margin: the wasted space we desperately need

by Jonathan Trotter on July 16, 2015

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“Staying alive is not about how fast or how slow you go; it’s about how much margin you have.”

That’s what a friend of mine here in Cambodia says when asked about how to not die while riding motorcycles in our little corner of Asia. And since he’s been riding and racing motorcycles since before I was born, I listen.

Going slow with no margin can be more dangerous than going fast with tons of margin. It’s true with motorcycles and it’s true with missions.

Your speed is not necessarily what determines your safety; your margin does. Margin takes into account all sorts of variables: How far can you see? How much space is between you and the next vehicle (or cow)? What are the road conditions? Is this even a road? How likely is it that the large pig strapped to the back of that bus in front of you will stay strapped to the back of that bus in front of you?

 

Margin & Missionaries
Some of us overseas folk like to move quickly, flying through life and ministry at the speed of FAST. Others prefer to plod, smelling the frangipani and lingering long.

And it’s easy to judge.

The plodders judge the quicksters; “Oh, they’re definitely going to crash. They need to slow down or they’re going to burn out.” And maybe that’s true. But maybe they’ve built in Rest and Sabbath and Margin and maybe they’ll be just fine.

The quickies judge the plodders; “Good grief! They don’t do anything! When are they going to actually get off their bahookies and get to work?!” And maybe that’s true. Maybe they are lazy. Or, maybe they’ve built in Rest and Sabbath and Margin and maybe they’ll still be around decades after the FAST people fizzle out.

I’ve often thought the plodders were inherently healthier, but I realize now that if they lack margin, their speed is irrelevant and their risk of crashing (burning out) remains high. Remember, it’s not about speed as much as it’s about margin.

So, whether your preferred speed is Warp or Waddle, we need to talk about margin. How much do you have?

How much relational margin?

Emotional margin?

Financial margin?

Margin is wasted space that we desperately need. It’s space that’s not accounted for and produces no obvious, easily quantifiable profit. However, margin is extremely important, creating a zone of safety, giving you time and space and emotional capital to react safely when something unexpected (on the road or in ministry) happens.

Often, we make margin a liability: “You’re not busy?! What in the world are you doing?! Think of all the needs!” I used to believe this was primarily an issue for those of us from the West; however, I’m realizing that this is very much an issue for many of our brothers and sisters from the East too. The truth is, we all need to devote some serious attention to how we deal with margin, because the costs of living margin-less are extremely high.

 

Airlines and the Bourgeois
Many of us absolutely hate the idea of waste. In fact, the title of this article might have been an extreme turn-off for you. I’m sorry about that. I feel ya, really. Here me out just a little bit longer, because with our strong aversion to wasted space, I believe we’re kind of like airlines.Reclining-Seats-1

Airlines can’t stand wasted space, and we all know what that feels like. Remember the last time you crossed an ocean in sardine class? It’s like living without margin: you can do it for a bit, but after a while, things start to hurt that aren’t supposed to hurt, and your mind begins to drift to thoughts of revolution and a bourgeois uprising against the folks sprawled out behind the curtain.

Margin, like leg room, seems unnecessary at first; but then you live without it for a while, things stiffen up, and you realize just how necessary that wasted space really is.

 

Wasting Trees and Asphalt
Do you have any idea how much paper we waste with margins? Neither do I, but I think it’s a lot. Think of all the trees we could save if our magazines and books and newsletters were printed from the very top of the page to the very bottom and the words bled out onto the edges.

People might lose their minds, but hey, at least we wouldn’t be wasting space!

Even my Kindle has a margin. Why is that? Would you read a book or a website that had words all the way to the edges of the screen? Probably not. You’d probably have some sort of visceral turn-that-thing-off reaction. I know I would. Would you live a life all the way to the edges, without margin? Many try.

Interstate_94_&_U.S._23_interchange

In the United States, the average interstate highway has 14ft (4.3m) of wasted pavement. You can’t drive on the shoulder. It’s just there, wasting space and asphalt. It’s road margin.

