As soon as my daughter falls asleep, it’s like a gun goes off. My heart starts beating faster. My blood pressure rises. My breath becomes shallow. Because I’ve started my race, and I absolutely must win—or at least not choke.
My thoughts are like firecrackers going off in every direction. I need to write that article! I need to return that email! I need to wash bottles! And clean up that mess in the living room! And call so and so! And make lunch! And pay that bill! And text that person!
Margarita Tartakovsky is an associate editor at PsychCentral.com, an award-winning mental health website, and the voice behind Weightless, a blog that helps women deal with body image issues and disordered eating. She also writes a monthly feature for Beliefnet.com, covering topics such as patience and procrastination.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
Sometimes, what I really want to do is close my eyes. And sometimes I do—but not before the above thoughts circle my mind like vultures circling their prey, not before they start ringing like alarm bells. Sometimes, what I really want to do is put on House Hunters or Elementary and sink into the couch cushions. But whether I have only 5 minutes or 2 hours, I know that I can’t waste that time. I can’t waste that time by resting.
How often do you say to yourself, I wish I could spend the whole day in bed? Followed by, grown-ups with kids and jobs and chores and homes that need deep cleaning and organizing don’t do these things.
How often do you say, I wish I were sick. I wish I had something that wasn’t debilitating for just one day, something that didn’t feel too bad but would warrant ripping my to-do list in teeny tiny pieces and watching TV in bed? Because being in bed all day, or even for a few hours, seems wrong when we’re feeling healthy and perfectly fine. It seems wrong to rest simply because we want to, when there is so much to do. (There is always so much to do.) Because rest is pleasurable. And pleasurable isn’t productive.
In the brilliant article “Why time management is ruining our lives,” Oliver Burkeman notes how rest for the sake of rest just doesn’t cut it anymore in our society. Even sleep isn’t sleep anymore. Instead, it’s another path to professional productivity.
One of the sneakier pitfalls of an efficiency-based attitude to time is that we start to feel pressured to use our leisure time “productively”, too – an attitude which implies that enjoying leisure for its own sake, which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure, is somehow not quite enough. And so we find ourselves, for example, travelling to unfamiliar places not for the sheer experience of travel, but in order to add to our mental storehouse of experiences, or to our Instagram feeds. We go walking or running to improve our health, not for the pleasure of movement; we approach the tasks of parenthood with a fixation on the successful future adults we hope to create.
In his 1962 book The Decline of Pleasure, the critic Walter Kerr noticed this shift in our experience of time: “We are all of us compelled to read for profit, party for contracts, lunch for contacts … and stay home for the weekend to rebuild the house.” Even rest and recreation, in a culture preoccupied with efficiency, can only be understood as valuable insofar as they are useful for some other purpose – usually, recuperation, so as to enable more work. (Several conference guests mentioned Arianna Huffington’s current crusade to encourage people to get more sleep; for her, it seems, the main point of rest is to excel at the office.)
So not only are we afraid to rest, but if we do finally sit down, it’s hard to enjoy it. We might wonder if we’re resting right. Am I watching too much TV? Should I be meditating instead? Should I be reading? Is how I’m resting actually productive? Am I being lazy? A sloth who needs to get it together?
Rest doesn’t feel so restful. It’s almost easier to get back up and start checking off our to-do lists (except that we’re probably very tired).
So how do we, in a sense, reclaim rest?
I’m not sure. But I think one step is asking ourselves if we need rest. And if our answer is yes, and if our desire for rest comes in the form of TV or something else that feels “lazy” or “too indulgent,” then another step is saying that’s OK. I think we give ourselves permission. Permission to rest and to acknowledge our mixed/guilty feelings around it. I think we can remind ourselves that life isn’t about efficiency and productivity and email and chores. Of course, these things are important and often accomplishing them feels good. It helps our days run smoother.
But life is also about pleasure and slowing down and breathing in. Maybe life isn’t a race. Maybe it isn’t a marathon either. Maybe life is a walk through the forest, filled with meandering and wandering, stopping to look at the scenery and savoring the fresh air.