Confessions of a Tired Over-Achiever

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“I knew about margin in my head, but I hadn’t learned it in my heart.”
Nov_DianaBy Diana Trautwein | Twitter: @drgtrautwein

Can I tell you a secret? I am a very slow learner.

I am also a quick study—which is not the same thing at all. I can gather facts, read articles, enjoy rich and satisfying discussions, even occasionally try out a practical application of whatever it is I’m studying.

But to truly, deeply learn something? It seems to take me a lifetime.

A case in point: over a decade ago, I actually preached an entire sermon on the topic of margin, creating white space at the edges of life, space for breathing and listening and looking. I read a book on the topic. In fact, I read two books on the topic, I wrote a decent sermon about it and I prepared a series of lessons, which I offered in several different settings over the next year or so.

And I meant every word, too. I believed then—and I believe now—that busyness is the biggest single scourge of the last 100 years. Over-scheduling, unrealistic expectations, the constant addition of just one more thing to an already well-scribbled calendar—these are the things that lead to death. Like a farmer’s field that is never allowed to lie fallow, a life lived without margin leads to total depletion of the good things that replenish the soil/soul.

Preach it, sister!

And I did.

But somehow, I didn’t manage to live it very well. Too many days pushed right to the edge, too many notes jotted on the calendar, too many obligations, expectations, commitments and appointments. Slowly but surely—and with alarming regularity!—that necessary white space began to shrink. And I began to fumble and flail, and eventually, to crash and burn. Instead of a calendar and a life lived in balance, with sufficient margin for stillness, silence, gentle community with loved ones, reading, writing, bird-watching, sitting at the beach. . . whatever might help me create room for that margin of fallowness, I lived my life at full tilt pretty much 24/7.

I knew about margin in my head, but I hadn’t learned it in my heart.

Then retirement happened. And here’s another small secret: retirement is disorienting. It’s hard to find terra firma. It is tough to know how to steward the time when the structure of the day dissolves, so I sometimes find myself feeling fumbly, unsettled, unsure. And if I’m not careful, I run from that place of discomfort rather than pausing to learn from it, even to savor it. Too often, I begin to feel a little green around the gills from what I can only describe as a lack-of-motion sickness.

And my lifetime fall-back position when feeling such queasiness? To fill up that white space and keep busy. Just this week, three full years into the new rhythms of this retirement life, I landed in bed with the mother of all head colds, snuffling and sneezing and needing long naps. Why? I didn’t protect the margins, I resisted the call to lie fallow each week, I leaned away from the discomfort of un-busyness rather than leaning into it.

For me, this truly does begin and end with the small calendar I carry in my purse. A quick glance can tell me if I’m leaving enough room for my soul-soil to breathe. Some of what my calendar tells me cannot be changed. I have an elderly mother who needs regular time with me; I have directees to meet with once each month; I need to talk with my own director; I have made a few commitments to other family members and at our church.

And, of course, there are the demands of life—groceries to be bought, gasoline to be pumped, bills to be paid. And a long life of habitually paying attention to all of the things out there that contend for my time and energy has meant that I have had to learn how to intentionally carve out time and space for what is going on in here, in the center of who I am.

This is a lesson I am so very slow to learn, even though I know its truth and have experienced its power. And right here, right now, my calendar—like every one of yours, I am sure—is beginning to look like a maze, with holiday prep and year-end details looming. Somewhere in all of it, I must put some protective borders around the field that is me, I must leave some chunks of white space, some regularly scheduled margin, some space to b-r-e-a-t-h-e.

How do you leave space at the edge of your days? Where are you finding margin as the shadows lengthen this fall?

___________________

About Diana:

DianaMarried to her college sweetheart for over 40 years, Diana is always wondering about things. She answers to Mom from their three adult kids and spouses and to Nana from their 8 grandkids, ranging in age from 3 to 22. For 17 years, after a mid-life call to ministry, she answered to Pastor Diana in two churches where she served as Associate Pastor. Since retiring at the end of 2010, she spends her time working as a spiritual director and writes on her blog, Just Wondering. For as long as she can remember, Jesus has been central to her story and the church an extension of her family. Not that either church or family is exactly perfect … but then, that’s what makes life interesting, right?

