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I tend to think of monastics as leading a life that hasn’t changed over the centuries, at least in terms of schedule. So, last year, when I went on my annual trip to Mepkin Abbey, I was surprised to arrive on a “Desert Day,” something new, where the monks have only two services, instead of their usual 7 or 8.
The Abbot who leads the group told me that they adopted a Desert Day routine because they needed more rest. On a Desert Day, they try very hard to do no work of any kind. It’s a day to slow down and to do far less than they usually do. He sounded a bit despairing about how busy they’d become at the monastery.
I said, “So even monks need Sabbath time.”
The Abbot smiled and nodded.
At first I felt relieved that I’m not the only one who feels bound to a relentless schedule. Later, I felt terribly sad. As I told my spouse later, I tend to think of monks as leading the most balanced lives possible: work, prayer/worship, and study.
My spouse said, “None of which is rest.”
As usual, my spouse went straight to the heart of the matter. If the hectic pace of
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modern life has overtaken even cloistered monastics, it’s no wonder that everyone I talk to feels overwhelmed by their schedule. Instead of the calendar operating as a tool, it behaves as a taskmaster—and a harsh one, at that.
When I talk to people about their New Year’s resolutions, I hear many of the old, familiar resolutions: exercise more, lose 10/20/30 pounds, get a rough draft of the manuscript finished. Perhaps I hear about increased charitable giving of money or time spent with the downtrodden. I often hear that people plan to make more submissions to literary journals or to have this be the year when they make their search for an agent more comprehensive or to contact more galleries in the hopes of a show or representation.
But never—NEVER—do I hear anyone say that they plan to do less. No one says, “I resolve to take more naps.” I never hear anyone say that they will add a half hour of sleep each month until they’re getting 8-9 hours each and every night. I never hear anyone who mentions that they yearn to sit on the deck or patio and watch clouds scuttle across the sky, and that they will build a daily schedule around making sure they have time to do so.
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If the hectic pace of modern life has overtaken even cloistered monastics, it’s no wonder that everyone I talk to feels overwhelmed by their schedule.
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I know very few people who go completely on vacation: no checking of work email, no calling in to the office. I know far too many people who let their vacation days evaporate without even trying to use them.
I know all the reasons why people most often say that they’re working so hard and resting so little. I know that in our current economy, very few workers can afford to look expendable. And so we do the work of two or three in order to prove ourselves worthy of our paychecks.
Because so few of us have creative lives which also pay the bills, many of us juggle artistic lives in addition to our work lives, which means we’re even busier. When we opt for downtime or sleep over creative time, many of us feel guilt.
I know, too, that our culture rewards those who say they’re so busy, busy, busy. Many of us have internalized that culture, so that if we’re not busy, we feel strange and look for work to do.
Some of us have huge goals—be they family goals, or social justice goals, or artistic goals—and we think we need every scrap of time. But we don’t realize the price we pay when we’re so overextended.
Study after study has shown that we don’t work as well when we’re tired and overextended. In not relaxing, not recharging, not taking time away, we’re sacrificing the very things we say are most important to us: our art, our vision for a more just world, our very families—and most important, ourselves.
Many religious traditions, not just the monks at Mepkin Abbey, understand the value of rest and retreat away from the problems of the world. Think of Jesus, who retreated to the wilderness periodically. You may or may not believe in the divinity of Jesus, but it’s worth considering that
the Gospel writers regarded these retreats as important enough to include them in the narrative. If God incarnate needed time away, it should come as no surprise that we do too. I am grateful beyond words
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to have experiences at Mepkin Abbey and other retreats, like church camps, that repair me. I know that there are many people who never go on retreat, who run and run and run and eventually collapse. Some of those people never recover.
Again and again, I learn these lessons in many arenas. Often when I get sick, it’s because I’ve been running myself ragged. On the other hand, when I turn off the computer and leave the office for a day or two, I’m surprised at how much I manage to accomplish when I return. More than once have I solved a problem plaguing my creative work during a long drive in the car. More than once have I felt drained and empty when I left my desk to go on vacation and returned with more ideas than I knew I could have when I returned.
All sorts of wisdom, from spiritual texts to grandmothers to self-help books, tell us again and again that we are not required to run ourselves into an early death. Maybe this could be the year that we build more downtime into our schedules.
But it’s important to remember we are not renewed just for ourselves and our own health. We are renewed and sent out into the world to heal the world and to stitch it all together again. We will have stronger threads if we take care of ourselves first.
Even if we’re forced to give up our vacation days as we work our 60-80 hours a week, we can inject a bit of retreat into our lives. We can disconnect for small periods of time by turning off our electronics and sitting in silence. Or we can read something that nourishes us spiritually or artistically. On our breaks, we can sketch or write down what we notice or keep a gratitude list. Even if we can only carve 15 minutes out of our morning or afternoon, that bit of renewal can make an enormous difference in our life’s trajectory.
Let this be the year that we commit to more rest. Let this be the year when we discover that we do enough without agreeing to do more. Let this be the year when renewing ourselves becomes as much of a priority as renewing our art and our communities.