If you’ve been paying any attention at all through any portion of your adult life, you’ve heard all the experts weigh in on the importance of rest.
Neuroscientists tell us brains deprived of sleep can impair judgment, increase compulsive behaviors, and cause forgetfulness, obesity, dementia, even cancer. Doctors tell us stress suppresses our immune system. Physical trainers tell us muscles won’t grow without a “rest day.” Experts tell us meditation can supercharge our brains. Artists of all kinds recommend sleeping on those big ideas. Mothers have been harping on about rest since the day the first baby was born.
And, in the Jewish and Christian account of creation, the first thing God calls holy—out of everything in the entire universe—is the day of rest. In fact, most religious traditions revere the practice of rest in one form or another.
“He that can take rest is greater than he that can take cities.”
Based on all the evidence, it seems there’s something truly powerful—maybe even magical—that can only happen when we stop actively trying, pushing, performing, and working. Brain cells rearrange. Chemicals release. Muscles repair. Ideas form. Truth surfaces. Beauty presents herself. The sacred speaks.
But only when we stop, release control, and make space.
Only when we rest.
We all know that the concept of rest—as a theory—is good. But, like, when exactly is this rest supposed to happen? Is between the hours of 1 and 6 a.m. sufficient, give or take?
And why is it sometimes so hard for us to truly prioritize rest?
There are many answers to that question, of course, and we probably can each name our own. For some of us, “busy” has become a badge of honor. It’s a way to gain approval; a way to please people, or feel worthy.
Some of us are addicted to the constant flow of adrenaline required to move at a frenetic pace. Or we’re addicted to the approval and success that come from our incessant busyness. Or we’re addicted to believing that we’re holding everything together—and that our world will fall apart if we let go for even a moment.
“We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Some of us are afraid of silence and the feelings and truths it may reveal. Some of us have unrealistic standards that leave us perpetually drained. Some of us don’t know where to start.
And some of us think we have no choice. We believe we’re martyrs to the gears of society. We claim there is no rest to be found.
Let’s be clear.
I need to pause here to acknowledge that, even just having this discussion betrays a level of privilege. I am well aware that there are those among us who truly. have. no. choice. There are hardworking people squeezing every last penny out of minimum-wage jobs. Single moms working day and night to feed their children. Families caring endlessly for aging parents or a disabled child, or both. Full-time employees/parents/teachers treading water in the middle of a pandemic lockdown.
There are some levels of busy that are inescapable. I would call that “survival,” not “busyness.” Either way, the reality that people are struggling just to stay afloat makes other kinds of “busyness” even more concerning.
Taking back control.
In his book Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much, Tony Crabbe writes: “Busyness can be a form of learned helplessness.”
This resonates with me. I remember the day clearly when I decided to step out of helplessness and build a weekly practice of rest into my life.
It was a Sunday morning years ago—a beautiful day in Boise, Idaho, where I lived with my husband and two young kids at the time. I was talking with a friend who told me she was planning to, I don’t know, take a long bike ride, sit by a pool, climb a mountain, have drinks on a patio—something along those lines. I don’t recall exactly. But I do remember exactly how I answered when she asked about my day.
I heard myself say, “I have to work.” And I felt a physical reaction as I said it.
I think it was the words “have to” that stood out.
Because…really? Did I?
I had already been working for six days straight, and there was nothing I wanted more than a bike ride with my kids under the big, blue Idaho sky. But my new freelance career was just taking off, a client deadline loomed, I was facing a full week of commitments, and there wouldn’t be enough hours to spare unless I spent the afternoon at the computer.
All of that was true. But, in that moment, I realized several other things were also true.
First: I needed a break, desperately. Second, my kids needed time with me. Third, no one was going to clear my calendar for me. And finally, I somehow just knew that if I were going to make space for rest and recharge, it would require intention and risk and sacrifice.
It might mean I’d lose some work or disappoint clients. It might mean I’d have to say no to things. It might mean I’d have to truly value myself and own my needs.
I went home and worked that day, but I made a decision: I would do everything in my power to give myself at least one day of rest every week, from then on.
