“Rest is resistance,” journalist Cassady Rosenblum wrote in her recent essay in the New York Times , entitled “Work is a False Idol.”
This statement completely undermines our American work ethic that elevates productivity to the highest altar. Rosenblum, a journalist who left a high stress job, wrote lyrically of the happiness she discovered just sitting on her parents’ porch in West Virginia. Some of her readers were up in arms—how dare she hang out on a porch when she could be working? Who does she think she is? Rosenblum received such a bashing in the comments section, you’d think she was Marie Antoinette torturing puppies.
Rest is a four-letter word, as un-American as Communists were in the 1950s. If you want to provoke the rage of strangers on the internet, publicly praise the joys of taking a sabbatical.
In the United States, rest is viewed suspiciously as the preserve of a privileged few that you earn only through long, hard work. Maybe retired people can get away with whiling away hours on the porch swing, but the rest of us need to justify our existence by being as productive as possible, every single day. Meanwhile economic necessity forces many older people to push back retirement later and later. Even those fortunate employees who get paid vacation often refuse to take it.
If some world cultures follow the ethos of “work to live,” the U.S. seems to live on the ideology of “live to work.”
“While jobs are sustenance,” Cassady writes, “careers are altars upon which all else is sacrificed.” Including our physical and mental health.
Most of us need to work to survive, yet too many of us have been brainwashed by the Cult of Overwork, of packing so much into the day, as though we were robots. In this framework, “life balance” means you get up at 4:30 am to have time to ride your bike before starting your corporate job, as Starbuck’s Howard Schultz is said to do, according to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book Rest. The author’s takeaway here seems to be that if we get up early enough, we can be as successful as CEOs of major corporations. The bike ride at dawn is not just intended for health, fitness, joy, or fun, but will supposedly make us more efficient at our job, a more valuable asset to our employer. Pang’s book seems to be stating that recreational activities are justifiable if they make us more productive.
In America, work has replaced religion as the culturally ordained institution meant to give us a sense of worth, purpose, and meaning. You are a virtuous and worthy person if you put in long hours. The only way women can be “equal” to their male peers in such a scenario is by putting in the same amount of overtime, while simultaneously doing the bulk of childcare and caretaking for elderly relatives and putting mental health and self-care on the backburner.
Who, pray tell, does all this busyness and self-sacrifice ultimately serve if we have to feel guilty for sitting on the porch?
Celeste Headlee, author of Do Nothing, thinks that Americans have been brainwashed by the Cult of Productivity, which would have us so eternally busy that we don’t have time for anything apart from working and consuming. Instead of setting aside free evenings and weekends for hobbies like gardening or bridge, as bygone generations have done, downtime for many people today means sitting in front of screens and binge-watching whatever Amazon Prime is hyping at the moment.
And this isn’t just an issue for the privileged. Increasingly, less-privileged people are sticking their heads over the parapet and saying that they’re done with the Cult of Overwork.
Tricia Hersey, Black activist and founder of the Nap Ministry, says that rest is both resistance and reparation to the descendants of enslaved people who were never allowed to rest.
“Disrupt and push back against a system that views you as a machine,” Hersey writes. “You are not a machine. You are a divine human being. WE WILL REST.”
Yoga teacher and feminist activist, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, author of Yoni Shakti and Nidra Shakti, has devoted her career to empowering women and girls through both Yoga and Yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra is a complete spiritual practice, akin to meditation, that can take you all the way to spiritual liberation, according to Yoga philosophy. Traditionally you practice Yoga Nidra lying down. You are guided into a deep, trancelike state of relaxation similar to sleep yet ideally you remain awake and aware. In this state, you can touch your deepest self, the divine core that resides in each of us. We can seek enlightenment while in a state of deepest rest. Perhaps this is the spiritual practice we need right now.
Dinsmore-Tuli believes that rest is one of the most radical, subversive things we can do to undermine patriarchy. She has compiled an entire library of free Yoga Nidra recordings that can be accessed and downloaded from her website.
Ready to take radical action? Take off a day, just to rest. Bask in unbusyness. You are alive. You are a divine human being. Not a robot. Not a machine.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelations, about the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich, is now available wherever books and ebooks are sold. Visit her website.