By Stephen Martin

My eight-year-old son’s greatest pleasure at the dinner table lately can be summed up with one word: belching. My mom always cringed when my brother or I did the same growing up. Now I’m beginning to see her side of things.

Take this recent scene from my house, during what had been a relatively civil meal:

Son: (suddenly issues a resounding belch)
5-year-old daughter: That’s so nasty!
Wife: (says nothing, silently clutches her head)
Me: C’mon man, that’s gotta stop. That was really egregious.
Son: What’s egregious mean?
Me (an English major who likes to throw around big words): It’s when you take something too far. You know, when you go to extremes.
Son: (nods, belches again even louder)
Me: Now what did I just say? That’s totally egregious!

I’m a big believer in the importance of living in what I like to call the ‘margins’ – those hidden places in ourselves and the wider world that jolt us out of our comfort zones when we make an effort to explore them. Because getting out of our comfort zones is a great way to grow.

There are extraordinary examples of living in the margins, like Mother Teresa. One moment, she’s an obscure school teacher taking a train ride in India. The next, she experiences a vision that convinces her to work directly with the poorest of the country’s poor. It’s a job so daunting and dangerous she can barely persuade her superiors to let her try it. We know what happened from there.

And then there are less dramatic instances that happen every day– but can be equally transformative for the people experiencing them.  Raising a family. Moving somewhere new. Running a 5K. Dealing with an illness or confronting a tough challenge in prayer or reaching out to a neighbor you don’t especially like.

The specifics of the margins we embrace don’t matter; what matters is that we are willing to let them shake up our lives a little. When you’ve finally settled into a strange town or made an unlikely friend or finished a race you never thought you could run, you should celebrate. Be proud of yourself. Take some time to let it soak in. Just remember: it’s not the margins anymore if it’s not making you a little queasy. You need to find new ones.

Asking yourself the following questions and thinking seriously about the answers can help:

  1. How might I push myself physically? A dozen years ago, I didn’t exercise at all. Gradually, regular runs became part of my routine. Then I stepped it up a little, adding in weightlifting. Now I’m trying (so far a bit unsuccessfully!) to work tennis into the rotation.
  2. What can I do to challenge myself spiritually? There was a time during my bachelor days when this meant simply getting myself to church at all. For many years now, however, weekly Mass has been the norm for me and my family. To keep growing, I’ve started working occasionally with a spiritual director who is challenging me to approach prayer in new ways.
  3. How can I stretch myself emotionally? I’m an introverted guy who generally likes to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself – and prefers for everybody else to do the same.  This, of course, is not a great way to deepen relationships with those who matter to us most. Over the past year, I’ve made a concerted effort to really communicate with close family members and friends more frequently and more openly.

It’s not always bad to push your limits. Despite what I’m telling my kids now, you might just short-change yourself if you don’t.

Stephen Martin is a speechwriter and journalist who blogs at His first book The Messy Quest for Meaning: Five Catholic Practices for Finding Your Vocation, was just released by Sorin Books.