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  • Bev Murrill

    Diana… you’ve been reading my inbox, tweets, blogs, mind, haven’t you! I totally know where you’re coming from, as I’m assuming every one who comments on your post will. Like the words of the old song we both know… ‘when will they ever learn… when will they e-ver learn”. Rueful chuckle. Thanks for this great post. I’m not saying I’m going to put it into practice, but I am saying I appreciate it! xxx

    • pastordt

      LOVE this response – so real. So you. And also, so ME. Sigh. Thanks for reading and encouraging, Bev.

      • Bev Murrill

        chuckle… we’re in this together, girl.

  • Elizabeth

    Sweet friend you nailed this important topic. Your words sing and glide and tell with a richness of spirit. My prayer is that all of us will glean from your gentle style of telling, sharing, and showing us what it mean to live a life of laying fields fallow, of wide margins, of rest and pacing. Your voice is beautiful indeed. Thank you. Oh, thank you. Grateful to call you friend.

    • pastordt

      Well, my friend, you read an earlier rendition of this essay. Thanks to our fine editor friend’s help, I like this version a whole lot better. Thanks for coming by and leaving your usual loveliness here.

  • Nicole Joshua

    A youth pastor once said to me that I only seem to learn through the school of hard knocks, i.e. I must first experience the lesson before I learn it. Diane, you post today is helping me realize that I have, once again, come through the school of hard knocks with regards to busyness. Thank you for encouraging me to think about creating margins in my life, so that the fatigue I’m experiencing does not become the only way that I slow down.

    • pastordt

      You are more than welcome, Nicole. I think most of us have to work hard on this particular lesson. And ALL of us need more margin, more breathing room. Thanks for coming by and commenting.

  • I’m so happy to see you here in this life-giving community, Diana! As always, your words are ones that challenge and inspire me to see my life through a different lens.
    Oh and, just for the record, I agree that busyness is the single biggest scourge of the last 100 years. Preach it, indeed.

    • pastordt

      Thank you, Kelli, for he words of welcome. I am happy to be here, believe me.

  • Sharyn Sowell

    I agree, hurry sickness is one of the great ills of our age. Like you, I’m fighting constantly to keep a margin, particularly the practice of keeping a sabbath day for pure rest.

    • pastordt

      Amen. I still struggle with that Sabbath rest thing – I’m working on it and getting better at it, but it’s amazing to me how quickly I can go for distraction rather than true rest. Thanks for commenting!

  • Oh yes…deep breath…for me, learning to live with margins was connected with finding my rest in God…no longer striving to earn His love…to be “used” by God…that my worth is not attached to a measuring stick that measures my productivity…I have been pondering the upside down kingdom…and how we measure the value of a life in the world…but the measuring doesn’t have the same calculation in His kingdom…even a cup of cold water has great value…things done in secret have great reward. And yes…this transitional time of life…it can be a bit disorienting…but oh so rich.

    • pastordt

      Well said, Ro! Exactly right – our ‘worth is not attached to a measuring stick that measures [our] productivity. . .’ Thanks for reading and for leaving these good words.

  • Megan Gahan

    I am so happy to see you here Diana! And this is such a timely message on margins. How easy it is to write or preach what we KNOW to be true – but how often do we fall short in applying to our own lives. This reminder is so necessary. Thank you friend 🙂

    • pastordt

      You are very welcome, Megan. And thank YOU for stopping by and leaving words of encouragement. (Thanks for the tweets, too!)

  • Anne-Marie

    Diana, thank you. As a mom who’s both blessed and cursed to have a million sweet pieces to fit into each day, I too find it very difficult to not scurry around, having too little structure. And that pressure to prove that you are doing something IMPORTANT, when much of what is most meaningful is quite small and flits through the corners of the day. If space is left. I’m with you!

    • pastordt

      Love this comment, Anne-Marie! Why are we so anxious to prove we’re big enough? That we’re ‘important?’ Sigh. It’s a part of the human condition, I think. And we can truly only find our way back to center if we let ourselves s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Thanks so much.

  • Megan Willome

    Thanks, Diana!

    What I’ve learned is that there is busyness you can avoid and busyness you can’t. The trick is learning the difference.

    • pastordt

      Exactly right, Megan. Distinguishing those two is hugely important and sometimes really, really difficult. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • I was just thinking I would like to read something of yours, since reading your comment on my post awhile back—and many others. Your sweet spirit really reaches past the white screen. I’m so grateful for that. And for this. It’s so needed in our busy culture (and around Christmas, like you say). This year I’m just tired of the Christmas bling and busyness, so I’m hunkering down in the margin space. It feels so good. 🙂

    • pastordt

      Thanks for your oh-so-kind words, Michaela. I’ve been tired of the Christmas ‘bling and busyness’ for a long time now, yet I can still get sucked into it if I’m not very careful and intentional about staying in the center of it all. Thanks for these good words!

