Margin: Antidote to Excess Stress

for the week of September 10, 2001
by Rubel Shelly

Garrison Keillor underwent heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in July. Now he is extolling its benefits. And he isn't talking about better blood flow. According to him, the upside of his surgery is that it has given him permission to take naps.

"God never intended for me to work hard. I can see that now," he wrote in a Time magazine essay. "My true calling in life is to live unencumbered and follow the fleeting impulses of my heart and take a nap around 2 p.m."

The Man of Lake Wobegon, whose fictional tales of events from Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery and the Chatterbox Cafe have charmed us for years, is onto something. All of us need to learn it — and, I could hope, before having to have cardiac surgery. We humans can't overextend ourselves forever without paying a horrible price in poor health, damaged relationships, and diminished spirituality.

Life on Planet Earth makes certain demands that must be met. In order to have family and friends, you have to invest yourself in their lives. You have to work in order to carry your part of the load and to provide for yourself and your family. There will be crisis times involving sickness or career setbacks. And there are interruptions that range from untimely phone calls to errands to rude clerks.

Since life under these customary conditions is already stressful enough, each of us needs what one writer calls "margin." Margin is the cushion one builds in beyond what will be necessary to face life's routine. It's breathing space between tasks. It's ten minutes between clients to relax and shift gears. It's extra income (or less debt) that prevents an unexpected bill from derailing your life.

In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Dr. Richard Swenson claims that busyness is so commonplace for most of us that we don't even question it. "The spontaneous tendency of our culture is to add detail to our lives: one more option, one more commitment, one more debt, one more purchase, one more change, one more job, one more decision. We deal with more ‘things per person' than at any other time in history." Touché! I am guilty as charged! And how about you?

Whether your solution is Keillor's nap, paying off your credit-card debt, spending more time with your family, or just learning to say no occasionally, you need to find positive ways to guard your life and replenish your reserves.

If stress is burning you out, only you can administer its antidote.

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