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Space for what matters most

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As I write, I’ve just begun a 15-hour trip home from a family vacation in the Magic Kingdom. Filled to the brim with excellent quality time together and more fun than I ever imagined, I’m thinking all the thoughts about margin. In our ordinary lives, during ordinary times, my husband and I have remarkably little margin around the edges of our planners. Some of this is to be expected; we are the parents of a very large family and we are both in active seasons of our professional lives. There are only so many hours in the day, and we fill them purposefully and productively. 

But I’ve recently learned some hard lessons about margin.

Margin is where meaning happens. It’s where there is time and space for connection. Life can’t be one big vacation, but I do think that our daily planners can and should hold more white space. Too often, we think of margin as what’s left over after the important work of the day is done. And days where there is none? We just march on, figuring we’ll catch some down time later, figuring time for quality connection will present itself.

I’m recognizing that we have that backward. During the course of more than one busy season, life has proven that margin is a priority about which we have to be most intentional. The important work of the day happens in the margin, so the most meaningful planning we do is planning for margin. When we deliberately create white space in the structure of our days, we leave room to deal with all the details of life in a calm and recollected manner; we leave room to look into someone’s eyes and really see. 

Instead of prioritizing to make sure there is margin, many of us live lives of quiet desperation — striving and surviving, but not really thriving. I don’t know why we gravitate toward living in a constant state of hyper-productivity, why we fill every waking hour to the point of feeling guilty about downtime, but we do. We operate as if our purpose in life is to check the boxes, to get stuff done. That’s not the point. We’re here to love. And barreling through life blinds us to the opportunities to love well. 

When the stuff of busyness fills our days so full that it crowds the margins, we have the illusion of fullness, when the reality is scarcity. Without margin, there is no time to care for ourselves or for the people God intends for us to love. Life becomes a barren wasteland devoid of meaningful human connection. When every moment is crammed with “productivity,” we aren’t truly caring for ourselves or anyone else.

Self-care isn’t really a spa appointment. It’s getting a good night’s sleep. It’s sitting down to eat a thoughtfully prepared meal — three times a day. It’s time enough to park in the spot furthest from the store so that you can get a few extra steps in. It’s time to develop a habit of exercise and of deep breathing. It’s time to sit in quiet stillness and hear the Lord every day. 

And loving well? It’s answering the phone even though you know he’s going to talk for an hour — because being a comfort in his loneliness matters. It’s lingering long when you listen to nighttime prayers and realize her feelings have been hurt again. It’s walking around the long way because the view is prettier that way and you love the way his fingers feel intertwined with yours. 

Margin requires us to say “no” in order to be available to say “yes.” Margin gives you permission to leave room for the unexpected spark of connection in your everyday life. Margin is the space we need to care deeply and well for ourselves and others. Margin is where the real magic happens. 

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.    

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019