For this generation in the Western hemisphere – more so apparently than the generations before it – every day is a struggle of how to pack just one more thing into busy days and over-full existences. While it is easy to point at causes for this, namely the technology that instead of freeing man chains him to yet another task or sidetracks him with yet another distraction, finding a solution to the overload experienced by many seems elusive.
Richard Swenson, who writes from the vantage point of a medical doctor and who is also a believer in Jesus Christ, uses the term “margin” to explain what he sees missing in the busyness he observes in the patients he sees and people he encounters. His book, written to a Christian audience, brings words of practical wisdom to a world that seems to have lost control in its ever-accelerating pace, and he does so by using analogies from his life in his practice that resonate with his readers.
Summary of “Margin”
The 21st century topic of stress and overload, which the book Margin is seeking to address, is introduced by Swenson via a chapter on the impact of progress in the life of man and its benefits and detriments. Having now gained the reader’s attention and focus by promising a cure to the ills of progress, Swenson’s introduction is followed by three major parts that seek to both quantify and address the problem, almost in a clinical manner, much like might be expected from a medical doctor’s examination: first, by diagnosing the illness (or “The Problem: Pain”), secondly, by offering a treatment (or “The Prescription: “Margin”, and thirdly, by giving a prognostic assessment after treatment (or “The Prognosis: Health”). Within each of the three chapters, the format stays the same: Swenson shares an anecdote or two from his medical practice and how what he is getting ready to discuss expresses itself in true health problems. By doing so, he uses an effective tool to engage the reader. The age-old method of story-telling is not so far removed from 21st century readers that it would not draw them into the book immediately.
In Part One, on the issue of pain, Swenson lays out five axioms that he believes contribute to the sabotaging of what he calls margin, a term he defines in the introduction as “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.” The axioms describe the impact of progress on the life of human beings, e.g. acceleration in both speed and quantity of offerings of various kinds, an increase in stress, complexity and overload, the unchanged limits of a human’s physical, emotional, and financial limits, the danger of exceeding thresholds and eliminating needed margin, and the unnatural limitations in openness and ability to expand on the human experience placed on humans when their lives do not have sufficient margin.
Swenson differentiates the human experience into five environments, two of which underlie the topic of progress: the physical and cognitive environments. Three others are the ones, however, which, according to him, cause man the most pain: the social, emotional, and spiritual environment. Man operates within the more visible environments, yet suffers in the unseen environments. Answers are given from these visible environments, while discounting the need for and the impact of neglecting the other environments.
In order to enhance the reader’s self-recognition in his writing, Swenson focuses him on the inward and outward results stress has on man. Swenson differentiates the different responses to stress, identifies contemporary stressors, such as change, mobility, expectations, time pressures, work, and relationships, and finally quantifies the impact of this stress in people’s lives. The expression of stress can be seen in psychological, physical, and behavioral symptoms, and ultimately in burnout. Swenson deepens the reader’s understanding of the enormous impact of stress by highlighting how stress can express itself in various types of overloads.
Part Two offers the reader relief from the pain he has suffered through by first seeing how truly stressed and margin-less he is and then providing the antidote. Swenson offers a total of 60 prescriptions (aptly titled Rx!) across four areas, providing tangible points of reconciliation to a more peaceful, less stressed existence, which he breaks out and aligns with restoring margin in emotional energy, physical energy, time margins, and financial margins. All of them are enhancing and bringing to life three unseen environments he discussed in Part One, yet they prove to have a direct impact on the two visible environments.
In the last portion of the book, Part Three, Swenson leads the reader to one profound concluding message: “Live simply and contentedly.” By following his prescriptions and incorporating this essential message, Swenson offers the reader health in the areas of contentment, simplicity, balance, and rest, leading to emotional, spiritual and physical health and a restoration of relationships. He concludes the book by asking the question “Are you ready?” Just in case the reader is not, an appendix of two pages of graphs follows on the very next page to refocus the reader on the exponential growth and impact of various indicators.
Critique of the Book
Swenson has written a book that is without doubt one of utmost importance to most people in the Western hemisphere and other parts of the civilized world. Most people may not even realize the gravity of their situation and the perils of continuing on in their accustomed manner until words like Swenson’s open their eyes to the reality of over-extended lives.
