Feb 22, 2023

Relearning pace. Redrawing margins.


Abigail Sumption

A call to recognize our limitations in the pursuit of valuable work

Image By:
Madeline Mullenbach

“You were in a hurry from day one,” my Mum tells me as she recounts the story of how I came into this world. Coincidentally, it’s often whilst I’m telling my own tale of exhaustion or illness that she’ll remind me—just as I forget, for the umpteenth time—the consequences of running myself to the ground through my lack of margin. She’ll tell me of my rushed birth, ten days ahead of schedule, in the early hours of a crisp Scottish morning in March, in the bathroom of the stately home we were fortunate to be lodging in. No midwife in sight. My mother was a nurse and my father a vet, and evidently, I thought they would do just fine. “So much world to see! So much to do, so little time!” I must have thought. Living slowly, with space and acknowledgment of my limits, seems to never have been something that came naturally to me.

Now, I’m writing from London, England, where I currently live and work—specifically from the sleepier, residential town of Earlsfield. I have found a small, quiet corner of this sprawling metropolis to call my own—it’s true, I am the lucky one. Life here is unexpectedly un-London-like: It’s peaceful, neighborly, and all-importantly, slow. I have space to breathe. Lightning-speed London is reachable; indeed, for several days of the week, I visit and even get caught up in it, but I don’t feel the need to exist within it. I have built the room to extract myself from the breakneck pace of life, recover, and go again.

Even with this life I’ve built, at the pace I’ve fought for, I have a tendency to perpetuate a culture that renders work vital, all-consuming, and marginless. Particularly with my job in the justice space, I am often affronted with the challenges of limits as much as the reality of why we need them—it is often good things we try to break ourselves for. When our work or our vocations intersect with our values, the act of drawing boundaries around this meaningful work can feel utterly conflicting.  But I truly believe it’s exactly when the work matters so much, and the meaning we extract is so intrinsically tied to our personal values and purpose—it’s then, exactly then, that we need to prevent work from consuming us. It’s then that we need to take a step back: relearn our pace, redraw our margins, reset our limits.

If it’s not already clear, I’ve learned this the hard way. More often than not, the need to slow down has literally been forced upon me. I used to find the timing of it—the crash into rest—unbelievably unfair. It always seems to hit just while I feel I’m flying, defying my natural capacity, operating at 100mph and enjoying the rush. Yet just as maxing out our limits is unsustainable, a marginless-induced crash is inevitable. The truth of the matter is we can only operate on overdrive for a short period—our bodies know this. We have thresholds of pressure and pace we can endure, but there are limits, which once crossed, demand us to change gear and make certain realignments.

And the temptation to tempt the crash comes easily with my vocation. International Justice Mission (IJM), where I currently work, is an organization with an ambitious vision: to protect half a billion people living in poverty from violence. It has equally ambitious targets, and it employs equally ambitious, highly-driven people. Much of the work is facilitated by partners and local authorities, together combating some of the world’s darkest forms of crime and human rights abuses.

Indeed, the relevance and remit of IJM’s work are so vast, and the stories and scope of human depravity so dark, that even despite being removed from the on-the-ground reality of it, I still can feel the heaviness. This ‘weight’ can clash with my fragility and limited ability to carry it. Yet there’s a recurring phrase that the founder of IJM, Gary Haugen, often recalls: “This is God’s work and God’s weight.”

Regardless of your religious background, recognizing where your responsibilities lie is part of defining your limits. Many of us working in the justice and human rights space will innately care about the purpose behind the work as well as the people we work with. Less natural to us somehow, is limiting ourselves to only the work that belongs to us, and doing it with a sense of boundary, thus protecting ourselves from bearing a weight that cannot possibly only belong to us. Both for our own sustained passion, and for the best solutions and redemption we pursue, we must learn to find the balance that comes in knowing our capacity and embracing it rather than rejecting it.

We have thresholds of pressure and pace we can endure, but there are limits, which once crossed, demand us to change gear and make certain realignments.

I’ve discovered that through practices of stillness like prayer, I can reset the balance: I can take the work from my shoulders and place it into the palms of a stronger power. Discovering and embracing my own limits does not indicate a failure of care or even an abdication of felt responsibility—it simply recognizes my humanness. It’s humbling to admit we cannot endlessly care, and we cannot carry it all.

Given the state of our world and its brokenness and ache, unfortunately there will always be more work to be done, more care to give. The question then is not, How do I fix this and at what cost? but rather, what is my role, and how can I invest in a long-sustained vision of justice that includes but does not depend on me? I am learning to leave my seemingly unending workload, and my part in bringing healing to our fracturing world, behind the metaphorical office door. This brings me to one of the lessons I’m learning while I navigate working for justice in a world without limits:

Lesson 1:
Marginlessness is the malaise.
Margin is the cure

If you’re like me, the concept of a ‘margin’ takes you back to essay writing and exam season at school. My margins would be crammed full of notes, quotes, and formulas I’d memorized, and my hand would be perpetually suspended in the air, asking for more paper. Margins in writing are designed to keep your primary content centered and neatly arranged. Margins were only necessary if you ran out of room, made a mistake—or needed to doodle.

