I was having one of those low energy afternoons where I was feeling sleepy and vague, but pushed onward because there’s so much to do. I looked at the clock and realized that for the last 30 minutes or so I had, though sitting dutifully at my desk, not really accomplished anything. I thought “you know, I might as well have taken a nap since I didn’t get anything done anyway” Since then I’ve tested that theory and learned that if I am fading and unfocused and struggling to get anything done, a 20 minute nap can make a huge difference in how I feel and what I can accomplish the rest of the afternoon. I resisted this for a long time, because naps seem the height of decadence, and that’s what I want to talk about today: why is the human need for rest, well documented by science and common sense, something we resist, something we suppress? Could allowing ourselves and others to rest be exactly what our bodies, our spirits and our whole society needs right now?
Since 2020 I’m hearing more people tell me day to day that they are exhausted. The emotional work of grief, of uncertainty of making plans and then remaking them and then remaking them is exhausting. It has taken a toll on our bodies and spirits. My minister groups are full of colleagues wondering “how come I just can’t seem to get as much done as I used to?” They feel guilty and worried. But the body can only do what it can do. Our expectations of what our bodies SHOULD do, cultural norms about what we should be able to do, those are just ideas. The reality is what this body, your body, is doing and feeling in this very moment.
Unless you were on a total news break this summer, you probably heard stories about 6 time gold medal gymnast Simone Biles. She was the favorite going into the Olympics, and then in the warmups, she experienced something gymnasts call “the twisties” where you can’t tell up from down in the middle of a flip. She withdrew from the team event saying:
“…put mental health first. Because if you don't, then you're not going to enjoy your sport and you're not going to succeed as much as you want to. So it's OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are — rather than just battle through it.”[i]At the press conference, Biles talked about plans to take a mindfulness day of rest before deciding whether to continue.[ii] I was shocked, in my whole life I’d never heard of a top athlete pulling out of a huge competition like the Olympics before on account of mental health. (Well, actually, we did, earlier this summer, hear about top ranked tennis athlete Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French open to take care of her mental health.) As Biles said in an interview: [we’re] “not just athletes, we’re people at the end of the day.” “There’s more to life than just gymnastics,” [iii]
And if you were watching the news this summer, or social media, you heard people adamantly attack both these athletes in a way that revealed something about our values and our assumptions. Embedded in their critique was the idea that a person’s performance at their job is without question more important than their physical or mental health.
As I listened to the these stories, and Biles’ statements to the press it dawned on me how radical Biles’ choice was, and how brave, and that ultimately it was her choice to make. The backlash against her choice shows us how entrenched in our society is the belief that we don’t have inherent worth, but earn our worth through our job performance, at any cost to our bodies and spirits. How radical it is to say: “my need for rest is real, and I can’t take care of my responsibilities to myself and others without it.”
Since the start of this pandemic, cracks have started to show in the system. We are hearing from nurses, teachers, restaurant workers, parents, that with the added emotional stress of the pandemic, risks to their physical health, and the relentless demands of their work, they have hit the breaking point. Even ministers are showing the stress. In 2020 after a demanding spring of trying to get their congregations online, perhaps while parenting children full time at home, I heard more than one minister remark: “I guess I will not take my leave this summer, there’s too much to do; I’m exhausted but how can I step away now when my congregation needs so much?”
But our bodies, our spirits need rest now more than ever. We know that getting enough sleep is at the top of the list on web MD for things you can do to strengthen your immune response[iv], it’s also on every list I’ve found for supporting mental health.[v]
Yet we routinely expect our essential workers to go without the basic rest their bodies need. Tacey Rychter writes in her article for the New York Times: “In interviews with more than a dozen attendants from major and regional carriers, crew members … described regularly working shifts of more than 14 hours, being assigned up to four or five flights a day, not being given sufficient time to sleep and being deterred from taking leave if fatigued or unwell.”[vi] As I read that article, I wondered what would happen if we changed thing so that the flight staff was allowed full night of sleep every night, and realized how disruptive this would be to the industry- not everyone would be able to fly where they wanted to go. But wait, I thought with a jolt, why is it more important that I can fly to Disney World for my vacation, than that the pilots and flight attendants get a safe amount of rest? As a culture we are accustomed to starting with “how many tickets can we sell” and not “how many flights can our staff safely manage, allowing them enough sleep to protect their own mental and physical health?”
