Chapter OneMARGINLESS LIVING
THE CONDITIONS OF modern-day living devour margin. If you are
homeless, we send you to a shelter. If you are penniless, we offer you food
stamps. If you are breathless, we connect you to oxygen. But if you are
marginless, we give you yet one more thing to do.
Marginless is being thirty minutes late to the doctor's office because
you were twenty minutes late getting out of the bank because you were ten
minutes late dropping the kids off at school because the car ran out of gas
two blocks from the gas station-and you forgot your wallet.
Margin, on the other hand, is having breath left at the top of the
staircase, money left at the end of the month, and sanity left at the end
Marginless is the baby crying and the phone ringing at the same time;
margin is Grandma taking the baby for the afternoon. Marginless is being
asked to carry a load five pounds heavier than you can lift; margin is a
friend to carry half the burden. Marginless is not having time to finish the
book you're reading on stress; margin is having the time to read it twice.
Marginless is fatigue; margin is energy.
Marginless is red ink; margin is black ink.
Marginless is hurry; margin is calm.
Marginless is anxiety; margin is security.
Marginless is culture; margin is counterculture.
Marginless is the disease of the new millennium; margin is its cure.
Pieces of Broken Humanity
It was my lunch hour on a beautiful autumn day, but I didn't mind. A
bloody towel clutched over a bloody face revealed the need.
At seventy-six, John was slim, fit, and active. Following retirement and
a heart attack, he determined to take care of himself and have fun at the
same time. It was Wisconsin in the summer and Florida in the winter, but
mostly it was golf every day.
As his wife was otherwise occupied, John challenged Glen to eighteen
holes. Approaching the first hole, John drove his ball down the middle of
the fairway and then moved to the side. Glen prepared his ball, lifted the
club, and swung vigorously. The ball, however, angled hard to the right
and struck John in the eye. Blood instantly came gushing out as his eyeball
dropped into his hand.
By the time they arrived at the clinic, Glen was still as white as a sheet.
The injured John, however, was obviously enjoying himself-even though
covered with blood.
"I guess Glen never knew I had an artificial eye," he twinkled. "I popped
it out to make sure it wasn't broken. I didn't really mean to scare him like that."
Rarely a day goes by that I don't pick up some broken pieces of humanity
and attempt to put them back together again. In John's case, the
wounds turned out to be humorous, and his lacerated eyebrow was easily
sutured. Unfortunately, not all patients have stories that are humorous.
And not all "broken pieces" are so easily repaired.
Some people come in for broken legs; others, broken hearts. Some
have irritable colons; others, irritable spouses. Some have bleeding ulcers;
others, bleeding emotions. And compounding these wounds, many
patients show signs of a new disease: marginless living.
How often do I see the effects of marginless living? About every fifteen
minutes. Into my office on a regular basis comes a steady parade of
exhausted, hurting people. The reason these patients come to me, however,
is not to discuss their lack of margin. They don't even know what
margin is. Instead, they come because of pain. Most don't realize that pain
and the absence of margin are related.
The Unexpected Pain of Progress
That our age might be described as painful comes as a discomforting surprise
when we consider the many advantages we have over previous generations.
Progress has given us unprecedented affluence, education,
technology, and entertainment. We have comforts and conveniences other
eras could only dream about. Yet somehow, we are not flourishing under
the gifts of modernity as one would expect.
Why do so many of us feel like air-traffic controllers out of control?
How can the salesman feel so stressed when the car is loaded with extras,
the paycheck is bigger than ever, and vacation lasts four weeks a year?
How is it possible that the homemaker is still tired despite the help of the
washing machine, clothes dryer, dishwasher, and vacuum cleaner? If we
are so prosperous, why are the therapists' offices so full? If we have ten
times more material abundance than our ancestors, why are we not ten
times more content and fulfilled?
Something has gone wrong. If you know what pain wounds look like,
you will see them on all your friends. This book is dedicated to exposing
and correcting the specific kind of pain that comes from marginless living.
