Tag Archives: margins

Does Your Life Feel Too Jam-Packed? That’s Perfect.

 

Robert and I attended an event last Saturday evening. It was the final thing in a long string of almost back-to-back events that day. When we got in the car and fired up the GPS, we saw it would take 40 minutes to get there.

The event began in 40 minutes.

That’s a terrible feeling.

It worked in this case, despite bad weather, DC traffic, and the need to find on-site parking. A bit of a miracle, honestly. But it could have been otherwise. In this case, being late would’ve meant awkwardly slipping into a pew before the bride walked down the aisle. Not a good situation.

I write a lot in my Sabbath musings about the importance of margin. So many of us live lives without any margin. We schedule back-to-back events, overstuff our days, and hop on social media at every idle moment. This takes a toll on us physically, mentally and spiritually.

We need space to pause and breathe. We need a buffer to absorb the unexpected, the things that don’t go according to plan.

But the opposite is also true. Sometimes there is no room for margin. We have to adapt to life without it. And doing so can even be energizing.

I’m reading a book about Charles Lindbergh. (It’s Bill Bryson’s delightful One Summer: America, 1927, so it’s also about Babe Ruth and other amazing figures and events from that time.) One of Lindbergh’s big challenges was to reduce the weight on his plane so he could save fuel on his trip across the Atlantic. He took absolutely nothing he didn’t need. He even trimmed the pages of his flight book, eliminating the white spaces on the sheets of paper.

No margin.

For Charles Lindbergh, this was a deathly serious process—nobody had pulled off what he was attempting to do—but there’s also something creative about such an effort. What do I absolutely need? What can I get away with not having? It reminds me of the few times I backpacked as a Girl Scout. There’s something profound about whittling down the essentials so you’re not carrying around extra weight. (Don’t take the entire tube of toothpaste. Squeeze what you need into a ziplock bag.)

This metaphor could apply to time in one of two ways. On the one hand, you might consider what’s weighing you down, the ballast in your life that needs to drop. But today I’m intrigued with the other side of that image: to eliminate all margins such that there is no time to “spare.” To live a life as precisely calibrated as Lindbergh’s plane.

Today was one of those days in which one thing bumped up against the next such that there was no slack time. I could have dropped a bunch of stuff to allow for some margin, but instead I decided to go for it. It all worked beautifully, to my amazement. I had just enough time to pick up a few groceries between kiss and ride and the pastoral visit. And when I got home from clergy group, I managed a short run, breezing past my kids walking home from the bus so I beat them to the house. Of course I was ready to adjust at any moment, to jettison my plans if something went awry. But it didn’t. And it was a full, lovely day in a full, lovely life.

There’s a big caveat here. Be mindful of the impact your lack of margin has on your mental health—and on others. Making people wait because of your chronic lateness shows a lack of respect for other people—and I say that as someone who has made people wait because I’ve tried to do too much stuff in too little time. But if others will not suffer, why not go for it? Cram your life full! You may discover hidden resources and creativity you never knew you had. (The only time I made the honor roll in college was the semester I was working three part-time jobs. Of course, I got pneumonia at the end. Maybe the trick is knowing when you need margin and when you don’t.)

I know a lot of people who feel overwhelmed a lot of the time. Like the 40 minute trip downtown for an event that starts in 40 minutes, that can be a terrible feeling. And sometimes we do it to ourselves—holding on to standards of perfection we could let go of, refusing to let other people step in to help, keeping ourselves busy in an attempt to feel important.

But the truth is, a crammed-full life is a privilege.

Yes, sooner or later our busy lives catch up to us. We need breaks.

But it’s a gift to be needed. It’s an honor to have people counting on us. It means we are connected, that we matter to our families and our communities, that we have skills that are of use to the world around us. As much as I celebrate the gifts of Sabbath, I celebrate the gifts of a crammed-full life too.

A Hidden Cause of Helicopter Parenting

A few days ago a friend of mine posted this article from Slate, “Why Millennials Can’t Grow Up: Helicopter parenting has caused my psychotherapy clients to crash land.”

The author is a mental health professional who’s seen a dramatic rise in the number of millenials who end up in her office, unable to cope with their burgeoning adulthood.

I’m glad this author addresses the narcissism trope, which I’m so tired of:

It seems as if every article about millennials claims that these kids must all have narcissistic personality disorder. It’s easy to generalize an entire population by its collective Facebook statuses. However, narcissism is not Amy’s problem, or the main problem with millennials.

The big problem is not that they think too highly of themselves. Their bigger challenge is conflict negotiation, and they often are unable to think for themselves. The overinvolvement of helicopter parents prevents children from learning how to grapple with disappointments on their own. If parents are navigating every minor situation for their kids, kids never learn to deal with conflict on their own. Helicopter parenting has caused these kids to crash land.

We’ve all heard this. People love to kvetch about helicopter parents; we pass around stories of parents who go on job interviews with their adult children, or who call colleges during the application process, pretending to be the high school student, or who step in for their high schooler, arguing for higher grade on tests. My sense is that these egregious stories are outliers, though there does seem to be an uptick in this helicopter mentality among certain socioeconomic groups, and I’ve seen plenty of examples of it myself.