US interstates have enough wasted space to pave a road 14ft wide around the entire planet. Twice. That’s a lot of wasted pavement.

Many of us live in countries where the main roads aren’t even 14ft wide! So why do they do that? Why do they waste so much money on so much asphalt that’s not even part of the road? To save lives, I guess. Because road margin is a great idea.

 

Why We Need Wasted Space
I need wasted space. My family needs wasted space. My relationship with God needs wasted space. And I need to realize that, in reality, some of the best moments of my life happen in the wasted spaces.

The stuff I remember on my deathbed will probably be the stuff that happened in the margins: The dance I shared with my little girls in a hillside bungalow while the ocean extinguished the sun. The man-talk with my brother about deep stuff that happened in a tree house in a field, doing “nothing.” The unrushed joy of losing a game of Stratego to a small child. Sipping coffee with my soul-mate, pretending to be tourists in our own town, listening to each other’s hearts.

The moment shared with God, unhurried, among trees and grass and falling water. The silent listening.

The moment of sitting still, letting one Word or phrase from Him sink deep, and heal. And comfort. For me, those moments are Life, and they almost always happen in the margin.

 

When Margin Isn’t
Now, if you’re straight up lazy, this post is not for you. Don’t use this as an excuse to continue being lazy. A blank page doesn’t have a margin; it’s just a blank page.

Margin indicates activity, not the absence of it. And it’s not called rest if it’s all you do.The dowager countess, Lady Grantham, perfectly illustrates this with her pointed question:

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Sabbath only occurs after work. Sabbath is God’s margin. It’s God’s wasted space, if you will, that of course isn’t wasteful at all. It’s restorative. And protective. Are you keeping Sabbath? Why not? 

 

The Great Destroyer of Margin
What destroys your margin?

Distractions, that crowd out the voice of Jesus?

Smartphones, with all the apps you never knew you needed to stay tethered to the world you never knew existed?

News, that’ll keep you discouraged or angry or depressed every hour of the 24 hour news cycle?

Blogs, with never-ending comparisons and measurements and opinions?

Personal insecurity that won’t allow you to rest, for fear that you won’t accomplish something, and you not accomplishing something will cause others to judge you, and others judging you will actually make you less valuable? Or more vulnerable?

Take note of the destroyers.

For a season, I deleted the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone. It was a great decision that allowed me to reset and rediscover some margin that I had pretty much lost.

What could you do today to reclaim some margin?

Rein in Netflix?

Learn to say “No.”

Banish the TV or internet from the bedroom?

See a counselor?

 

Conclusion
Margin is the wasted space we desperately need. So, spend some time in the margins.

Waste time with your friends, your spouse, your kids.
Waste time with your God, just being with Him.
No agenda. No checkbox.
Just love and relationship and coffee.

If you have a strong reaction to the idea of “wasting time,” ask yourself “Why?”
Remember, being busy all the time could be avoidance. Avoiding Sabbath could be idolatry.

Close the computer, delete the apps.
Dance with your daughter and remember:

Life is a breath,
Breathe deep and slow, and
Savor the moments in the margins.

The glorious unpressured time of not-work.
Remember, Jesus slept.

God remains on His throne, after all.
He was capable before you showed up, and
He’ll remain imminently capable after you’re gone.

So work hard and rest well.
And remember, wasting time just might be the most productive thing you ever do.

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More Resources:
Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, by Dr. Richard Swenson

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About Jonathan Trotter

Jonathan is a missionary in Southeast Asia, where he provides pastoral counseling at a local counseling center. He also serves as one of the pastors at an international church. Before moving to the field with his wife of eighteen years and their four kids, he served as a youth pastor in the Midwest for ten years and as an inner-city ER/trauma nurse for three years. He enjoys walking with people towards Jesus and eating imported Twizzlers. | www.trotters41.com | facebook: trotters41 | twitter: @trotters41

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