Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Why rest if I like to work?

The idea of rest is as old as the idea of work. All living things cycle between work and rest; expending energy and building it up again. Human rest, at bare minimum, means sleeping, of which we all, unfortunately, must do at least a little. But when most of us think of rest, it is the cessation of work and activity during waking hours. Jews and Christians set aside one day per week as a “Sabbath rest”, following the Genesis creation account in which God rests on the seventh day. In the modern world, we have extended this into the idea of a “weekend”. Still, it is easy for our weekends to become even busier than our work week, as sundry tasks vie for our attention.

Work is good and some of us are lucky enough to enjoy what we do. Work may even renew or “re-charge” us if it is fulfilling work. Is there any virtue in or need for rest, if we like to work?

I’ve come up with four pretty compelling reasons I, you, and everyone else should rest, but I must confess that rest is easy for me. When it comes to balancing rest and work, I could, as a friend used to say, “Slide a lot of bricks to the other end of the see-saw”. And, since I don’t think rest can be put in its proper place without work in adequate amount and kind, here’s a side note to all of you work-addicts this question is directed toward: You are the rats that make the wheel go round. I’m just the fat one in the corner, curled up in a bed of cedar shavings. I’m not racking up any mileage or persuading any rodent-treats to tumble down the food chute, but this is what I can see from here.

1) You will perform better if you rest. Our brains need “down time” from a task, in order to perfect it. This is all very utilitarian, I know, but it’s true. Last month, my twelve year old son was preparing his piano recital piece and had hit a wall. He knew the music by heart, but something essential kept getting lost in translation between his fingers and the keys. One afternoon I found him groaning and complaining at the piano, almost in tears. “I can’t play this song,” he told me. I offered several suggestions, all of which he shot down, getting more anxious all the time. “It’s getting worse, not better,” he said. So, I encouraged (mandated) a day of rest. He was adamantly against this and didn’t believe me when I told him it would help. But, being the good boy that he is, he moved on to something else and left those piano keys silent and cold. Sure enough, the next time he sat down to the piano he played effortlessly. He had gotten over the hump and from there his playing only improved until recital day.

2) Resting can help us realize a mistake before it’s too late. This applies to anything from a career path to parenting to a research paper to knitting a sweater. Taking time to slow down and put aside work for a while gives us the chance to re-evaluate the direction we’re headed. One thing tends to lead to another and unless we stop occasionally to assess our lives and set goals, we’ll likely end up somewhere we didn’t really plan to or want to be.

3) Have you ever noticed that relationships can’t very easily be scheduled? Good conversations tend to happen in informal environments, when everybody is just hanging around, unhurried, with no place else to be. If you can’t leave the dishes until after your friends are gone, don’t be surprised if you miss something. Similarly, as long as we keep busy and interested in our own work, we won’t notice the people around us who are hurting or needy, even if they are our friends. To love other people, we need to take time out to notice them.

4) Rest communicates wisdom to us in a way that work cannot. Rest helps us notice our surroundings and allows them the potential to affect and change us. Does it matter that I can distinguish between a female goldfinch and a male that hasn’t yet shed its winter feathers? Or that I know by a cardinal’s song that one is near, even if I can’t see it? Or that I know a certain bluebird comes around each summer and I await his first appearance with anticipation? I know these things because I’ve hung a bird feeder outside my bay window and I take time every day to watch. My four year old knows the names of the birds and we practice being very quiet while we watch. When an unfamiliar bird alights on the feeder, we look it up in our field guide “Birds of North America”. This practice doesn’t seem productive in any way, but I believe it shapes me, speaks beauty to me and in some way helps me understand the world in a more genuine way. Taking time to let the earth speak to me makes me a fuller and more compassionate part of it.

Tell me about your experience of rest and/or work. What do you think of this question? Is it difficult to balance work and rest? Do you feel that you get enough and the right kind of rest? How does the quality of the work you do affect the quality of your rest?

And now perhaps I should write a post entitled, “Why work if I like to rest?” which is much more up my alley.