My question is, why? Why are people choosing to parent this way? If we can get to the cause, we can start to correct it. I’ve heard a number of explanations:

  • the increasing competitiveness of college admissions and the job market;
  • the spiraling cost of higher education, leading to a “customer is always right” mentality;
  • a media culture that likes to peddle fear of the bogeyman lurking behind over corner, to the point that parents are terrified to let their kids roam free in the world (figuratively and literally)
  • a rejection of authoritarian, “do it my way” models of parenting in favor of a teaching/shepherding model. In theory, this shepherding model should be about equipping the child to make her own decisions and live in the world, but other factors combine to create a bitter result: buddy-buddy parents who are so petrified of their kids’ failing that they flatten every bump in the road.

I suggest another cause underlying this stuff. I haven’t heard it mentioned much, but I think it’s a factor we shouldn’t ignore. It has to do with time.

Nobody starts out intending to impersonate his child to a college admissions officer. It happens over a period of years, and it happens with a thousand tiny decisions, starting when they are young. Decisions like:

1. When my child is having an emotional reaction to something, am I able to stop what I’m doing and let them have their feelings, or am I going to find a quick and easy way to smooth things over?

2. If my child absolutely refuses to wear a coat, will I let them go without one and suffer the discomfort—and learn a valuable lesson—or am I going to “make” them wear one?

3. If a student is having a conflict with a teacher’s teaching style, will I coach him first on how to address the issue, and support those efforts, intervening as a last resort? Or will I immediately swoop in and take over, demanding that the teacher conform to my child’s learning style?

4. Am I going to let my child play freely on the monkey bars, knowing there’s a teensy-tiny chance they could fall and break their arm, or worse? Or am I going to follow them around squawking “be careful, be careful” like a paranoid cockatoo?

I argue that the way you answer these questions, and a thousand others, is directly related to factors such as:

1. whether you’ve built any margins into your schedule to address a child’s emotional life, as opposed to pacifying or appeasing them so you can get on to the next thing, or

2. your tolerance of a cold and complaining child, which is directly related to your own stress level, or

3. whether you’re able do the hard work of coaching, which will take much longer than just doing it yourself, or

4. whether you have time for a trip to the emergency room. (OK, nobody really has ER time built into their schedule.)

I don’t consider myself a helicopter parent by temperament. Sure, I hate as much as anyone to see my kids experience pain or loss, but I try to take the long view and understand that failures and setbacks build resilience. That said, the times that I find myself firing up the chopper are precisely those times when I am too busy, too stressed, or too anxious to stop and help the kids work through their issues. I’d rather solve it myself, brush my hands off, and get on with life.

But in this parenting business, short-cuts (while sometimes necessary) can be costly. One of my parenting mantras is “the harder thing is the easier thing.” That is, doing what seems harder at the time is often easier in the long run: investing the time in helping a child understand her own emotions, or advocate for herself, pays huge dividends down the road. Building margins into my schedule is my biggest spiritual challenge at the moment, but I need to, not just for myself but for my children.

Because there’s no way I’m accompanying them on a job interview.

 

Mind Your Margins

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Do college students still mess with the margins in order to make their papers appear longer? Or has that practice fallen away in the age of email and word counts?

(And how dumb did we think our profs were to fall for that?)

My family’s yearning for Sabbath began several years ago when we realized that our lives hummed along perfectly well, so long as nothing went wrong. We jam-packed our days and worked to exhaustion, which was fine so long as nobody got sick or the basement never flooded. Regular periods of rest gave us some emotional decompression time and also helped us think about the rest of our week differently.

What we were doing was minding our margins. I prefer “margins” to boundaries, which feels too unyielding to be helpful amid the complexity of life. But even with the looser language, margins are hard for me.

After James was born, I went to a half-time schedule and became very good at efficient scheduling. I suspect it was hard on some of the folks I worked with, whose model for ministry was more “be open to what comes and savor the interruptions.” Yes, ministry is about relationships. And interruptions are a part of the package. But as an associate pastor in a programmatic position with 20-25 hours on the clock each week, there were certain things that needed to get done each day.

I still like back to back meetings—random 25 minute blocks of time between appointments make me a little batty. Like many of you, a lot of my work involves thinking and writing, and I can barely get my metaphorical pencils sharpened in 25 minutes.

That said, it’s important to build adequate margin between appointments, especially if those meetings have a heavy emotional undercurrent to them—or you think they might.

Plus, you know… traffic.

The goal for me, as always, is flow: an effortlessness and mindfulness to what I’m doing. In those moments I am neither rushed nor languishing. I am just… in time.

Yesterday was a tight-margin day in which I moved in and out of flow, and even had to cancel something because I’d packed things in too tightly. First up was a coffee appointment with someone to plan an event I’m doing in January. We met at the Starbucks, because right after that a church member and I were doing some de-cluttering, to get ready for some high school band students whom we’d hired to do some schlepping to the dumpster. That took longer than I’d expected, which led to the cancellation. After lunch and some emails and phone calls, I had a quick run, which had to be cut short (another too-tight margin). Then it was a hospital visit and home with the kids.

As I type it, it seems frenetic, like a lot of chopped up experiences and harried distraction. And given the need to cancel stuff, clearly I’d planned too much. But I didn’t feel harried at all. The Starbucks conversation meandered and flowed and ended when it needed to. I was not checking my watch at the hospital; there was sufficient time, and I had prearranged with my neighbor to get the kids at the bus stop so I could take my time.

So yesterday was good, on the whole. But there are just as many jam-packed days in which I feel like I’m all elbows and stubbed toes. I’m hard-pressed to figure out what makes the difference. In the meantime, I’ll chalk it up to the work of that mysterious Holy Spirit.

photo credit: CarbonNYC via photopin cc