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May 5, 2013: “Life on the J-Curve Part 1”

Welcome to the first of this three part series entitled “Life on the J-Curve” based on Dr. Richard Swenson’s two books entitled Margin and The Overload Syndrome. I want to say up front that much of what you will hear in this series is NOT my original work. These books are so compelling, and Swenson says it so well that much of what I have done is just to distill his work. I have mentioned these books to you before, but felt they deserved a more thorough consideration. I cannot recommend these books highly enough, although full disclosure again requires me to let you know that Swenson himself is an evangelical Christian; however, he is the least heavy handed one I have ever read, and those themes are mostly quietly implicit. And because the substance of these books is so good, I encourage you to consider eating the meat and spitting out the bones, (apologies to our vegetarians for the metaphor.) The other warning up front is that the font in these books, at least in the version I am familiar with, is ridiculously small. So have your reading glasses at the ready.

Swenson defines Margin as the space between our load and our limits. It is the little bit of breathing room or open space in life where regeneration happens, where sanity is restored. In Judeo Christianity, it is based on the notion of Sabbath where it is found to be a non-negotiable and central COMMANDMENT; one which was made overly rigid and finally trivial, but which still has a potent, underlying meaning in any case.

To put in clear and simple terms, Swenson says, “Margin is being fifteen minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were ten minutes late getting out of the meeting because the agenda was way too full. Margin is building in ten extra minutes for each of these activities, so you can drive at a sane pace, arrive a few minutes early and even breathe a little along the way. Marginless is being asked to carry a load five pounds heavier than you can lift. Margin is having a friend is a friend to carry half the burden. Marginless is fatigue, margin is energy. Marginless is our culture and the disease of our time. Margin is its cure.

Our problem in this day and age is that we have lost margin not just on an individual, interpersonal level, and not just in a gradual way. Swenson says we have lost it collectively and culturally in a way that is unique to our particular time in history, and in a way that is far more serious than just that “we have become too busy” and “ya, ya everybody’s burned out.”

I would invite you now to look at the paper full of graphs that you received this morning. Start with the side that has just the three larger graphs, measuring the broad concepts of information, complexity and change in general. You will notice that each of these starts out with a long period of gradual, incremental growth along the X axis, up until roughly the 1970’s when the line suddenly begins to shoot up, making it a rather dramatic J-curve. If you turn the paper over, you will see the specific measures that were used to formulate the broader, summary conclusions. These are only some of them. The book includes many, many more. And these only go through 2000. Imagine if we had the information from 2000 ’til now. Imagine if we had scales for things like number of hours spent watching TV, or number of hours spent engaged with hand held devices, which were barely beginning to be used at the time of this research

The underlying point Swenson really tries to make in all this is to show that we have moved from gradual, linear change to exponential change, and that we do not have the mental framework to understand how dramatic that difference is.

To illustrate how rapidly exponential numbers accumulate, and why they are so hard for us to envision, long range forecaster J. Scott Armstrong gave a graduate class of 20 business students the following puzzle: If you folded a piece of paper in half 40 times, how thick would the result be?

13 students said less than one foot.

5 students said between one foot and one mile.

2 students said between one and 2000 miles.

None said greater than 2000 miles.

The correct answer, according to Armstrong IS THAT THE PAPER WOULD BE THICK ENOUGH TO REACH TO THE MOON AND BACK. I’ll leave it to some of you folks to check his math, which I am quite confident somebody here will probably want to do.

The point is that because there is little in our day to day lives that changes exponentially, we still tend to think and plan with a linear mind-set. The sun rises and sets. 24 hours is still only 24 hours. Day in and day out, things seem busier, to be sure, but we imagine them as otherwise about the same. Meanwhile, largely underestimated by us, history has shifted into fast-forward. Says Swenson, “If linear still best describes our personal lives, exponential now best describes our cultural change. The significance of this is incalculable, yet the typical American, unused to thinking in exponential terms, consistently underestimates it. The astounding acceleration of change and the increasing complexity of life have time-warped us into a new era. We live in an unprecedented day where we have been disarticulated from our own past and do not yet know how to deal with this, new present. Living out this great drama, we are playing a different game by different rules on a different stage than any other people in the history of the world.”

Indeed, our daily lives still look basically the same, albeit much busier, and we sense they are crazy-making. But its not just our individual lives that have changed. The whole milieu in which we swim has changed. Swenson invites us to think of a raft floating along in a lazy stream, then the stream becomes faster, and finally it is a raging river. And we keep thinking, “but my raft is basically the same”. Well, our individual lives float in a culture. Our lives continue to be the same 24 hour days wherein we work, eat, sleep, play. All the while the cultural flow becomes faster and drowns us in exponentially more information, complexity and change. Taking refuge in the boundaries of our raft, we pretend that because the dimensions of our raft have not changed, nothing else has really changed either. Until we plummet over the falls.

I want to be very clear here that none of this is to say that progress is bad, nor to encourage naive nostalgia over the past. I personally have no interest in going back to a time before antibiotics, electricity or even computers. The truth is, we have problems and our ancestors had problems. Our problems are painful, and our ancestors problems were painful. We have some advantages in our lifestyle, and our ancestors had some advantages in heir lifestyles. One thing I LIKE about this book is that it does not bash progress as a whole, nor advocate a naive return to a past that we have romanticized, and that in truth probably never existed in the ways we sometimes like to imagine. All it says is that given where we have come, we do have some unique challenges, and we ignore them at our own peril.

