Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials. –Lin Yutang
Breaks from work remind me of a giant hole in my education—I don’t know how to rest.
I know how to spend time off, but that is not at all the same thing. My Netflix account reveals hours of instantly viewed television and silly movie watching, but every minute is flight, diversion to elude thinking or worrying or work. In the end, that sort of effort isn’t restful.
And, though I can feel a little better about reading, I wonder if the same impulse fuels it. I push time forward and call it productive. Cooking meals and cleaning closets and filing papers and organizing a long-disorganized desk are similarly useful, but not restful. Each has the object of occupying time with some redemptive activity and giving time off a purpose.
Or so it seems. Maybe rest is a matter of perspective. Instinct determines physiological rest, and the division between waking and sleeping is clear and inexorable. But psychological rest is more complicated, confusing, and contradictory. How do you relax within your life instead of looking to elude it? Physiological rest is inactivity. No one really knows what psychological rest is. When all the chores of my professional life drop away, precious little remains. Leisure requires redefinition, arduous redefinition. It sounds like a petty complaint, but it’s tough finding a new way to be.
So time off becomes an experiment to determine what life requires, what’s essential that will allow me to return to work ready with new priorities. Getting rest right is learning how to avoid the whirlwinds of wasted effort that will quickly sweep me up.
But I haven’t gotten it right. How much alone time do I need, how much together time? How much at home and how much away? How much of my time needs to be creative and generative and how much should be passive and restorative? How thoroughly do I plan, or be spontaneous, or plan to be spontaneous? The answers shift about like the phantoms of a long-exposure photograph, too variable to resolve.
Hardest to control are my expectations. The last day of any break sees me returning to the first and the high hopes I felt in the first hours of freedom. I lament the time I squandered on Netflix or the closets I never got to. I mourn the passing of “me time” and the onslaught of routine. I should be asking what I’ve learned about living with myself, what’s restorative and sustainable and reliable, what’s relaxing. I should be resolving to bring some new knowledge to my regular life.
When people ask, “How was your break?” I sometimes grunt or give the pro forma response, “Too short.” Maybe instead I should answer, “We’ll see.”