His almost clinical approach to diagnosing the illness and prescribing treatment is softened by his often lyrical or poetical language, which is a bit of a dissonance from what one might expect from a medical practitioner – someone the reader would have mostly encountered writing rather clinical language on reports in one’s medical file.
While Swenson describes what he means by margin in the first chapter, it is a rather vague definition of the term, and it is very difficult to truly grasp the concept until one gets further into the book. It would have helped this reader to have a clear definition early on, but this is where Swenson’s poetic vein shows strongly.
It is only mid-way through the book that the reader learns that Swenson took rather drastic measures himself to simplify his life and, by doing so, built margin into his days. Yet this is also the charm of this book: the author never extracts himself from the advice he gives. In this sense this book rings strongly authentic as opposed to other “self-help” types of books the author has read in the past where the writers seemed to dish out advice (admittedly often very well-crafted advice), yet never have experienced the pain directly themselves.
Swenson says of himself, “I am not a wealthy man, and I will never be a wealthy man…not from an inability to generate wealth…not that I am unable to be wealthy, but rather I am unwilling to be wealthy.” This in and of itself is commendable, yet the question arises upon reading how he saves money, or rather some of the specifics (his wife cuts his hair; they live without central air conditioning, etc.), whether this is really what makes the difference in trying to live a simpler life. While it certainly is worthwhile to simplify one’s life, these cuts do not necessarily have to make a person suffer (this author, for one, would not enjoy a poor haircut or sweating in the summer time, when it can be avoided).
The graphs at the end of the book seemed intrusive. Having just left an introspective reading that had raised a strong desire to change certain aspects of one’s life, the reader is thrown right back into the pain that should have been quantified in the appropriate chapter. The graphs seem out of place, even if declared to be an appendix.
Swenson only progressively leads the reader from general statements to a strongly Christian message and world view. At the beginning of the book, it is not clear who this book is written to, yet at the end, there is no question what Swenson’s assumption is of his readers, e.g. they share his faith. The biblical truths he unpacks are possibly applicable to a spiritually sensitive person despite their religious background, yet his (infrequent) use of biblical quotes would seem enough of an irritant to, say, a Muslim or a Jew or even a Buddhist, to make them not enjoy this book all too much. As such, this reader wishes that Swenson had been more explicit in declaring his target audience. Sometimes this reader felt reminded of “The Purpose-Driven Life”, which is equally slow in clarifying whom it is written towards.
Even despite this critique, the book is very recommendable to those that are in ministry, but even more so those who are out in the secular workforce and are struggling through the enormous pressures of living in a high-paced, aggressively-natured office or factory world.
In his book Margin, Swenson identifies how man can regain a level of sanity in his life again by recognizing the pain being caused by his margin-less life, inevitably brought about by progress, bringing this margin back into his life through measures that address emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances, and allow him to gain a healthy balance through contentment, simplicity, balance, and rest. He leads his readers into the timeless truth of Scripture and reminds them of promises of old that still are valid today.
Swenson has written a book that would be of great relevance to most people in the working world. Yet without a biblical world view, this book will make limited sense to a readership that is not ready to listen to ancient insights based on the Word of God, a God many choose not to acknowledge or see Him as a distant and aloof Creator God who now operates in “hands-off mode”. This is regrettable, as Swenson’s biblically based recipe of simplicity and contentment, which brings about healthy people and healthy relationships, is so plain to understand when viewed against the light of Scripture. Many seek the answers in other religions, especially Eastern religions and their practices, yet the answer they are looking for is found in the book that is the basis of their fathers’ religion.
 Richard A. Swenson, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2004), 13.
 Ibid., 31-32.
 Ibid., 47-48.
 Ibid., 49-50.
 Ibid., 50-51.
 Ibid., 61-63.
 Ibid., 86-94.
 Ibid., 98-108.
 Ibid., 122-29.
 Ibid., 139-48.
 Ibid., 214.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 136-37.Note: This review originally included a personal reflections and application portion, which was taken out for privacy reasons.