David Meredith's Reviews > Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives

Margin by Richard A. Swenson
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

liked it

First of all, in general I do not disagree with Swenson’s basic premise – that far too many people spread themselves way too thin in terms of time and money. There is increased stress and as a result our relationships with ourselves, our families and God can suffer. Our physical, mental, and spiritual health can be negatively impacted. I further think that once you get to chapters six through ten, for the most part, his prescriptions for remedying excesses of those experiencing margin-less living are by and large good pieces of advice.

However, I think he also has a tendency to overstate his case, especially with regards to his repeated insistence that the degree of environmental, technological, and workplace static is unprecedented in human history. I’m not sure this is accurate. I think that the causes of Margin loss in our lives may be slightly different than in the past, but I think at least for certain individuals, regardless of era, there have always been those who push themselves too hard and spread themselves too thin.

Overwork is nothing new. In fact the first law enacting a limit to the workday was enacted in 1848 in New Hampshire limiting workers to a ten hour work day. Prior to that 12 – 14 hour workdays six or seven days a week in manufacturing were nothing at all unusual. I have to think, that individuals working under those conditions over 150 years ago must have had a decided lack of Margin, at least in terms of free time, and not even taking into consideration the fact that they were also paid starvation wages. Despite Swenson’s constant claims of the contrary, I think a lack of Margin in people’s lives is nothing new. Perhaps we are just more aware of it.

He also has a tendency to come across as idealizing the bucolic lifestyles of ages past as well as the (perceived) bonanza of Margin in the Third World. Now, admittedly in later chapters he briefly refutes the idea that we should be striving to return to a simpler time in what he refers to as a “linear” fashion. He also briefly states that we should not be striving to emulate the Third World, but the fact remains that he repeatedly holds those up as examples of lifestyles full of Margin (I will add here that I think it particularly interesting that he decides to hold up Mali as the poster child of Margin-full, simple living when in the current day and age that nation is in utter chaos – beset by poverty, waves of refugees, and terror as Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram all vie for power and influence. Whatever Margin Malians may have had when he visited in the 90s, I have to think, has significantly decreased). I don’t think this weakens his proscriptions for how to reclaim Margin in an overloaded life, but I do feel like it is a little bit of a case of trying too hard to prove his point.

This brings me to my next criticism. I feel like Swenson relies WAY too heavily on anecdotes rather than data. All through the first section of the book I have notes in the margins next to a number of his assertions about modern life like “by what metric?”, “according to what data?”, or “how do you conclude this?” among others. Now he does throw in some graphs at the end of the book and Chapters 6-10 (which I feel are really the strongest of the book) are significantly better supported. However, especially in the early chapters when he is trying to emphasize the insidious and singular nature of modern society, I think the justifications for his reasoning are less clear. For example, on page 50 he claims that “the family has been systematically dismantled” but never explains what he means by that, how he has come to that conclusion, or what metric he has decided to use in measuring familial decline. It is simply offered as an unsupported given.

I think he puffs up “Progress” way too much as an arch-villian and enemy of a Margin-full, spiritual life while at the same time not being particularly precise about what exactly he thinks the term means. I think he describes it as too much of a monolithic force, a single -minded juggernaut of industrial wantonness, without fully taking into consideration that 1. “Progress” is cyclical – i.e. human history has gone through many and varied periods of “Progress” followed by just as many times of “Regression”. Also 2. I do not feel like he adequately accounts for the idea that any given society may simultaneously experience both progress and regression in different areas – i.e. a society may make economic progress but at the same time experience social and/or spiritual regression or vice versa, which might be a more accurate description of the day and age in which we live now.

Next, though I do not disagree in principal that it is better for people to be content with what they have, I wish he had devoted more page space to emphasizing that contentment is not the same thing as apathy nor is it an invitation to inaction in the face of injustice. Moses was very content with Jethro, his wives, his children and his sheep, and likely would have remained so but for being called to action by Almighty God to deliver His people from slavery in Egypt. I think Swenson’s emphasis is primarily on things material and by and large we probably should be more content with what we have as a society, but his anecdote about the Vietnamese woman on the apartment balcony left me wondering – do we really need a smoldering bush to talk to us before we decide to take action? Should we just regard injustice as an unavoidable constant to be simply endured without complaint? He does mention this conflict in a paragraph near the end of the book, but I just wish he had taken greater pains to make sure that contentment would not be confused with helpless resignation to intolerable circumstances.

Finally, and I think this is my biggest complaint about the work, is that he seems to imply that the loss of Margin by individuals is simply a selfish choice motivated solely by greed and misplaced values. He decries media and marketing that emphasize wants and fashion over the things that really matter. He bemoans professionals who would rather work a few extra hours so they can buy a new boat or bigger house instead of spending quality time with their families or entering into devotional reflection with God. Lack of Margin is a consequence of useless frivolity. To be fair, I think he is correct that there is a certain population of Christians about whom this analysis aptly applies, but I feel like he WAY overgeneralizes. Perhaps this is a function of his being a medical doctor with medical doctor income, and medical doctor friends and social interactions along with what I feel is his overreliance on personal anecdotes to prove his points, but I’m not sure that a loss of Margin is always a cut and dry choice for many, even most Christians.

What about those individuals who have no Margin, are working in a perpetual state of overload, and yet are failing to sufficiently meet their most basic needs, which Swenson agrees are food, shelter, and clothing? He cites his own decision to cut down his medical practice hours – working only three days a week instead of five or six, as an example of reclaiming Margin in his life, but I’m not sure this is an equally viable option for the single mom working at Walmart or struggling Dad flipping burgers at McDonald’s. His salary may have gone down from six figures to five, but I doubt his decision to cut back left him suddenly struggling to pay his mortgage. Like it or not, Margin is a privilege of affluence.

I think it likely that those most negatively impacted by a lack of Margin are also those who will have the most difficulty remedying their situation - having the least amount of fat left on the bone to trim. If you have to run on overload just to get by, obviously that can’t possibly be healthy or good for you or your family, but what remains to be cut? So I guess I feel like his advice is great… if you have a middle or upper-class income.

Now, I want to reiterate, I am not rejecting wholesale his assertions that people greatly benefit from increased Margin in terms of reduced stress, mental, physical, and spiritual health and improved quality of relationships, both with other people as well as with God and self. I think this is accurate. Where it is possible to cut back, simplify, and refocus on the things that are really important, people probably should, but I think it also important to point out that one’s ability to do so is directly proportional to affluence and wealth. Those with more income are more capable (at least as a practical matter rather than a propensity) of cutting back and maintaining contentment. The poor would most likely also benefit from increased Margin, very likely by an even greater degree than the privileged, but without added support of some kind, cutting back (time or money) is not a practical life adjustment that they can reasonably make. Perhaps this uncomfortable truth is a consequence of “Progress” but it is no less a barrier to increasing Margin in one’s life if one is not blessed with material bounty. I think it’s hard to ignore the likelihood that the person who first said “money isn’t everything” had money.

Having said all of that, in general I think the advice is good and where it is possible to cut back, derive more joy from giving rather than obtaining, and focus on strengthening the relationships in our lives rather obtaining more possessions or power, we should. I suppose I just think there is a certain audience for whom this should resonate more powerfully than for others.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Margin.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 15, 2015 – Finished Reading
April 13, 2016 – Shelved

No comments have been added yet.