My dear friends and comrades –
Do you ever have that sense that if you just could do just a little bit more, you’d really be where you need to be? That if you just could get your to-do list to behave itself, you’d finally relax and be able to rest?
For my part, I spend a lot of time worrying about and fretting over not doing as much as I think I ought to be doing or should be doing and would be doing if I were a “normal” person, instead of someone with chronic health conditions and past unresolved illnesses and injuries and blah blah blah.
Now I know that some of you do, in fact, have astonishing constitutions, and can beat your to-do lists to a pulp when you put your minds to it. And I know that some of you are younger than I (I just turned 47, thank you very much. Happy birthday to me!), and you can do feats which once were easy for me but are no longer.
So what I’m writing about today will not apply equally across the board (as though it ever does!). It applies for some of us, though, and maybe even most of us.
I want to do more. Do. Do. Do.
I have this belief – thank you, Calvinist-instilled, capitalist-enforced – that if I could only DO more, I’d somehow …. What? Win the prize for the most productive? The biggest producer of… of what, exactly?
Well, especially given the nature of my work, I suppose I’d be turning out spiritually centered people by the hundreds.
It’s laughable. Of course it is.
The thing is that it’s more often the case than not that a sense of urgency, especially for those of us who are in ministry or other spiritual leadership, or who own our own businesses, is in fact not an invitation to do more. It feels like a command to do more. It feels like a demand, a necessity, a way toward Salvation-with-a-capital-S, for heaven’s sake.
There is a Sufi saying I have learned today, “Be careful of hating what is good for you and loving what is bad for you.”
So why do we resist allowing ourselves downtime?
Of course, we need to take care of children and other family members. Of course we need to keep a roof over our and our family’s heads. Of course, we need to pay the bills. But even that latter – we must pay the bills – if we are in any way in charge of our own schedule – can be an urgency trap.
Is the question really, “If I don’t hurry up and do more and more and more around the house/in the garage/at work/at church, I won’t be able to pay the bills!”? I doubt it. If it is, in fact, a general sense that if we don’t do more, it’s not about paying the bills, it’s about something else.
Friends, if we desire fruitfulness, generativity, the sap-sweet taste of the apple matured on the tree, then we have to rest.
I’m not prescribing a certain amount of sleep per twenty-four hours or some nonsense. Different people require different amounts of sleep to feel rested and refreshed. But please do note that I said, “rested and refreshed.”
Not only that, but it is healthful and wholesome to have down time, which is different from sleep. Restful, playful, or merely watching a grasshopper in the grass (thank you, Mary Oliver), idleness is a virtue.
I think, really, idleness is a good in and of itself. Certainly, exertion that is pleasant and healthy is a great. Certainly, working enough that we have what we need is common for most of us, at least until we all have a guaranteed income.
But I wonder whether you’re resting enough to truly find that fruitfulness, that generativity I mentioned. The sap that becomes the nectar and the flower that falls to make room for the fruit – these happen in temperate climates with varying seasons because the peach, the apple, the cranberry, the blackberry all rest.
They rest, each in their season. Human beings are not quite so seasonal, even when we try to stay in tune with what is happening in the natural world of which we are a part. Our downtime needs to be more consistent, not so often in a “burst of inactivity,” but more often in a regular routine of idleness and play and maybe even a vacation of some sort along the way.
Understand that, as usual, I am writing to myself. While I sleep more than most people do, I know that sleep does not obviate the need for downtime.
Just sleeping is not the same thing as delighting in fun for fun’s sake. Merely getting enough sleep—and mind you, most people in the United States don’t even do that—is not the same thing as idle fun. But sleep, that engine of mental organization, inspiration, memory, and insight, is just where we start. So first, go to bed. First, get some deep rest. First, sleep. Seriously, put it in your planner and sleep, so we can get to the good stuff.
But don’t you dare think that we’re stopping there. Oh no, John Calvin, we’ve further to go down this road of virtuous perdition.
Merely sleeping is not the necessary and beautiful idleness I’m talking about. This idleness is staying up with a beloved novel simply because you love it (and knowing that you’ve made the time to sleep in!). It is planting the flowers you bought for the pots out front, even though you knew they were extravagant. It is reading a book out loud to your spouse of an evening, each of you cozy beneath blankets with steaming cups of tea. It is emulating Madeleine L’Engle, who made a practice of lying out on her Star-Watching Rock.
And rest, renewal, downtime, vacation—for me, they all really do lead to one thing: creativity. When my mind is clear and refreshed, my memory better than usual (not that it’s ever great, ahem), and my body limber and languorous, I am more likely to have something to give you when you need it. If I have allowed myself to receive simply, openly, without guilt or shame or watching the clock, then rest assured (ha!) I will have something to put out into the world sooner rather than later.
That’s really all I have to say. And even reading this newsletter is probably feeling like taking a vitamin! I want us all to do more than just what is pressed upon us to be productive; I want us to have fun, for pity’s sake!
So go! Watch the sun go down, my friends, and do not think of me. Think only of the colors, the textures, the vision. Breathe, and be joyful, for you are alive to feel it.
I love you—