Rest is necessary
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Last week, I ran a retreat called Wild Rest down in the beautiful, remote Cornish countryside. It was - and I don’t say this lightly - glorious. My guests spent a few days unravelling our weariness, and thinking about what it means to rest.
Meanwhile, I rested too. It was a sideways, busy kind of rest, but I found myself revived by the whole experience. I’m so often drained by spending a lot of time with others, but I noticed something different here. Together, we were focused on communication, on taking things slowly, on listening carefully. There was no hurry. We let time slide. For a while, we were not at the centre of things. We happily lurked in the periphery, unseen.
We so often talk about rest as something static, a bodily collapse. In my experience, this makes people anxious: we are afraid of what will happen when we stop. What am I, if I’m not doing? What if I can never get started again?
Part of the problem is that we’ve been told that rest is indolence, that the devil finds work for idle hands. I don’t have the time or the energy to unpick all the different oppressive narratives at play there - the ableism, the racism, the embedded hierarchies - but the idea that we must be exhausted to be worthy of respect needs to be urgently addressed. I’ve met few lazy people in my life, but I’ve met swathes of the desperately industrious, ever terrified that they’re not enough. We have become a society built on work for work’s sake, driven by fabricated scarcity. Sometimes that generates abundance, but mostly we don’t even meet our basic needs.
Rest is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. It is only rare and elusive because we consent to its rationing. I realised last week how painful the word ‘resilience’ has become for so many of us; how it is increasingly used to shame those who can no longer cope. The problem is, perpetual resilience is impossible. Eventually, something snaps. To be resilient, we also need the cushioning counterweight of rest.
But neither rest nor resilience are individual pursuits. They come when we are part of a broader web of humanity, which can stretch to hold us when we are weary, and which distributes the weight of our burdens. The true root of our exhaustion is our isolation, our fundamental aloneness that makes every problem ours to solve.
In Cornwall, I remembered that rest has very little to do with sitting still. It is an active, questing process, less a change of scenery than a change of habit. It is getting your legs tired so that your mind can wander, and noticing the things that your hands itch to make. It is going deep down into the fog of uncertainty, and playing happily there for a while. It is the relief of not knowing any of the answers just yet. It is understanding that you cannot change the direction of history, but you can stay soft against its blast. It is a communal experience, a sharing, a place where we can meet.
I know that not everyone can rest in the way that we did last week - dropping our commitments and running away to somewhere very special. But I do believe that everyone can learn to honour their tiredness, and take steps to alleviate it. Perhaps rest is a relay, a baton that can be passed between us, each acknowledging the other’s need. But most importantly, we have to stop agreeing that it’s a luxury, the preserve of the favoured few, or something we must delay until the closing years of our lives. Rest is necessary. Rest is for now. Rest should be knitted through the fabric of our existence, a beautiful pattern that we designed together.
Live dates & workshops
Workshop - The Winter Compass: Online, Canada, 10th September, 10am - 1pm ET. I’m hosting a workshop for an excellent nonprofit called Understory on September 10th. They run courses for burned-out women doctors, helping them to rest, recover and feel human again. The cost is $37 - all nationalities welcome. Sign up here.
Literary Festival: Liverpool, UK, 30th September, 7pm - 8pm. I’ll be appearing via Zoom at the Gravity Festival, in conversation with Prof. Philip Davis and Melissa Chapple. Tickets here.
That’s all for now - look out for my recommendations for your stray attention on Sunday. Take care.