“Even though there are a million things that need to change, we all need to rest sometimes—even when there’s still a shit-ton of work to do. Burnout drives lovelessness.”
It hasn’t always been easy. I haven’t succeeded entirely. It has required sacrifice. But my commitment to the practice of rest changed on that day, and has never changed back. And—without a doubt—it’s been worth it.
And not just because I had more bike rides with my kids.
Resting has taught me important things, like how to shift from the constant posture of achieving to the entirely different position of receiving. I’ve learned how to stop talking for a minute and start listening to the still, small voice of love and wisdom and truth. I’ve learned how to be intentional with my time, so that my work can still get done without leaking into every hour of every day. I’ve learned that the world keeps spinning even if I stop working. I’ve learned to release control.
Again, I realize I had the privilege of being able to make this choice. I know a full “day of rest” is not practical for every person. My experience is not a prescription. But it is an invitation.
Because…what if you might have more control over your busyness than you might think? What if the payoff of prioritizing rest is worth the sacrifice? What if we can each take back the reins and build in a practice of rest? Even ten minutes a day?
I think it’s an invitation worth taking.
“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”
What is rest anyway?
I grew up in a household that honored the day of Sunday as a specific, sacred day that is set apart and should be remembered as holy. (Did you know that rest is actually one of the Ten Commandments, right up there with Do not murder?) This belief holds a lot of beauty and truth for me, but I’ve tweaked my practice of “Sabbath” quite a bit over the years.
My day of rest is no longer as strict and rigid as it once was. Now it is loosely defined as some portion of 12-24 hours of every weekend, often on Sunday but not always. As often as I possibly can, I claim that time as my “day of rest.”
The definition of rest, for me at least, stretches from sea to shining sea. For me, it’s not about chaining myself to a chair or forbidding myself from being productive. In fact, I might spend the day tearing apart a closet, putting it back together, and flopping onto the couch from the utter exhaustion and satisfaction of an organized nook.
For me, rest is about setting aside the day as different.
For me, that means taking a break from the two things that drive most of my busyness: my over-developed sense of responsibility. And, because I am a freelancer: my work. I spend my week taking care of my clients, my business, my laundry, my volunteer projects, my budget, and everyone else’s expectations. For six days a week, I’m driven by a task list that rarely quits.
But one day a week, I stop taking care of the world. I release my sense of obligation, and I let the day be shaped by imagination, creativity, nature, desire, family, and friendship instead. At some point in my day of rest, I will try to make space for an encounter with the sacred—sometimes with my church community, other times through a podcast, a poem, or a silent cup of tea on the screen porch.
I might connect with someone I care about. I’ll take a walk, or (almost certainly) a nap. I’ll read, I’ll write, I’ll thrift shop, I’ll create, I’ll explore.
When my kids still lived at home, Sundays were about them. I set aside the chores and we focused on time together—or time at their sports tournaments, as was often the case. Even then, I would carve out a few minutes to myself. And I would leave my other “obligations” for Monday.
On my day of rest, I do the things that fill me up, so I can once again pour out effort and focus and care and love for the people that count on me. I place the air mask over my own mouth and nose before assisting others.
“The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever.”
And, above and beyond that, I leave space for the wonderful, mystical, supernatural things that are beyond my control– those things that only happen when I accept the invitation to rest.
The good news is, there are no rules around rest. Like fresh air, any amount will improve your life. The important things to know are this:
- We are all invited to step out of our own schedule and interrupt our frenzy once in a while.
- If we get silent and stop to listen, we may hear the very thing we’ve been searching to find.
- There is life and power and beauty that can only be found when we stop running in circles to find it.
- We each can find ways to pause. Breathe. And rest.
And, most of all:
It’s worth it.
Julie Rybarczyk is a freelance writer, fair-weather blogger, and empty-nester mama who’s living alone and liking it . She’s perpetually the chilliest person in Minneapolis—so most of the year you’ll find her under layers of wool, behind steaming cups of tea. Or at shortsandlongs.net