Times of uncertainty and challenge have a way of exposing and even magnifying certain truths that were previously either hard to see or ignored. They also have a way of making other truths trickier to see while masking some altogether. For example: margins.
One of the social realities that the lockdown is bringing into sharp focus is a difference of assets. A second reality that is more difficult and sometimes surprising to discern is a difference of margins. On the one hand, it has always been (and always will be) true that some people have more, some people have less, and some people have a whole lot less. The quantitative difference of assets is a permanent human reality, but a crisis like this pandemic can make that difference more visible. Margins, however, are a little more difficult to discern because they are a question of negative space. They are the space between what you have and what you have to have.
A physical margin on a page is the room between the text and the physical end of the writing space. A figurative margin is the amount of “extra” that one adds to anything just to ensure safety and success. It is good for the wise to tell us that we should “live within our means” (meaning, don’t spend more than you make), but how far within our means should we live? In other words, what about margins? How much extra should we allow ourselves when times are good? How much extra do we need to survive when times are hard? What do we do with that extra when it is needed? How do we even determine “need”?
A rich man may have no margins. He may have many assets at his fingertips, but if all of them are there on borrowed money then they are there on borrowed time. Any change in his income flow, any unexpected expense, and they will be gone. Conversely, a poor man may have relatively wide margins. Though his assets may be limited, perhaps they are secure. If he is not in debt, if his home is his, if he has a way to grow and make food, he can continue to live through a storm. He may even have enough to share. But will he? The heart question is always the hardest.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick;Jeremiah 17:9
who can understand it?
It is interesting to me that, for so many people, one of the first responses to the the looming threat was to rush out and stockpile as many “essential” resources as possible. In the face of an uncertain future, they reached for wider margins in tangible ways. Though I cannot answer this, I wonder how many paused to first ask themselves how much they actually needed. Who stopped to take inventory before racing to the store? Who paused to consider what his/her neighbor might need along the way? The difference between preparing and hoarding, between wise planning and greed is less about the action than it is about the heart.
Stuck here at home during lockdown, I have had a lot of time to look through my cupboards, both literally and figuratively. I have more than I need to live today and tomorrow, so what do I do with the extra? And I’m thinking about this in both light-hearted, silly ways as well as more philosophical, “core-value” ways. For example …
SILLY: No more buying tea until I finish at least 15 of the 18 different kinds I have in my kitchen. Also starches: no more rice/pasta/quinoa/etc until at least 5 of the 7 kinds in the cupboard are gone. And olives. Thanks to my mom’s many visits, I have 3 different kinds in the fridge. (Hmm … olive tapenade?) I can’t make myself drink the coffee though, so I will have to find a coffee lover to bless. (Sorry, Dad.) I could go on, but you get the idea.
LESS SILLY: I normally eat out at least twice a week, not including school lunch in the canteen five days a week. This month, I’ve not even ordered delivery since all restaurants are completely closed. On the bright side, I have saved a lot of money on food and, given the look of things, the trend is likely to continue. But what should I do with that extra? Who around me is struggling to eat? (And why don’t I ask that question more often?)
CORE VALUE: I am currently in a season of deep uncertainty. Pandemic aside, (is that possible?) I am supposed to move back to the US in the next two months but I don’t yet have a job or my own place to live. I don’t know where I’m going or what I am doing, and in the face of that I am tempted to hold on more tightly to what I have. Since I don’t know even IF I will get a job, I don’t know how wide my margins need to be … but do I need to know? What do I really need to live? If God has been so good as to give me a wide margin in this time, maybe it is not about my needs at all but rather so that I might help others stay on the page.
“I the Lord search the heart and test the mind,Jeremiah 17:10
to give every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his deeds.”
It’s hard to know my own heart, now more than ever. I pray though that God would help me learn to do more with less and trust him through it all.