Our quality of life is completely unrelated to our productivity and achievement. It is entirely related to the quality of our rest. Unfortunately, rest doesn’t happen by accident. In fact, rest doesn’t even happen in the moments we think it’s happening. Rest is an interior condition that must be cultivated…
Another Sunday morning, and another frantic rush for toothbrushes and shoes and little kid Bibles. Another mad scramble for the car. And my eight-year-old looks at me and says, “Daddy, Sunday is supposed to be the Sabbath; I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind.”
A snappy retort pops into my head: something about Jesus not having kids so how would he know.
But I think better of it.
Because Aidan’s right: if the Sabbath is for rest, why do we orchestrate it like event planners, cramming in enough activity to fill a week of Sundays?
Perhaps we are simply avoiding our quiet places, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think we do it because—whether you go to church every week, or you refuse to set foot inside of one—we all have at least one thing in common:
Having tried and failed repeatedly, we have given up on real rest altogether.
And I think we’ve failed because we harbor at least three fundamental misconceptions about it.
We think rest is what happens when our bodies are still. We think we are resting when we plop down in front of the television, or settle into an iPad meandering session, or lounge by the pool on a Saturday afternoon. Yet, while our body is inert, our mind defies us, continuing to spin in a million directions—thinking, worrying, planning, regretting, and critiquing.
We think rest is what happens when we have nothing on the schedule. We think we will rest when the weekend arrives and there is no boss to satisfy and fewer places for our kids to be. Yet, Saturday morning gapes wide-open before us, and our minds get itchy. Halfway through a cup of coffee, you’re feeling guilty about the work that could be getting done, or the people you should be talking to, and before you know it the morning is gone with random-tedious chores and Facebook posts. And you wonder where the time went.
We think rest is what happens when we escape reality for a time. We literally vacate our reality, taking vacations to warm places with cool beaches, seeking a space where we are unavailable to the world and its talons, pulling us in so many directions. And yet, wherever we go, there we are. So, we take with us our ceaselessly running minds. And, nowadays, we take our phones and email and text messages and we never really become unavailable to a world that wants to spin us like a top.
The bottom line is this: We think rest is a moment we create. So, we spend all of our energy trying to create restful moments, and we exhaust ourselves in the process.
But rest is not a moment to be created. Rest is an inner condition to be cultivated.
My family vacated last month, a summer ritual that involves a long car ride to the Delaware shore. Although the trip is already about fifteen hours in length, we drive out of our way to travel through central Pennsylvania. We do so, because there is a little highway of rolling hills that winds its way through the heart of Amish country.
And it is the most peaceful hour of our vacation.
Last month, we drove through a culture that has ruthlessly preserved its restfulness and refuses to relinquish its slowness. We saw clothes hung on pulleys stretching from houses to barn roofs. We passed bouncing buggies powered by the clop of hooves. We passed houses with phone booths at the edge of the property.
And we passed children riding bikes without pedals. To the Amish, pedals are a technology with a dire consequence: hurry. So, instead, the children push bikes like scooters, one foot swooping the ground.
In a sense, life is harder in Amish country. It requires sweat and discipline and intentionality.
Yet, the fruit of the labor is a kind of peacefulness and rest that you can scent on the air.
For must of us, already swept up in the technological river of the 21st century, the Amish way of life seems archaic, backwards, even strange. But I think we could learn a few lessons from the Amish. Because the reality is, if we want to cultivate interior lives of restfulness and slowness in our current milieu, we are going to have to act in radically counter-cultural ways.
We will need to intentionally sabotage our productivity and achievement—produce fewer widgets, sell fewer gadgets. Maybe our kids will need to settle for second chair in the school orchestra.
We can begin by forsaking productivity in the very first moment of every day. Wake up fifteen minutes early, but not in order to get a jump on the day. Instead, spend five minutes opening your eyes slowly, opening the eyes of your mind and your heart to a new day pregnant with the opportunity to rest. Feel the warmth of the covers on a cold winter morning. Attend to the dance of light on the ceiling from a summer sunrise.
Do nothing to the moment. Simply allow your self to be in the moment.
Slowly, ever-so-slowly, throw your legs over the side of the bed, feeling the texture of the floor as your feet meet the day. Sit up and breathe slowly. Notice the air as it fills your lungs. Notice your mind as it already begins the daily race, and repeatedly bring your attention back to the breath in your lungs. Spend some time being grateful for each and every breath. After all, it—not your job or your kids—is what keeps you alive.
Before we stand up to take on the day, we will need to pick words to breathe throughout it. Words like simple. Or sacred. Or sublime. Words we cannot ignore. Words that help us to quit ignoring everything that is happening in the lower gears of life.
We need to schedule fifteen minutes in the middle of every day to engage our senses. To catch the scent of the tomato plants in bloom, or today’s shade of blue in the dome above us, or the rich scent of coffee in the mug on our desk.
When we do this, we will want more of it, so we will have to find time in the day to do it again.
We will need to leave our phones at the front door and not pick them up again until we depart the house. We won’t be able to do this. So, we will need to have someone hold the phone for us. Password protect it and give it to your kid. They’ll get a kick out of having control over you, and they’ll learn a little bit about what’s important in life.
And maybe—and this is totally crazy, I know—one weekend a month we will need to trip every switch in the fuse box (except the kitchen, of course, no need to spoil the food).
For the entire weekend.
If the power went out of our houses, perhaps we’d feel the power drain out of our hurried lives, as well.
Maybe we’d discover the kids sleep later when there are no cartoons to watch.
Maybe the internet would have to be traded for a board game, and maybe our families would rediscover the art of laughing together.
Maybe without air-conditioning, we’d be forced to sit on the front porch with a sweaty-cold glass of tea, and maybe we’d have time for a long-slow conversation with the neighbor we love but never have time for.
Maybe, without lights, we’d go down with the sun. With no blue LED light to fool our minds into wakefulness, perhaps they would settle peacefully into the soundlessness. And into the lack of doing.
Maybe, if we cultivated rest in this way, we’d have enough energy left over for our vacations.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.