I am not good at relaxing. While I’m militant about getting eight hours of sleep, I am terrible about allowing myself to rest. Unless I’m on vacation, my hyperactive work ethic insists I am continually thinking, doing, accomplishing—whether that’s writing, juggling a broad smattering of freelance projects, or just fixing meals and keeping my apartment (relatively) clean. Even when I’m on vacation, I tend to choose the “let’s go somewhere we’ve never been and spend two weeks running around all day” ones over the “let’s go to the beach and lie in the sun for fourteen days” kind. Truth be told, lying around loses its luster for me after a day and a half, tops.
I didn’t always have this problem. In grad school, I was, for the first time in my life, in charge of my own schedule, and I chose, as twenty-one-year-olds tend to do, to go to bed at 2:00 a.m. and sleep until 10:00. Healthy, this was not, nor were the hours spent watching Roseanne and Law & Order: SVU whenever I needed a break from the piles of writing and the piles of books. Nor, I would argue, was this exactly “rest.” I was mentally checked out for hours at a time, but I didn’t emerge from those TV binge sessions feeling restored or refreshed. I emerged feeling gross and vaguely self-loathing, which too much screen time tends to do to me.
It wasn’t until I finished school that I began to stuff my schedule to bursting. Once I had to figure out how to shove in writing time around work time, panic started to warp my already ambitious nature into a relentless drive that caught me by the scruff of the neck and told me I better stay committed to this, or I would end up like everybody else who set out to accomplish great creative things, only to watch those things get consumed by laziness. Now, I could be accused of possessing many unflattering traits, but laziness has never been one of them. That didn’t matter, though. Fear became much louder to me—and much more convincing—than truth.
So I hurled myself along for seven years, through various jobs and various quitting of jobs, through seasons of writer’s block and seasons of fervent creativity, through weeks of not having much to do and months of being so overworked I wanted to fall into bed at 7:00 p.m. And then, last summer, I left the job I’d had for over three years—the job I loved the most, the job that stressed me out the most, the job that morphed my feelings towards it more times than I could count, and perhaps most significantly, the job that compressed my schedule more tightly than anything had up to this point.
When I quit that job, I began, out of nothing short of necessity, to slow down. I stopped setting an alarm. I took forever to get ready. I lingered in the shower until the hot water ran out. I read books. I wrote a million essays. I slept. It took me about six months before I felt ready to work again, and it took me another six months to figure out the best arrangement of tasks in any given day that let me accomplish all I needed to accomplish with integrity and (a relative amount of) sanity. But even after all that time, I was still leaving church on Sunday with a panicked feeling in my gut—the “I have to get home and write and cook and fold laundry and and and” mental spinning I fell prey to every weekend when I was still at my job. Even though, now, the cooking and the laundry would already be done, my mind would still find things for me to do.
Which brings me back to the idea of rest. This year, I’ve read books by two powerhouse female theologians: Smoke on the Mountain by Joy Davidman and The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson. Though masterful in many ways, both include passages on the necessity of Sabbath, that ancient biblical practice of taking one day out of the week to do what I and, let’s be honest, what most of us are terrible at: rest. Not just getting eight hours’ worth of slumbering reprieve from the grind of existence. Not binge-watching three seasons of Orange Is the New Black. But genuine, honest-to-goodness, peace-be-still rest. Something even God took time for after He created the universe, but which we, as mortals, seem to think we can afford to brush aside.
In an essay called “Decline,” Robinson writes, “The Sabbath has a way of doing just what it was meant to do, sheltering one day in seven from the demands of economics. Its benefits cannot be commercialized. Leisure, by way of contrast, is highly commercialized. But leisure is seldom more than a bit of time ransomed from habitual stress. Sabbath is a way of life.” When I first read that, it stopped me. Robinson exposed an idea I’d been circling around but hadn’t yet put into words: the reason rest was so difficult for me was not because I didn’t need it, but because unlike every other aspect of my life, I could not directly tie it to a subsequent achievement.
Try though I might, I am, as we all are, a product of my upbringing and education: I was bred to accomplish. I was, from a young age, instilled with the notion that my place in this world was only as good as what I had to show for it. When I was in school, this was straight As. When I became an adult, it got murky, especially since I’ve never been anywhere near wealthy and will likely, short of a divine miracle, never be. So instead, I’ve proven my worth by being as hyper-vigilant as possible to keep my life running as swiftly as a German train station. The only problem with that is I am not a German train station. I’m a human being, and despite what this world and my own insecurities have long drilled into my head, I need to ease up, not just for my health and well-being, but also for my faith.
Davidman titles her chapter on the Sabbath as “Day of Rejoicing.” She discusses how the concept of a day of rest has been warped throughout history—how we, as humans tend to do, have distorted God’s original command into a law of drudgery and artificial holiness. But holiness, as Scripture defines it, is something quite different from the way our culture tosses the word around. “How do you make a day holy?” Davidman writes. “By stopping work—that is, by stopping all the pursuits we engage in for necessity not for pleasure, all our struggles with the world conceived as an enemy that is trying to starve us to death. By looking at that world and seeing that it is good. By entering into all its good and friendly and loving activities, and rejoicing in them. And, above all, by looking beyond the world to the Love that sustains it.”
Now here’s an interesting turn of events: could it be that engaging in deliberate rest is a way of honoring God? It would seem so, and it would also seem that refusing this rest—digging in our heels and insisting, no, really, we have to do x, y, and z before we can relax—is taking trust and gratitude away from Him. One of my favorite Old Testament passages is a conversation between God and Moses. When Moses asked God to show him His ways, that he might know Him and continue to please Him, God replied, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” I remember the first time those words struck me, and years later, they are still sinking in: God is most pleased when we believe that He is with us and when we allow Him to bring us rest.
A few Sundays ago, I came home from church, and as usual, I had a list of things to do. But instead, in the middle of the afternoon, I sat down and watched a movie I’d really been wanting to see. To me, this felt so delicious, my hyperactive nature was certain it bordered on sin. But it was wonderful, and when the movie was over, I got up and made dinner, and my week was no less the worse for those two hours I took a break. In fact, shock of shocks, it was better. I didn’t go overboard. I didn’t spend the whole day drooling in front of the television. I mindfully chose something that would give me pleasure, that would, as far as I could see, accomplish nothing, but that, somewhere within me, I knew I needed.
I tend to be tired on Sundays. Even now, when the week is nowhere near as clogged as it was a year ago, I still get weary. Life is hard in every season, and I have to continually remind myself of the necessity of rest. This afternoon, I crawled into bed at 3:00 p.m. I am constitutionally incapable of napping, but I dreamily chatted with Jesus, thanking Him for the soft bedspread, the fan, the silence, the hazy afternoon light pouring in through the skylights, the beautiful apartment I am grateful for every day I wake up in it. And after an hour and a half, I got up, ate a cookie, grabbed my laptop, climbed back into bed, and wrote this post. Rest means something different for everyone, but at its core, I think Davidman’s words ring true: “For how do you make a day holy? By seeing that it is holy already; and behaving accordingly.”