The power of rest?

July 29, 2011

Rest is undervalued in our society. We reward and sanction overwork and personal neglect. In fact, some would say that our modern way of life is at odds with the design of our bodies and brains.

Writing in The Twenty-Four-Hour Society, physiologist Martin Moore-Ede makes an alarming claim:

At the heart of the problem is a fundamental conflict between the demands of our man-made civilization and the very design of the human brain and body… Our bodies were designed to hunt by day, sleep at night and never travel more than a few dozen miles from sunrise to sunset. Now we work and play at all hours, whisk off by jets to the far side of the globe, make life-or-death decisions or place orders on foreign stock exchanges in the wee hours of the morning. The pace of technological innovation is outstripping the ability of the human race to understand the consequences. We are machine-oriented in our thinking — focused on the optimization of technology and equipment — rather than human-centered — focused on the optimization of human alertness and performance (37).
To borrow the title of a book I recently heard about from a friend, we are not gadgets. Writes Wayne Muller (again quoted in The Power of Full Engagement):
The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others. To be unavailable to our friends and family, to be unable to find time for the sunset (or even to know the sun has set at all), to whiz through our obligations without time for a mindful breath, this has become the model of a successful life (39).
This perspective, that we aren’t gadgets, is central to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Consider the words of the 23rd Psalm: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” As humans we have limitations. These creaturely limitations are not something that we can attempt to overcome without pretty serious repercussions.  

One of those side effects is stress addiction, a very real risk for many people especially people in ministry. Stress causes our bodies to release stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Over time the repeated experience of stress causes us to be unable to operate in any other way.
In fact, in Japan there is a phenomenon known as karoshi — death by overwork (41). The factors that lead to this being the cause of death include:
  • Extremely long hours that interfere with normal recovery and rest patterns
  • Night work that interferes with normal recovery and rest patterns
  • Working without holidays or breaks
  • High-pressure work without breaks
  • Extremely demanding physical labor and continuously stressful work

It’s interesting to note the only country in the world where workers work routinely work more hours than the Japanese is right here in the United States. 

In light of this, let me suggest five ways to reduce the amount of stress in your life:
  • At the end of your workday, turn off your computer and do not restart it until next morning.
  • Leave your iPhone in the car when you get home. If it’s not at hand, you won’t reach for it.
  • Create explicit boundaries with your co-workers about when you will and will not return their emails.
  • Find rituals that will allow you to unwind when you get home or before you go to bed (take a shower, read fiction, dim the lights)
  • Don’t drink caffeine after lunch – elect decaf coffee or caffeine free soda

It’s a crazy world out there…how do you manage your pace of life?