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The Case for Radical Rest

There is nothing natural about our state of constant activity. It’s time for something new.

Dorothy Woodend 2 Oct 2023The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

I’m tired. Are you? Everyone is tired, it seems.

It’s little wonder. It was a long, hard summer. Whatever wasn’t on fire was under water. COVID is, was, always shall be circling around. Conservatives continue their onslaught on rationality. If you’re exhausted by everything, where can you look to find some relief?

In a word: rest.

I don’t mean the occasional quick kip or Saturday sleep-in session. I’m calling for something altogether more radical: shifting our relationships to work so that rest is a top priority, not just a hard-won moment to enjoy after everything else is done.

Tricia Hersey has been doing extensive work on the art of radical rest through the Nap Ministry since 2016. Hersey’s work gained prominence in the early pandemic years, with an especially poignant call for the liberation of Black women. The idea invited many of us to think twice about what the grind is for, and ultimately who it serves.

In looking for inspiration on how best to rest, there are no better models than the animal kingdom. Think about how much time cats spend just lounging about, napping. Occasionally they get up, eat some food, receive some pets and then go right back to sleep. Dogs are also extremely good nappers and also pretty much cheerful souls. Now think about the blissful expressions on their furry faces when they sleep. That could be you!

In the face of ongoing global catastrophes, the edict to keep constantly working can feel like adding insult to mortal injury. But we’ve been so hard-trained that productivity is the answer to all things that it can sometimes seem like an impossible habit to break. Like a great many people, I have a pretty messed up relationship to rest and work. How this came to be isn’t all that mysterious. For me, it’s my family culture smooshed into work culture, blurred even further in pandemic times when work and home were combined. At this point, I don’t feel normal unless I’m slightly exploiting myself.

This pattern started early.

After my grandfather suffered a stroke, he decided that the best thing to do in such a situation was to head out to the garden and pull weeds. Before he died, he said that if he could no longer work, he didn’t see much sense in being alive anymore. Of course, he came of age when children were sent to work before they’d even reached the double digits. He started driving a combine harvester when he was only nine years old.

When survival is predicated on one’s ability to grow and harvest food, this makes a certain kind of sense. The majority of us don’t live on subsistence farms anymore, but the farmer’s dawn-to-dusk ethic persists and in many ways is far worse than it was even a few decades ago. Today, the hard-driving ethos that came roaring out of the go-go ’80s, when Tom Wolfe’s "Masters of the Universe" pulled in 100-hour work weeks, is still going strong. Why this has come to be is the consequence of a few things: rising costs, stagnant wages and the predominating fear of being left behind as society hurtles on.

If any good, at all, came out of the global pandemic, it was the fact that this version of normality began to crack and peel. I remember being struck by the number of movements that were advocating for a more reasonable approach to our culture of constant productivity in the early days of the shutdowns.

Alas, it did not last. Even as the first tsunami of COVID was sweeping away the structures and patterns of normal life, sucking us out to sea, a great many folks wanted to immediately paddle for shore, thinking that’s where normal stolidity existed. In the absence of the usual routine, people craved the familiar modes of behaviour like heading into the office every day, working all the time: exhaustion in extremis.

But for a moment, whilst bobbing out there in the new waters, something else became visible on the horizon. Namely, a different way of being. And in that brief period, maybe something took seed. As the planet trembles on the verge of collapse, this endless push for productivity starts to seem a form of madness.

And it seems doubly so when we see who is behind it. Major corporations led the charge back into old patterns, mandating that their employees return to in-person work even as the environmental benefits of working from home are made clear.

The message has long been that unless you’re productive, you are of no value. It’s the air we breathe, the water we swim in, which brings to mind an old joke. An older fish swims by two younger fish. He asks, “How’s the water today, boys?” After he flippers off, one of the younger fish turns to the other and asks, “What’s water?”

The point is that we’ve been conditioned to think that there is only one way to exist in this world, and to a certain extent, that’s largely true. In Vancouver, as in most major urban centres, the only way to afford to live is to work all the time. But at some point, even for folk making reasonable salaries, the scales tip towards the unsustainable. As housing costs begin to take a bigger and bigger bite before devouring people whole, at some point it doesn’t matter how hard you work. The numbers simply don’t work anymore. The math is brutal like that.

I keep waiting for the break to come, when the majority arrives at the dawning realization that none of it works any longer, and what’s worse, this endless drive for growth is a death wish of a sort, a fast track to planetary dissolution. Even the brief period when folk were advised to stay home if they were unwell apparently went away, vanished into the recent past like it never existed.

A watercolour painting of a pink pig sitting among vibrant pink roses and green leaves.
‘Like a great many people, I have a pretty messed up relationship to rest and work,’ writes the author. Painting by Dorothy Woodend.

My point is that there is nothing innate and natural about the state of constant activity. It was created by people, so it can be recreated into something different. If you had a raging fever and a nose running like a snotty river, you probably wouldn’t think it was a great idea to keep to your usual hectic schedule — at least I hope you wouldn’t. We all need to rest, not only for our own exhausted little selves, but for the sake of the planet itself.

But rooting out this training takes some doing. After getting COVID, I did exactly what a lot of other folks have done. As soon as the fever and chills abated, I went right back to work. It’s a familiar pattern. I’ve worked when I had no business being out of bed, when I couldn’t get more than a few words out between bouts of coughing. Looking back, I think I understand why a goodly chunk of the world’s working adults and I have done this very thing.

But the tide might finally be changing. I think of Audre Lorde and her famous words: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” It truly has become a matter of life and death.

People who try to work through COVID are often the very same folk who end up developing long COVID. So, what happens when people who have been reinfected a few times simply cannot carry on? Radical resting isn’t the final answer. At best it’s only a short-term solution. So, what to do?

I keep thinking about J.B. MacKinnon’s book The Day the World Stops Shopping, specifically the chapters where he writes about time spent among the Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari Desert. The Ju/’hoansi work just enough to subsist, or what MacKinnon terms running below capacity. The rest of the time, they live. As he writes, for much of human history, little to no growth was the norm. The juggernaut of productivity is a relatively recent invention.

Astra Taylor’s new book, The Age of Insecurity, takes a fascinating approach to the idea that there is another way to be. Much of what she writes about is revelatory, but perhaps nothing more so than the document that once accompanied the Magna Carta. The much lesser-known Charter of the Forest is a declaration of the right of every person to a level of security. I had never heard of it before, and Taylor makes clear there’s a reason for that.

When the Magna Carta was being celebrated during its 800th anniversary, there was no mention of the Charter of the Forest: it flies in the face of the current capitalist paradigm. As Taylor writes, “How we understand and respond to insecurity is one of the most urgent questions of our moment, for nothing less than the future security of our species hangs in the balance.”

As Taylor makes abundantly clear, fear lies at the heart of this relentless drive for productivity. Fear of not being able to afford to exist in this world. But what would life look and feel like if this omni-pervasive level of insecurity didn’t exist? How would it shift our working lives, our emotional lives, our family lives, our creative spirit — really, just about every aspect of daily experience?

So many of the decisions and choices in life come about from the ongoing pressure to survive. In this sense, the ideas that Taylor puts forth are not only radical, but world changing. Has the moment finally come? Is the shift towards something profoundly different, new but also ancient ready to finally roll?

It won’t come without some considerable effort. It takes a lot of endurance and energy to shift paradigms. And you can’t do it when you’re tired. So, rest. Fully rest.

And when you’re recharged in every way, go thundering out into the world, demanding an end to fossil fuels, guaranteed basic income for everyone and a society that values people for their inherent worth, not just their productive potential.  [Tyee]

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