Earlier this month, Pope Francis, in his first public appearance after returning to the Vatican following an 11-day hospital stay for a scheduled surgery, told those gathered in St. Peter’s Square to “learn to take a break” and truly rest. “Let us beware, brothers and sisters, of efficiency,” Francis said, “let us put a halt to the frantic running around dictated by our agendas.” He was reflecting on Mark 6:30-34, in which Jesus instructs the disciples to “come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” after they told him all the preaching and teaching they had been doing.
“Rest a while,” he told them. Holy, ever-elusive rest — it’s a simple command but, in my experience, a complicated practice.
The pandemic has forced workers and corporations to engage in conversations around overwork, death-by-a-thousand-efficiencies, and the trauma that burnout unearths, but we still lack the vocabulary to really talk about rest.
When I was recovering from my own surgery and accompanying hospital stay in late January, my body forced bed rest. I had planned for a couple of days off of work, but it stretched into more than a week; the severity of what had just happened caught me off guard. And I was restless. I wanted a lesson; this all had to mean something. So I took doses of books like medicine; I thought I could force a healthy mind and spirit with the wisdom of others, giving purpose to my newly foregrounded mortality. Friends sent me reading lists; my husband teased me about my emotional support pile.
I meditated alongside the poetry of Rupi Kaur and Mary Oliver; I was undone by Kate Bowler and recovered with Samantha Irby and Jenny Lawson. I finally read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and was reminded in this long year of mourning that “we also mourn, for better or worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.” Dust to dust, but human in between.
In Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, writer Katherine May points to the seasonality of rest — that as human beings, we’ll invariably encounter seasons throughout life that require intentional escape. “[Wintering] is a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order,” she writes. “Doing those deeply unfashionable things—slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting—is a radical act now, but it is essential.”
But the reality is that I wasn’t wintering. My brief attempt at recuperation from major surgery was not rest. Capitalism has taught us that rest is a cyclical but most importantly temporary state and that by optimizing our habits and schedules and bodies, we can actually require less of it. Abysmal leave policies in the United States have ingrained in us a quick-fix approach to medical crises, leaving those with chronic conditions and those who care for them behind.
As I considered my needs, Audre Lorde’s journal writing from the mid-1980s, after breast cancer metastasized to her liver, felt like a more honest approach: “As a living creature I am part of two kinds of forces—growth and decay, sprouting and withering, living and dying—and at any given moment of our lives, each one of us is actively located somewhere along a continuum between these two forces.” Decay happens over time; so does growth.
Another way we often think of rest is as fuel for ongoing work. This is common in justice movements, recognizing that the journey is long and resistance requires recovery. But the concept has more recently been adopted in corporate culture. Studies show that taking breaks from work increases capacity for creative thinking, and daydreaming engages different parts of our brain that enables us to solve problems. Business leaders have taken these lessons to incorporate various methods of employee “free” time, whether by installing foosball tables in common areas or by giving unlimited personal time (while doing little to lessen unrealistic workloads). Even conversations around the benefits of a four-day work week tout sustained or increased productivity as a result. This line of thinking isn’t bad: More breaks and less scheduled work tend to result in higher happiness levels, work-life balance, and overall job satisfaction.
What it presupposes, however, is a definition of rest that still relies on a person’s utility to give them value — that a break is earned through enough output and, upon return, will launch a person into an even higher level of productivity. This is why we can take all of our vacation days (if we’re lucky enough to have them) and still be filled with anxiety the days before we return. Sunday scaries on steroids.
By instead recognizing a person’s inherent value, rest is no longer a reward for the productive but an essential part of the human experience. Rest can be part of a regular rhythm, built into the week as a practice, as sabbath. It can also be a season, a recognition that some things take time to repair and require boundaries and self-compassion.
Rest finds home throughout scripture, whether through exhortations to “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10) or in concrete examples of Jesus stealing away to pray in silence (Mark 1:35). In Matthew 11:28-30, it’s an invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Rest is found if we accept the invitation, unburden ourselves, and learn the way of gentleness and humility. But so often we put off rest because we are convinced that our work — our jobs, our families, or even our service for others — requires our constant attention. Rest necessitates a change of pace and a laying down of self-importance.
“If we learn to truly rest, we become capable of true compassion,” Pope Francis said in his July 18 address. “If we cultivate a contemplative outlook, we will carry out our activities without that rapacious attitude of those who want to possess and consume everything; if we stay in touch with the Lord and do not anesthetize the deepest part of ourselves, the things to do will not have the power to cause us to get winded or devour us.”
A few months after my surgery, as I struggled (I still struggle) with the realities of a crisis-turned-chronic condition, I did take a longer break. While not a full season of wintering, those few weeks enabled me to spend time in reflection and true rest even as I navigated the daunting health care system and adapted to a new normal. I sat on a rocky beach and let my noisy mind fade into the sound of the waves. I spent mornings hiking, giving thanks for the reminder that despite its limitations, my body is still good. I went on near-daily trips to a new bookstore, a never-ending project to add to my emotional support pile. My husband and I caught small glimpses of the people our three young children are becoming as we spent time in long conversation instead of quickly ushering them through the usual evening routine. I took hundreds of photos, each one a small prayer that we would all remember this. Very importantly, I deleted my email app.
I think back on this time fondly, somehow erasing the pain and fear from my memory. It’s a strange feeling to look back on the most harrowing time of your life with a melancholic longing. I was learning and becoming and realizing that while I’m here, I’ll never stop learning and becoming. I’ll never stop needing rest.