  • cjdeboer

    Ahhhh…I think this resonates with all of us Diana. Knowing seems to be so different from implementing. Your post is definitely timely as Christmas approaches – thank you!

    • pastordt

      You’re welcome, Claire. I’m finding resonance with this whole struggle every where I turn these days. And most of us DO know that un-busying ourselves is important. But it is so hard to actually do that, isn’t it??

  • Donna Baker

    Whoa, I also have TAUGHT on balance and margin and am now struggling to listen to my heart, not my calendar, during retirement. Tooooo many people, not enough people. Toooo much time flexibility, not enough time. Leading others, being led. Studying and practicing spiritual direction, learning to open myself to a director. Confusing and a bit off balance. But I rather think it is “good for me” to be “off” and need God’s leading. Reminds me of how, as a young wife I literally shut my eyes during ballroom dance lessons with my dear hubbins—- I needed to handicap myself or I would…..lead, not follow. I might get “bumped and stumble” but I was in the arms of my beloved. Still learning.

    • pastordt

      Oh, yes, Donna!! It, too, think it’s good for us all to be ‘off.’ LOVE the image of ballroom dancing and the need to follow after God’s heart. Thanks for reading and commenting today.

  • Lisha Epperson

    Hi Diana! Maybe it’s just the season or maybe it’s that I’ve been at home for the past 2 days with a rare head cold but I’ve sensed the need to slow down. The other day i had a thought…that life isn’t supposed to be this way. Everything is important. Everything is rushed. I can’t see the white space. This post speaks to me and I receive every word. I’ll have to get back to you on the answers but know this, I’m searching.

    • pastordt

      Thanks for letting me know that you’re searching for that white space, too, Lisha. And I completely empathize with the head cold/forced slowdown. Sometimes that’s what it takes for me to breathe more slowly and listen. Good to see you here!

  • Thank you for this, Diana.
    I too am a slow learner and a quick study.
    I’ve been learning wonderful groundbreaking things lately, only to go back to my own journal, blog and notes and realize that I’ve been trying to get it into me for years.
    I’m so thankful that God keeps bringing me to the margins, showing me over and over again.

    • pastordt

      Funny how that happens, huh? I am thankful, too, that God is patient with me.

  • So happy and thankful you are here!

    As for your question, Where am I finding margin? Unfortunately I find it too often on the other side of the day … (like now) when the house is quiet and the tasks are done. I can sit down and do this–comment where my heart enjoys the pausing and the community. Or just enjoy the quiet. The hum of the dishwasher and the dryer and the clicking of my computer keys. I say “unfortunately” because it often means I subtract from resting time.

    I am taking heed.

    • pastordt

      That’s how I fond margin when I had young children, too. After the house was quiet, usually between midnight and 2:00 a.m. Not ideal, but what I had. When I was as young as you are, that worked. Not so much anymore. :>( though I’m still a night owl.

      Thank you so much, Idelette, for the invitation to join your merry, talented band. This is a wonderful, grace-filled place and I am grateful.

  • Nancy Ruegg

    Oh, how often I’ve over-committed myself and left no margins whatsoever! Most of it was in people-pleasing mode. Now that I’m a lot older and a tiny bit wiser, I’m saying “no” more often–and fighting against the false-guilt that I should be doing more. God will let me know, with a certainty in my spirit, when I need to say “yes.” Thank you, Diana, for the reminder that we need time to
    b-r-e-a-t-h-e. Rest is God-ordained.

    • pastordt

      You’re welcome, Nancy. Thanks for coming by this good place and leaving kind words!

  • wnhen@aol.com

    Diana, I wish I had advice for you. I loved it when I retired because it was what I always had been, and finally I had an answer to people who asked “What do you do?” I think I developed habits early in life to not give my time over to others. And this is different from not doing things that are of value. But that’s too simple of an answer. There are habits to break, and there are expectations of others ignore, and there is the work of believing, really believing that your own choices for your time really are good, moral, life-giving choices. And then your body will slow you down and that will help.

