The Necessity of Rest

“Now I know that the best thing I can offer this world is not my force, but a well-tended spirit, a wise and brave soul.”

Shauna Niequist, Present Over Perfect

The dust has just settled from some glorious time on a vacation away from my phone. It was the kind of magical family affair out in the forest, miles from town, without cell service. The kind where the windows are perpetually open to let in the mountain breeze, and there was not the same frenetic keeping track of others as we so often have in our perpetually connected society. If someone wanted to go out, they went out – to run, walk, fish, hammock, or otherwise. Or if they wanted to stay in, they read on the porch, played a board game, puttered in the kitchen, or took a nap. There was no checking in, no “where are you’s”, simply  the patient relaxation and trust that we would all make our way home eventually (usually in time to savor the afternoon rains from the porch). Time was relative. It was a pace of life I realized was ultimately nostalgic. 

I want that for us. I sometimes think how great it would be if one week a year, all news cycles and forms of media inexplicably cut out. If somehow Americans could be liberated from the addiction to their living room chairs and glittering devices and actually have to talk to one another, to remember that their neighbors are real, and human. To call a friend, or bake some cookies, or do something tactile and meaningful with their hands. 

I realize that time physically away is a luxury, but even in our own homes, the power of being present to this moment, to the space we occupy and the people we rub shoulders with, is powerful. 

I’ve been very taken by the Hebrew idea of sabbath lately, not in the orthodox sense, but in the rhythmic rejuvenation sense. I want to be part of a people who have regular rhythms of rest, of setting down our labors, our anxieties, our projects and to-do’s and taking a day to delight in the world that God has made. I believe in the deep good it does to make space one day a week to read a book, or go for a walk; to spend time with loved ones without the earmarks of hurry or task-mindedness, to sit in the sunshine or share a meal. Our society is a go-go-go society, but I truly believe that we work best when we take the time to rest. 

I say this knowing the anxiety that can seep in when we think of setting down our work. In my field, the work is never done. There is always more to learn, to know, to ponder, to do in science, and it feels as though there is never enough time to do it well. This reality intermingles with my own desire – even perceived need – to appear competent, to earn the respect and appreciation of my superiors, to meet and exceed expectations. The truth is, choosing to rest one day a week might – in the short run – mean that I don’t keep pace with others who are willing to prioritize work over all else. But rest isn’t about the short term. It is for the long game. 

This life is marathon, not a sprint, and the sustainability of our endeavors is very much a matter of pace. Every long-distance runner knows the consistency and reality of effortful training. But they also know that that training too hard only ultimately leads to injury and frustration. Moreover, many learn the hard way that starting out too fast on race day may result in the dreaded crash, and may even cause them to fail to meet their aspirations of finishing. Similarly, we may lionize giving every ounce of ourselves to our work, but the finite reality is that before long there may not be much else to also give ourselves to, and we are likely to burn out in the atmosphere of our unrealized limits. I believe firmly in doing good, whole-hearted, quality work. I just also genuinely believe that our work is served by resting, that we both generate better ideas and come back with more energy when we take a pause.

It seems strange to me that we overlook this as a society. We don’t make a loaf of bread by kneading it continuously, but by incorporating periods of working the dough and resting it. We don’t plant the same field with one crop over and over and over again (unless we aspire to strip the soil and become utterly dependent on chemical farming with diminishing returns). We even know we need to power off our devices from time to time. The first fix for malfunctioning electronics seems to always be to turn it off and turn it back on again. Why do we imagine that we can operate indefinitely ourselves without malfunctioning?

Even when we value rest, though, protecting it can be difficult. Our work email is just a click away, and the laundry pile is giving us the stink eye from the corner of the room. The kitchen needs cleaning, and food prepping really should get done, and oh there was that other errand we were supposed to run…There is no end. The tasks that need to be done – work or personal – will never pause themselves. We have to be responsible for taking ownership of our time, and setting healthy boundaries around our availability. We have to be the ones to say, “I’m sorry I don’t answer work emails on the weekend,” [or insert your personal boundary here] and accept the short-term loss of productivity for a long-term gain of sustainable professional engagement. There may occasionally be seasons where things just need to get done and a full day off is an impossibility. I’ve been there. Or for parents of small children, “rest” may be relative for a season. Sometimes the exact nature of our boundaries involve a give and take. But the heart of this effort is to regularly set down our task and be alive inside this moment, acknowledging that:

The sun will rise
To your surprise
All by itself
Without your help.
-The Hill and Wood

Finally, we are also the ones to protect the quality of our rest. Our habits and addictions are quick to follow us, but they ultimately steal our joy rather than adding to it. They ferret away our awareness. Social media scrolling may not be inherently productive, but neither is it restful. An important factor in true rest – in my view – is presence. It is very difficult to be present to the moment or the people you are with when you have half or all of your attention on the other worlds playing out across newsfeeds or silver screens. And in the words of Abha Dawesar, “the digital world cannibalizes time.” Crafting even a small part of our day that doesn’t depend on screens can be genuinely difficult. Our society no longer supports such periodic disconnection.

But maybe we should dream of and enact a world in which we can be pleasantly disconnected from time to time without guilt. I love the way John Mark Comer discusses ‘parenting’ our devices: putting them to bed before us and waking them only after we’ve arisen. Boundaries, healthy limits – these things usher in rest, not detract from it.

In the words of Timothy Keller,

“Freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, those that fit with the realities of our own nature and those of the world.”

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