Leisure: Why It’s So Hard to Rest

Confusing messages about health buzz about in the air like so many mosquitoes, stinging us, bumping into each other, avoiding the bug-zapper of reason. One of the most prominent is the notion that while effort and discipline are important, rest and recreation are just as necessary.

Oh, no problem, I hear you say. I take a break now and then. I have fun. I’m not a drudge. Well, if so, I congratulate you. Keep it up. But the fact is, a good many people hear the admonition to get enough rest (sleeping and waking), outwardly agree, but inwardly say, “Yeah, right. Do you have any idea how much I have to do?” And like files repopulating on a rebooted (but never powered down) computer, lists start cascading through a worried, fatigued mind.

Desk_workThere’s a reasonable explanation, if not a good reason. Many of our parents and grandparents had to get through the Great Depression. Non-stop industriousness was necessary, in some cases, just to keep body and soul together. Three generations on, it’s hard for some people to imagine, but many had to work way too hard just to get enough food to be malnourished.

In the years that followed, propelled by the economic thrust of the most massive war in human history, many Depression survivors converted what had been a survival work ethic into a way to guarantee prosperity for themselves and their families, sometimes over many generations. They built the modern world. Their achievement became their recreation, in many ways. (Unfortunately, until health care and nutritional knowledge caught up, this lifestyle also became a ticket to an early grave for some.)

The children of such people valued hard work — and quite rightly. Those of us who first put on the clothing of professionalism in the go-go 1980s got a clap on the worsted wool-clad back and a push into a desk chair on the same shoulder. Put in the hours, put in the time, get the experience, do the grunt work, don’t complain.

Strictly speaking, that’s good advice. But unanalyzed, such counsel has a psychic downside. I, and many like me, may know full well that rest fuels later accomplishment. But we can’t break the habit of feeling at least a little guilty for sitting still. “This is great,” says the mind, “but isn’t there something I should be working on? Isn’t there something I could be doing? Surely I’m not allowed to enjoy this repose; that’s for other people.”

This automatic downer thinking still happens, despite what we have learned about rest restoring creativity, organization, and other benchmarks of effectiveness. No one can work forever, but in the long run, you’ll be more effective if you rest reasonably than if you string together 16 hour days separated only by four or five hours of fitful sleep and occasional, hurried recreation. Same in sports: as we get older especially, we need recovery time. Muscles must reknit, lungs must settle down, minds fatigued from the labor of focus must rejuvenate. Fail to do this — work out and push nonstop instead — and you can feel your performance slide away like a hillside house in a rainstorm.

Maybe the automatic guilt self-chat never goes away. But the reasoned guilt must. It’s too important to get the down time. For without the down, there can be no up.

And exactly who are you trying to satisfy, anyway?♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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