Margins in life act in a similar way. Described by physician and researcher Richard Swenson (2004) as “the space between our load and our limits,” a margin grants breathing room for errors and interruptions, meanwhile acting as a tool to help us align around what is truly important. Crucially, margins outline our limits, then help us set new rhythms to operate within them.

If the conditions of modern-day living devour our margin, we need to be all the more intentional about guarding it.

The non-stop ‘everything everywhere all at once’ of the digitalized world we inhabit deceives us into thinking we don’t need limits. I maximize every minute with more and more because I can. Yet, “when the ‘more and more of everything faster and faster’ of progress collides with the established fact of human limits, margin disappears” (Swenson, 2004). Without margin, speed creeps into our homes, relationships, and workplaces to our detriment. We are reachable 24/7, ‘always on,’ and restless. This cycle persists relentlessly; we normalize exhaustion and feel physically unable to rest.

If the conditions of modern-day living devour our margin, we need to be all the more intentional about guarding it. It was Swenson who, after years of observing patients with stress and exhaustion, noted that “the widespread emotional and spiritual malaise of our time is rooted in chronic overload” (2004). Unlike perhaps any other generation before us, we live with high levels of overload for seemingly unending periods of time: task overload, commitment overload, change overload, emotional overload, and entertainment overload layering over one another simultaneously, further compounding our marginlessness. The frenetic consequences of living and working without margin have indeed become modern society’s mode d’être, but we can choose another way. As we deliberately seek to offset our overload with margin, we can go against the grain.

Lesson 2:
Slower time isn’t less important than quick time, but it is more valuable

A friend of mine works for one of the top Formula One teams as an aerodynamicist. Alongside technicians and mechanics, he works to ensure each year’s racing car is built to get the quickest time around the track. Despite their razor-sharp focus on speed and progress, Formula One operates on the assumption a car cannot function at 100% for the race’s entirety. Tires wear thin and parts need replacing. Race tracks have inbuilt pitstops for that very reason. We may endeavor to make ourselves machines, but machines have limits, too, it seems.  

High-speed seasons can have value, or even necessity. They often stretch us and extend our capacity for the better, but these seasons must have timeframes—they cannot become the norm. The danger of living at such a pace is that we normalize habits of high pressure and high exhaustion and begin to permanently occupy that state, slowly making it our way of being. Slower, focal practices extract us from the hurtling pace, setting a different rhythm from that of the world. Regular patterns of rest set new habits, helping keep us and our pace in check, allaying unexpected crashes.  

The truth of the matter is this: We are not machines, nor should we aim to be. In the words of John Mark Comer (2019), “…we’re born with limitations… We’re mortal, not immortal. Finite, not infinite. Image and dust.”

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

While pondering the thought, “I am human, not machine,” I was pleasantly reminded that robots, too, need margin. In Ishiguro’s (2021) novel Klara and the Sun, Klara, an Artificial Friend or robot built with AI technology, is designed to adapt and become as humanlike as robotly possible. For Klara, recharging with solar power and rest is necessary, enabling her to constantly adapt and become the most intelligent robot she can be.

Rest is not always fallow time—it’s fruitful. Perhaps the rewards of slower seasons aren’t as obvious, and they don’t shout about it the way we’re used to being marketed to, but they are there, waiting patiently to be reaped.

Lesson 3:
Staying still doesn’t mean you’re not moving. You’re just not going exactly where—and when—you had in mind

It’s common sense that if you slow down more, you’ll notice more. It’s a far more profound revelation when you live it out. Our attention spans have decreased as our lives have sped up, and we rarely sit still. But in my very small time on earth, I’ve learned that, as Ferris Bueller famously said, “Life moves pretty fast. [If] you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it” (Hughes, 1984). Mary Oliver (1994) puts it more poetically: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”

Indeed, when we begin to slow ourselves down to a pace where we can pay attention, we see things in a new light. You might not be careening into the next career stage just when you thought, your route to progression may look incoherent to the untrained eye, or you may be sitting still and aching for change, but if you slow down enough to notice, you’ll see none of these times are wasted. If you sit still long enough, you might see you’re being clothed with the attire you need for the next season.

The good work—and the good life—we endeavor to pursue simply cannot be truly found or sustained at a frenetic pace. Your care, your hands, and your efforts are needed, but never at the expense of fullness of life or wellbeing. Don’t rush off. Slow your pace. Redraw your margins and go again, but this time, go slow enough to pay attention.

Comer, J. M. (2019). The ruthless elimination of hurry: How to stay emotionally healthy and spiritually alive in the chaos of the modern world. The Crown Publishing Group.
Hughes, J. (Director). (1984). Ferris Bueller's day off [Film]. Paramount Pictures.
Swenson, R. A. (2004). Margin: Restoring emotional, physical, financial, and time reserves to overloaded lives. NavPress.
Ishiguro, K. (2021). Klara and the sun. Alfred A. Knopf.
Oliver, M. (1994). White pine: Poems and prose poems. Harcourt, Inc.

Abigail Sumption was born in Edinburgh and spent her childhood in Scotland, Kenya and Italy, before settling in England. She holds a BA in Arabic, Italian and Spanish and an MA in Reconciliation and Peacebuilding. She’s passionate about all things justice, ethical fashion, interior design, and outdoor adventures. She works in digital marketing for IJM UK.