    • pastordt

      I salute you for that habit, gained early, Newell. Yes, there are habits to break and expectations to ignore. . . I’m working on both! Maybe it’s the believing part that’s hard for me to hang onto, I’m not sure. And yes, and amen. The body does have a way of forcing us to a slower tempo and that is (mostly) a good thing. Thanks for reading, friend.

  • Donna C

    My margin has almost completely disappeared! I miss it… Thank you for bringing this necessity back to my attention, Diana. I think often we feel that the busier we are, the more important/necessary we are, and so having no margin can be seen as a good thing. I had managed to carve out chunk of 6hrs margin each week. That got reduced to 3hrs, and is now about to be reduced to about 1.5hrs… hmmmm… time to do some more thinking about my schedule!

    • pastordt

      Yes, Ma’am, it is time to do some more thinking. But this is a tough season for creating margin, isn’t it? Maybe that makes it the best possible season? Blessings to you, Donna, as you look and as you find more white space.

  • Evelyn

    Here’s my frustration with this: to leave margins in my life, I have to stop doing the few things I do that feed me, because cutting anything else out of my schedule means other people miss out. As a mother of 4 under 10, most of my schedule is taken up with other people’s busy-ness / activities. The other items are two activities I feel God called me to do (and the evidence suggests I heard right), one monthly, one weekly. Further margin is used up supporting my husband so he can do his ‘getting fed / giving something back’ activity. I can’t quit my degree, nor would I want to. Whenever I hear it suggested that we should do less, I can’t help but think, “You’re asking me to shrink my life down to the essentials (cooking, cleaning, groceries, laundry, child care, chauffeuring etc), while everyone else still gets to do the stuff they enjoy”- and that just doesn’t seem fair. So I stay busy, because that’s the only way to fit in the stuff that matters to me alongside what needs to be done for everyone else. I have been wrestling with this for a long time, but have concluded that this is a season. And I’ve become quite cunning about finding moments of quiet, although probably not as many, as often or as long as seems to be ideal. I live with the busy-ness because not doing the things that feed me makes me feel worse.

    Sometimes the call to leave margins, like the pressure for a daily quiet time, just leaves me feeling guilty and unsupported. Sometimes busy young mothers need empathy and a helping hand, not another thing to do. So my appeal to anyone reading this who has a bit of extra space in their life is: if you think times of quiet matter, find someone whose life circumstances make that difficult to achieve, and DO something. Do their laundry. Take their kids to the park. Do the driving for them. Bring them a meal. But above all don’t just tell them they should do less. Please.

    • pastordt

      Oh, Evelyn! I am so sorry that you felt dismissed by this piece – that was the furthest thing from my mind. BY ALL MEANS, do the things that feed you. In my book, that IS margin. All those things you put in parentheses (cooking, cleaning, groceries. . . ) — just do the bare minimum to keep people alive and build a pathway to walk thru the clutter. White space means exactly that – space for you to be re-created. And often, especially with a full plate, we must recreate in order to be re-created. Does that make sense? In 800 words, it is sometimes difficult to write about every facet of a topic. Please know that I hear you, I see you, I’ve been where you are. When my children were young and my husband and I were busy – I took time late at night to do the things I loved – reading/crafts (yes, I admit it – I used to love them a lot!)/sewing. In those years, I had to also find enough space to sleep and sometimes that got a little bit dicey. Take a deep breath and try and read this as permission to be the fullest YOU possible. That’s the goal. And if you live near me – give me a call and I’ll try and give you an hour here or there.

      • Evelyn

        Oh don’t worry, I didn’t feel dismissed! Thank you for your reply. I’ve reached a place of peace with it, as I say, it is a season. But I know how I would have felt reading that say a year ago, that’s why I posted. In case me a year ago came along 🙂

        Sadly I don’t live anywhere near you, although I’m not sure I would take you up on your kind offer, because I feel there are others who would need it more. I’ve made my bed, I’ll lie on it LOL.

        And speaking of beds, I would like to add a final thought: no one should underestimate the power of sleep as white space. Sometimes eating well and sleeping enough are almost sufficient to create the inner rest that prevents burn out. White space, after all, is just one facet of self care. In my experience (limited, so date) the degree to which we care for ourselves reflects the degree to which we have grasped the length, breath and depth of God’s love for us.

        • pastordt

          Amen to sleep!! Hear, hear. and your last sentence? Pure gold. Thank you.