“The Margin Series” focuses on the reality that everyone has limits regarding time, emotional energy, physical energy, and money, among other areas. These monthly sub-topics assert that we need margin for optimal function as well as for availability to love and serve others.
“In the days before the electric lightbulb, people routinely got nine and a half hours of sleep per night…According to the National Sleep Foundation [on 3/6/09], we are now down to an average of 6.7 hours of sleep during weekdays…Everything we do, we do better rested. The rested, stimulated brain thinks creative and productive thoughts.”
—Richard Swenson, In Search of Balance: Keys to a Stable Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2010), pp. 147-148.
My oldest sister, Jean Arneberg, once quipped, “Paul’s (personality) transmission comes equipped with two standard gears: overdrive and park.” Jim Arneberg, the 4th born just ahead of me and one of my best men in my wedding, quoted Jean in his reception toast, admonishing me to let Wendy help me work on my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th gears. But despite my dichotomy of burnout tendencies on the one hand and a penchant for laziness on the other, I remain a work in progress when it comes to the wise application of that wonderful and necessary four-letter word: purposeful, intentional “R-E-S-T.”
Thank God for Dr. Richard Swenson, a tireless advocate and “permission-giver” for rest in all of his writings, especially in his most famous work, Margin (1995, 2004), and in one of his follow-up works, In Search of Balance (2010). There are several kinds of rest, and for me, I tend to mentally (and even spiritually) rest while distance running. So during a recent 10 miler, I came up with seven alliterative words that celebrate different aspects of what it means to rest. They are sleep, stress, schedule, space, satisfaction, sovereignty, and sabbath. I’ll get right to those sub-points in this continuing series on margin.
SLEEP—In the quote by Richard Swenson above, note that he wrote that 10 years ago. In his litany of reasons he later cited as to why we’re a sleep-deprived nation, it’s amazing that he made no mention of two huge factors that have only exacerbated the problem of getting adequate sleep: smart phones and social media. Enough said. As for me, I’ve known since my 20’s that I’m wired to thrive on eight or nine hours’ sleep a night. “Most people do best with seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Some need more—Einstein famously got ten to twelve hours per night and did not feel the need to apologize.” (In Search of Balance, p. 148)
STRESS—Dr. Swenson devotes an entire chapter to stress in his seminal work on Margin. On pp. 44-45, he writes, “Stress is not the circumstance, it is our response to the circumstance” (emphasis his). He goes on to describe three different kinds of stress: “Eustress, or positive stress, energizes us… [it] makes us especially creative before a deadline. […] When the stress response becomes negative or destructive, it is called distress. This is what most of us mean when we use the word stress. […] An excessive volume of stress is called hyperstress.” If left unchecked, Swenson writes that distress and hyperstress can lead to physical trauma (e.g., tissue aging at the cellular level, immune system malfunction, strokes, heart attacks) and psychological trauma (e.g., depression, mental fatigue, indecisiveness, worry, anger). So how do we discern bad stress and battle against it? Schedule control is one strategy.
SCHEDULE—“Don’t let the tyranny of the urgent usurp the important in our lives.” That quote from a former pastor of mine, Tom Steller, has stuck with me for nearly 30 years. Our schedules seem to be “tyrants” more often than not. And lest I appear to be self-righteous against what I see as the scourge of social media, technology, and too many activities cluttering our schedules, I confess (once again) that my obsessive personality tends toward dawdling with seemingly innocent tasks such as creating and logging personal goals or pursuing trivial hobbies (that is, when I’m not overcommitted to too many scheduled events). At the very heart of the principle of margin is learning to say “no” to commitments, habits and hobbies that may be ill-timed, comparatively unimportant, or net-depleting rather than life-giving (to self and others). Each of us must strive to discern how to tame the schedule beast.
SPACE—The spirit of rest need not relate to square footage or acreage of space, but one should find or create intentional space for refreshment. It might be a special reading chair in one’s home, a running/walking route on a trail, or a Jughead simply spending some time within the makeshift walls of our bounce juggling mats as a break from toss juggling and a refuge from excessive socializing. “He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me” (Psalm 18:19, KJV).
SATISFACTION—It’s good to learn when one’s best efforts and the ensuing results are “good enough,” at least in some areas and in some seasons. Perfectionism is a margin-robber when one is constantly dissatisfied with achievements or reached goals.
SOVEREIGNTY—Psalm 46:10 (ESV): “Be still, and know that I am God.” Psalm 23:2 (ESV): “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” What is the source of being still, aka resting? Knowing that God is God and that He will lead His sheep. That cuts through immeasurable noise in our society and in our hearts which are often full of turmoil and storms.
SABBATH—The 4th Commandment, rooted in no less than the creation of the world, states, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Jesus shed new light on this commandment when He asserted in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Taken together, the principle of a day of rest each week both honors God and blesses those who practice that discipline, even as an act of worship. Biblically, the principle of the Sabbath can also apply to special rests (e.g., for the land) every seven years, and special celebrations every 7th Sabbath year (e.g., the Year of Jubilee, or the 50th year). The career concept of a “sabbatical year” is also gleaned from this word.
As I wrap up this column, I’ll quote U.S. Marshall Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) from one of my favorite movies, The Fugitive (1993): “It’s over. You know, I’m glad? I need to rest.”
May my many words over these many months spark a longing to seek, implement and model lifestyle choices that are counter-cultural to our current problems of workaholism, being constantly “plugged in,” distressed, crowded, tired, fearful, and restless.
Rest ironically and ultimately leads to even more productivity and fulfillment. We need to overcome feelings of guilt over the lie that rest is wasted time. Let’s trust that rest is ordained for us.