Why? Because we find ourselves in the midst of an unnamed epidemic.
The disease of marginless living is insidious, widespread, and virulent.
The New Universal Constant
The marginless lifestyle is a relatively new invention and one of progress's
most unreasonable ideas. Yet in a very short time it has become a nearly
universal malady. Few are immune. It is not limited to a certain socioeconomic
group, nor to a certain educational level. Even those with a deep
spiritual faith are not spared. Its pain is impartial and nonsectarian-everybody
gets to have some.
Do you know families who feel drawn and quartered by overload? Do
you know wage earners who are overworked, teachers who are overstressed,
farmers who are overextended, pastors who are overburdened, or
mothers of young children who are overwhelmed? Chances are the
pathogen of marginless living is largely responsible.
One would think that physicians, the acknowledged pain experts,
would be exempt. Not so. As a profession, we suffer deeply from the
absence of margin. Consequently, I know of the extent and seriousness of
this condition from three sources. First, I have observed it in the lives of
patients. Second, I saw its effects in the lives of the interns and residents I
taught for fifteen years. Third, I know of the weight of marginless living
because for a long time it sat on my chest. Decades ago I paid the ransom
and purchased back margin, a decision that cost me significant income. Yet
it was one of the wisest purchases I've ever made. I have no regrets.
Why All the Fuss?
Because most of us do not yet know what margin is, we also do not know
what marginless is. We feel distressed, but in ill-defined ways. We can tell
life isn't quite what it used to be or perhaps not quite what we expected it
should be. Then we look at our cars, homes, and big screen TVs and conclude
that our distress must be in our imaginations.
Others deny vehemently that anything is wrong. "Life has always been
hard," they say. "People have always been stressed. It is simply part of living.
There has always been change to cope with. There have always been
economic problems, and people have always battled depression. It is the
nature of life to have its ups and downs-so why all the fuss?"
I'm not the one who's making the fuss; I'm only writing about it.
I'm only being honest about what I see all around me. Something's
wrong. People are tired and frazzled. People are anxious and depressed.
People don't have the time to heal anymore. There is a psychic instability
in our day that prevents peace from implanting itself very firmly
in the human spirit. And despite the skeptics, this instability is not the
same old nemesis recast in a modern role. What we have here is a
To be sure, the pains of the past were often horrible beyond description.
To have your wife die in childbirth, your children crippled with polio,
your cattle ravaged by tuberculosis, and your crops leveled by locusts is
not the common definition of the good life. But those were the pains of the
past, and most of them are gone. Unfortunately-and unexpectedly-the
pains of progress are now here to take their place. Prominent among them
is the disease of marginless living.
The Focusing Value of Pain
No one likes pain. We all want to get rid of it as soon as possible. But physical
pains are usually there for a reason, to tell us something is wrong and
needs to be fixed. Emotional, relational, and societal pains, too, are often
indicators that all is not well. As such, they serve a valuable purpose-they
help us focus.
Modern-day living, however, opposes focusing. Surrounded by frenzy
and interruptions, we have no time for anything but vertigo. So our pain,
it turns out, is actually an ally of sorts. In the hurt is a help. Pain first gets
our attention-as it does so well-and then moves us in the opposite
direction of the danger.
If you were my patient, you would come to me already focused on
your pain. You would want me to explain it and make it go away. My
responsibility would be
to listen to your symptoms,
problem, and offer a prescription.
drawing diagrams often
helps us to understand, I
might write it on a prescription
pad for you to
remember. Perhaps it
would look something
Rx: From the Desk of .
Richard A. Swenson, M.D.
Is There a Cure?
If we focus and work to understand, is this painful disease of marginless
living curable? Is health possible? Of course it is. But the kind of health I
speak of will seldom be found in "progress" or "success." For that reason,
I'm not sure how many are willing to take the cure. But at least we all
deserve a chance to understand the disease.