Our problems come from the fact that there are only so many details that can be comfortably or reasonably managed in any one life. Yet we have to deal with more “things per person” (in fact, exponentially more) than at any other time in history. Every year we have to deal with more information, more technology, more change, more products, more choices, more commitments, more work, more debt, need for more education just to keep up, more expectation, more fatigue, more hurry, etcetera ad nauseam. And yet, once the number of details that any one person can reasonably deal with has been exceeded, a uuvery painful malady begins to set in. Dr. Swenson calls it OVERLOAD, and describes it in his own life this way: (xerx quote p. 9)

Here are some of what Swenson identifies as the symptoms overload:

Forgetfulness (like in the early days of word processing when you would get that notification, “the disk is nearly full.”)



The Desire to Withdraw and become unavailable (phone phobia)

Feeling that things are on the verge of slipping out of control

Difficulty making decisions

Mental or action paralysis

Impatience and irritability

Lack of civility

Feeling overwhelmed at or unwilling to learn new technology

In short, that “stop the world I want to get off” feeling overall.

If those are the symptoms, then the prescription, put simply is to learnt that we do have limits, and then to come to know them, and to honor them, fiercely, protectively, and no matter what anyone else thinks. And here’s the thing that sometimes makes it complicated: Our Limits are not all the same. There are different personality types with very different needs in this arena. Elaine N. Aron has written a book entitled The Highly Sensitive Person” about people who are indeed more finely tuned to outside stimuli, and who need more margin to remain sane and productive. I love this book because it goes to great pains to say that highly sensitive people are not lazy or crazy, and have their own important gifts to offer the world, if they learn to honor their limits. I love this book because I have slowly come to realize that I AM ONE of these people. Although I prefer to say “I am by nature contemplative” because it sounds so much less neurotic. If I am any good at all at writing sermons, it is because I have finally learned to honor this truth about myself, and have negotiated with my partner a way to structure my life in accordance with who I am.

So wherever you find yourself on the continuum, it is important to learn your own need for margin, and to work with it, not against it. Swenson says that at about 80% of our own maximum, allowing a 20% margin, we still have enthusiasm for new commitments, we still have energy, creativity, gratitude and contentment; involvements are still energizing rather than burdensome. We still have a good sense of humor and social civility, even with our own family members.

At 100% of our own max, when margin is lost, we begin to see ambivalence about involvements, feelings of panic around self and time protection, discomfort with plans, fatigue, dispiritedness, irritability, a tendency toward incivility, etcetera. And when we operate at 115 % of our own max, all that becomes even more intensified. We feel routinely overwhelmed by life, angry, reactive, and really just want to hide, This is when things like bumping up against one more automated phone system can send you right over the edge. Or my personal favorite, which I have moaned about from this pulpit before, when Google decides to change things up and forces us all to learn a new system, purely because those young people who still have spare brain plasticity (little show-offs,) because THEY will think the new way is cooler. Don’t even get me started

Some of you will probably tell me that you don’t feel as impacted by these issues because you finally have spare time, perhaps you are retired or have just learned to tame the headless beast. I commend you. But I think you still cannot help but bump up against these things to some extent, perhaps by observing them in the lives of your children and even your young grand-children, whom Swenson says are suffering the results of over scheduled marginless living as early as elementary school in the form of too many activities, extra classes, teams and homework demands in elementary school that often seem excessive to say the least. And I say that with all due respect to teachers who are forced to prepare them for the latest version of state proficiency exams.

And speaking of children and margin, I just heard this week that they are now teaching as standard, that in typing, (now called keyboarding) you only leave one space after each sentence instead of the two spaces most of us were taught. This is apparently because that extra space is now seen as wasteful and ultimately, expensive OK. I think this just might be the ditch I decide to die in. I want my extra space, and I will not give it up easily! I will protest its removal early and often, and I might even start taking three spaces between sentences just to make my point. You heard it here first.

So today we have looked at the problem: marginless living and the overload syndrome. Next week, I will be talking about the remedy for this cultural estrangement brought on by our unique time in history. For next week, being mother’s day, (or more broadly interpreted as a day to honor family or primary connections of any sort,) we might give some thought to the idea of declaring it a day free from hand held devices, or even screens in general. A day of actually talking with each other eyeball to eyeball- and if not all day, maybe at least a couple of hours? So next week we look at solutions in our primary communities. Then I will be gone for two weeks, and the third of this series will be on June 2 when we will look at the implications of life on the J curve, or marginless living, for larger organizations such as the workplace. Ah yes, the work place where people have been told to work smarter not harder to the point of brain explosion. And we will also look at the results of marginless living specifically for churches. The last few decades have seen painful transition in what used to be called “the mainline denominations,” otherwise known as non fundamentalist churches. Moderate to liberal churches have gradually come to the point of trying to do too much with too few people and too limited resources. This becomes frustrating and lends itself to underground resentment and blame and guilt. Once this takes hold, as it has in virtually all of our mainline churches, then church becomes not a help, but part of the problem. One of the creative challenges for our churches is to figure out how to revamp the model because a volunteerism structure based on the mainline churches heyday in the 1950s, when one adult in the family was home full time and these churches were bursting at the seam with members, is so not the case anymore, nor has it been for a long time. And trying to function out of that old model is burning out members, and too often creating subtle emotional climates that only fuel the problem. Fair warning: I will not have all the answers. If I did I’d be a rich consultant. But I’ll do my best to offer some input that might further the conversation.

In the meantime, if you are experiencing the results of living with too little margin, know that you are not crazy. It’s not your raft, it’s the river. And there are things that can help tame the headless monster which is sucking the very life out of you. Mother Theresa gives us a hint: It’s not how much you do, it’s how much love you put into what you do. I leave us with that.