This article is one of several on reclaiming rest in all aspects of our lives. For more, read Give Us a Break , Breaking It to Your Boss , Want to Get Away, Stay Home , Sleep Tips: Age Matters , and The No Wake Zone .
In Prozac Nation, a memoir that struck a chord with millions of readers, Elizabeth Wurtzel writes, “I don’t want any more of this try, try again stuff. I just want out. I’ve had it. I am so tired. I am 20 and I am already exhausted.” Despite the fact that we are surrounded by labor-saving devices, despite the elevation of convenience and comfort above almost all other values, a profound sense of tiredness seems to be one of the defining features of modern life. And our world is as exhausted as we are. Our ecosystems are stretched far beyond their limits, and social structures like families and communities battle for survival.
The natural response to tiredness is to rest. Modern consumer culture, however, doesn’t like rest; “time is money,” we are told. Every second saved by a dishwasher or a car must be paid back double in longer working hours. In the gym, exercise (which is freely available in the nearest park) is sold at exclusive rates so that we can do it while we’re watching television. Even rest itself is commercialized and repackaged as “leisure.”
Returning to truly replenishing forms of rest would demand a reevaluation of tiredness—all the different kinds, each of which leads to negative personal, social, and ecological consequences. In doing so, we would address the problem of unsustainability, which is, after all, the essence of tiredness.
When we are tired, we know we cannot carry on in the same way for long. In evaluating all the ways we’re tired, we confront what makes life unsustainable. For us, and for our world.
First, there’s sleepiness. When we do not sleep properly, our brains run on depleted energy; compassion, creativity, imagination, and reason are lost, and the reptilian fight-or-flight brain takes over. Some psychiatrists have suggested that depression is a symptom of sleep loss, rather than the other way around. A shortage of sleep is associated with obesity, road accidents, torture, and war.
In ecological terms, 24-hour culture means more emissions and more consumption of the earth’s limited resources; we find ways to justify new runways, new wars, space tourism, and drilling for oil under melting arctic ice.
The solution, of course, is sleep (see “The No Wake Zone” on p. 68). When the emperor of Persia asked his Sufi master how best to renew his soul, he was told to sleep as much as possible because “The longer you sleep, the less you will oppress!” We sacrifice sleep for time, but that time becomes less fulfilling—and robs the earth of resources.
Another kind of tiredness is fatigue: a tiredness of activity. We live in a hyperactive culture where more is continually demanded of us. Unions have to fight to maintain vacation allowances and workday limits (see “Give Us a Break” on p. 65). Life proceeds at a pace that belongs not to the human scale, but to the industrial scale. Fossil fuels allow us to travel great distances at inhuman speeds without feeling tired. The tiredness we would have felt does not disappear, but is displaced onto the ecosystems that support our existence. It turns out that the toddler who observed the airplane “scratching the sky” was right.
I used to look askance at evangelical Christian athletes who would not compete on a Sunday. Now I think we should follow their example. We are tempted to avoid rest because we think we will produce more, but what we produce is less wonderful.
We should also consider ennui, which is tiredness of stasis. Ennui is all about that feeling of being stuck in a rut, of going nowhere. It is extraordinary that in our hyperactive society so many people are bored. Bored young people hang around the streets causing trouble. Bored soldiers commit acts of atrocity in military prisons. Workers are forced to choose between the boredom of the production line and the boredom of unemployment. Television, computer games, and prescription drugs temporarily screen us from the effects of boredom, but it comes back to haunt us in poor mental health, addiction, crime, and disease.
It seems logical that the antidote to ennui is activity. However, as we have seen, we are very active—even hyperactive. We need to replace activities that isolate mind from body with activities that involve the whole person in a valuable process. There are many sources of wisdom to help us here. Gandhi viewed work as sacred. Dutch historian Johan Huizinga showed how play is fundamental to human welfare, and the Kama Sutra explores the spiritual significance of sex. Martial arts generally developed as forms of meditation, ritualizing movement in order to replenish body and mind. In agriculture, one alternative to a static monoculture is crop rotation: Moving the crop replenishes the soil.
Perhaps the most prevalent form of tiredness in our society is satiation, tiredness of consumption. Our society has an obesity problem that extends far beyond the body mass index. Shopping is a chief “leisure activity.” We continue to consume rapaciously because we are wedded to ownership, but the real effects of satiation are unwelcome. They first show up in the environment, where the raw materials for all this consumption must be found. Then they appear in unequal societies and unjust legislation that favors the obscenely wealthy.
The answer is sacrifice. Every year Muslims fast during daylight hours for the month of Ramadan. This is a striking example of the use of sacrifice for the benefit of an entire community. Christians and Jews tithe. Sikhs practice hospitality and share food; monks take vows of poverty; vegetarians and vegans refrain from eating meat; ethical consumers refuse to buy the shiny trinkets that are constantly advertised.
We are increasingly aware that capitalism is failing to make sense for our lives; money is not making us happy. But many of us who are ready to change are not aware of any alternative. So we carry on rushing around, making money, buying temporary happiness.
In a culture so dependent on activity—on consuming, producing, and achieving—rest becomes a radical form of protest and a catalyst for change.
Matt Carmichael is a writer, teacher, and activist. Excerpted from Resurgence(May-June 2008), a British magazine dedicated to raising awareness of spiritual and ecological issues; www.resurgence.org.