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Has this ever happened to you: you're tired, you're stressed, and you have a snatch of time to spend as you like -- maybe it's 45 minutes before you have to pick the kids up; maybe the baby just fell asleep -- but you don't rest?
There are too many things to do, or so you believe. Okay, no one is asking anything of you THIS MINUTE, but dishes piling up in the sink, loads of laundry waiting to be washed and folded, surfaces of every kind that need to be mopped, wiped, disinfected or otherwise attended to.
What you really want is to sit down with a book or magazine and a cup of coffee for a while, but you tell yourself you don't have time. Still, you're not ready to tackle the chores yet, so you half-heartedly check email and answer a few of the most pressing ones, then drift over to Facebook, and before you know it, you've got to go get the kids, or the baby is crying -- or both.
Why didn't you spend the time doing something that actually left you feeling renewed and refreshed?
It's a question I have asked myself many times, whenever I notice that I have squandered time I might have used to rest by taking what the writer Brigid Schulte has called "leisure time confetti" -- not-really-resting, not-really-working.
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I suspect we settle for the mindless, unhealthy snack version of leisure because we're ashamed of our own desire for rest -- afraid to ask permission to breathe. We are in a cultural moment that rewards extreme busyness. Think about it: how often do you hear people (maybe even yourself!) bragging about how busy they are? It's as if we have fooled ourselves into thinking that being busy means that we are important.
To be sure, many of us are truly busy. But surely, for some of us, the busyness is a posture -- and one reason we feel so busy and frantic is because we are constantly telling ourselves that we are busy and frantic.
That's precisely what Schulte suggests in her book, Overwhelmed: that the way we talk about our busyness actually creates our sense of how busy we are. "I'm too busy to..." (read, relax, exercise, knit, pray) we may tell ourselves -- without bothering to consider whether that's true or not. Maybe we don't exercise because we hate to exercise, don't knit because we're not crafty, and don't pray because we're not sure how.
But repeat the "too busy" mantra often enough, and it begins to feel true. In a study of American women's time-use diaries, Schulte found that we have largely stopped taking dedicated leisure time, despite the fact that we have more labor-saving devices than ever. We settle, instead, for the above-described snack version of rest, which leaves us as restless as before.
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When I was in college, I acted as if life itself would stop if I did: if I wasn't in class or at my work-study job, I was studying. If I wasn't doing any of the above, I was sleeping, exercising, or eating, and probably feeling guilty. I agonized over whether or not to hang out with friends. Sundays, I'd study from after church until late and night, sometimes eating alone at my desk so I could keep on studying.
My grades were good. But I was a mess.
The situation improved somewhat when I married and started graduate school. My new husband -- who was also in graduate school -- and I had decided that precisely because we were so busy, we would not work on Sundays. We would go to church. We'd have lunch with friends. We'd read scripture aloud. We'd make popcorn and watch a few shows. We'd go to our favorite noodle place.
It was sublime. Yes, by late Sunday, I'd feel panic rising in my throat, which would tense with anxiety over papers and presentations I had yet to prepare. Still, I had rested, and I was better for it.
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When we had our first baby, however -- and I discovered that parents don't get days off -- I slipped into old habits. My baby needed ME above anyone else, I believed. I had to carry him on my chest and respond to his every gurgle. I had to make my own baby food and wash dozens of cloth diapers.
And, I thought, I had to do it on my own.
Soon, I struggled to sleep, fretted over leaving the baby with a kind and competent neighbor so I could go for a much needed walk, refused offers of free babysitting so that my husband and I could grab a bite or see a movie. I believed this was evidence of my dedication to my baby.
Much later, I would discover that taking breaks made me a better mom, just as those Sundays me a better student. And research backs that up -- leisure time is when "aha" moments of creativity (and, I suspect, of spiritual insight) come to us. But we need real leisure -- not mere snatches.
Like sleep, like the Sabbath, leisure can serve to show us that we are not in charge of keeping the universe running. I am encouraged to notice that Jesus, in his earthly ministry, needed to escape from everyone and be alone; to retreat, to pray. It wasn't leisure confetti, and perhaps it wasn't even leisure -- it was a part of his work. In a way, it was his work.
Perhaps reclaiming true restorative leisure -- and resisting the urge to broadcast our busyness -- can be a countercultural act: a testimony of trust in the God who watches over the universe while we sleep, rest, work, and play.
Rachel Marie Stone is a regular columnist for The Englewood Review of Books and has contributed to Christianity Today, InTouch, OnFaith, Books and Culture, The Christian Century, and Sojourners, among other publications. Her first book, Eat With Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food, won the CT Book Award for Christian Living. She is also the author of The Unexpected Way, a book about the Gospels for children. Rachel lives near Philadelphia with her husband and two sons. You can find her blogging on food, family, faith, and justice at Patheos and follow her on Twitter at @Rachel_M_Stone.