionally set wide margins and just sat with my pain. I wanted to heal and thrive, not just survive.
Many of us are quick to try to take away the pain we’ve gone through before we sit with it. We think we don’t have the capacity to face what’s really going on in our lives, so we cover it up. We sign our kids up for all the activities, watch hours of television, or scroll through Facebook. We wander the store aisles, spending money we know we don’t have. Anything keeping the constant noise in the background of our lives to distract us from facing our emotional reality. When we use busyness to numb our emotions, we sell God far short of the inner healing work He longs to do to bring us freedom.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our consciences, but shouts to us in our pain. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” When we turn up the volume of life, it drowns out the megaphone of pain or fear. Eventually, we can think we’ve outsmarted it and it’s disappeared, but really, it hasn’t. God wants to redeem it. We have to be brave enough to face it with Him to find out just how much He loves us. When we deny our true emotional state, we diminish the capacity of our soul to grow in godly response.
Are your narrowed margins masking a buried fear or hurt?
TAKING SMALL STEPS TOWARD PHYSICAL MARGIN
When I notice that I’m living at a hurried, frantic pace, my first thought is to quit everything, escape to a secluded cabin, and spend the rest of my days in solitude, living off the land. Of course, that’s unrealistic—there is still life to be lived and things to be done. God doesn’t call us to be self-absorbed, He calls us to live life to the fullest—in community with others, serving and sacrificing, working and loving.
Widening our margins doesn’t mean we have to radically change everything. We can start slow and small.
Linchpin habits are small changes that spur a whole host of new habits. Take social media, for example. When I began keeping track of my screen time I was embarrassed. It suddenly became clear to me that curbing time spent on my phone would widen my margins. So I took the small step of setting limits. A notification lets me know when my time is up and asks me if I want to extend the limit or put my phone down. I now have to make a conscious decision on how to spend my time. That simple reorientation helps me be more intentional about the space I let social media take up in my life. Widening my margin in this area has been a springboard to improve other areas of my life too. Less social media means I have more margin to be creative. It means I’m more present to the people around me. Small changes spur me on to make bigger lifestyle changes.
I enjoy running and know that it’s something I need to do regularly in order to clear the mental cobwebs and refresh myself from the inside out. Yet so often my ‘hurry’ would sweep the day away and I’d too-often never get around to it. I’ve found that if I change into my running clothes first thing in the morning, I’m much more likely to take the time for this life-giving exercise. This simple act has become a linchpin habit affording me a healthier body and mind, naturally begetting margin in other areas of my life.
Perhaps it doesn’t take radical, sweeping ultimatums in order to establish margins, but just the courage to pay attention to cues and triggers that could bring about change. Progress may look unremarkable at first, but with discipline and intention, small decisions can establish a healthy margin.
What’s one physical degree of change you could begin today?
CREATING MENTAL MARGIN
Sometimes the answer to wider margins isn’t in doing less, but in finding ways to change our mindset. My laundry pile and sink of dishes aren’t going to disappear, but I’ve found a shift in my perspective can bring more margin to my heart. I can use the minutes folding laundry or washing dishes to pray for my kids or recount God’s faithfulness to me. I can use the time I spend driving kids around to have conversations with them. I can sit down on the inside even when I can’t slow down my activity on the outside. We all have seasons of busyness, but they don’t have to spread into ongoing, frenzied pace. If I look, I can always find pockets of margin, I just need to have the wisdom to notice them and not let them pass by.
Kathleen Norris, in her book The Quotidian Mysteries, wrote, “The ordinary activities I find most compatible with contemplation are walking, baking bread, and doing laundry.” Normal, everyday activities can actually usher us into the presence of God. But often we’re so busy trying to multitask or get to the next thing on the list that we miss the whispers of the Holy Spirit.
The rhythms of each day reveal the evidence that God is indeed at work in and through mundane circumstances. A spectacular sunrise each morning, whether we notice it or not. The laughter of a child, the antics of a pet. The quirks of a co-worker or the song that comes on the radio that takes your breath away. We have the love of a Savior, revealed in the seemingly meaningless minutes of our lives, the ordinary moments we don’t even notice. It seems ludicrous, doesn’t it? But there He is in all of it, loving us through it and drawing us unto Himself.
How would it affect your margin if you found a way to worship in the ordinary and mundane?
WIDENING YOUR SPIRITUAL MARGIN
When asked how to be spiritually healthy, Dallas Willard had one answer. “Ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life,” he said. Nothing more, nothing less. It seems so simple. We make such needless commotion rushing through life. It leaves us burnt out and overwhelmed. Hurry guarantees that we’ll miss moments and laughter and the whisper of the Holy Spirit. When I hurry, I lose sight of what’s really important. Hurry makes me think I’m much more important than I actually am.
Every morning when I wake up, I pour myself a cup of coffee and I drink it with two hands. I pray and take a few minutes to watch the day begin. Drinking coffee with two hands seems silly, but it’s helped me start my day at a more peaceful pace. I can’t use a hand to sign the permission slip when I’m drinking my coffee. I can’t start making lunches or write that email. As I watch the sky light up, I’m reminded that I’m entering into an ongoing conversation with Christ. I’m reminded that the world does not revolve around my ability to finish my to-do list.
Is your current lifestyle keeping you from pursuing a deeper relationship with God?
TRUSTING THE GREATEST MARGIN-MAKER
Countless times I’ve heard (and used myself) the answer “crazy busy” when asked “how are you?”. But you know as well as I do in those moments when we’re forced to come face to face with the truth: Crazy busy isn’t the way to live. A life with thin margins isn’t life to the full. We were never meant to live at breakneck speed, overstimulated and broke. Come to Me, Jesus said. Come to Me, you who are stressed out and can’t seem to catch up. Come to Me, mom who spends the day driving kids to all of their activities. Come to Me, you who feel insignificant if you’re not busy all the time. Come to Me, you who can’t get past the deep hurt. Every single one of you, come to Me.
Take a moment to be silent, to acknowledge the weariness and burdens that drag you down. Place them in the hands of Jesus and allow Him to rescue you from the flood of overwhelm and create workable land within your heart. May He gently, lead you toward the margin you crave.
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me— watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-29, The MSG Paraphrase).
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This article contains so many rich truths and practical helps. I intend to set a timer to help me spend less time on my phone. You are precocious in your awareness of margins. I remember trying but not being very successful at all and feeling the constant pressure. The Lord helped me carve out precious times alone with Him that were my very life breath. Keep writing, Sarah. You are helping even those of us who are retired.
So thankful for you and your encouraging words. xoxo