There is a grassroots movement growing around the world, of folks from Gymnastic super stars to tech workers to flight attendants pushed to the breaking point, who are making the radical decision to rest when they need to. In China there is a movement that started this summer called “lying flat”[vii] One participant said “’Many people want to lie down because 996 is too tiring,’ … referring to the notorious hours common in China’s tech industry, where staff are expected to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.” The Lying Flat social media campaign quickly ran into government censors who removed every trace of it from the internet. Lying flat seemed dangerously radical, a threat to basic assumptions underlying the nation’s economy that workers can and should work twelve hour days.
Obviously, a balance is needed. If you are sleeping too much, that’s not good for your health either. The body needs a balance of challenge and ease, activity and rest. Obviously, society needs everyone to pitch in as they are able to make the world work- someone needs to prepare food, take care of patients in the ER, teach our children, repair our roads. But working a 14 hour shift does not make you a better nurse[viii], or a better flight attendant. It certainly doesn’t make you a better human. So why shouldn’t our culture be structured to allow and encourage rest?
In 2016 Tricia Hersey founded the Nap Ministry which “examines the liberating power of naps” though public art, events and community organizing. She says of this ministry “We facilitate immersive workshops and curate performance art that examines rest as a radical tool for community healing. We believe rest is a form of resistance and name sleep deprivation as a racial and social justice issue. “[ix] Hersey he came to this work after studying the details of the lives of her enslaved ancestors, who were routinely deprived of basic ordinary rest. Where did this idea that we should go without rest come from? Surely not from those who study physical and mental health. Its roots are in the idea that our bodies are not our own, they belong to those who profit from our labor.
Hersey, in the essay "Naps as a VISION Space for Healing", grieved that her ancestors were denied the opportunity for basic rest, and restorative dreaming. [x] She writes that during this time of intense study of the lives of her ancestors:
“I would go to bed dreaming of them. One night while sleeping, I felt like my body was sinking into the bed. I felt like I was floating. I imagined that if I could connect with them in the spiritual realm, I could rest for all the centuries they couldn’t. I was desperate to provide a form of reparations for them. I will never forget the DREAM SPACE that was stolen. The Nap Ministry is for remembrance.”We know how much better we feel when we are fully rested. We are more mentally and physically healthy, more resilient, more productive, more creative. A few years back a friend decided to take a medical leave while undergoing radiation treatment for cancer. She had gone back and forth trying to decide whether to go part time during the treatment or take the whole time off. A friend told her “you only get one chance to do this treatment, why not put all your energy into healing, into beating this cancer?” Our bodies, minds and spirits have been through a lot, and perhaps this grassroots uprising of “lying flat” comes from our bodies’ wisdom that we are in need of healing, and rest is one of the best things we can do to promote that healing.
As we enter into the fall season, which is traditionally a busy one, I invite you to check in with yourself throughout the day and notice when your body is asking for rest. Jut check in and notice. And if you notice that your energy is low, ask yourself how you could give yourself some rest? If you are in the middle of teaching a class, or seeing a patient, rest will have to wait at least a little while, but it still a worthwhile practice to pay attention. Notice if there is some resistance to that idea of resting: “It’s 2:00 in the afternoon, not time to rest” or “I have so much to do I couldn’t possibly rest” Just notice that resistance. And when you do get a chance to rest, notice how that feels too.
We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and built right into that is our need for rest. Being tired, slowing down and resting are natural parts of life, part of living in a body. Our bodies evolved to rest, so that too must have worth. As life continues to change so dramatically, people of all walks of life are noticing that a slower pace feels right, and that the pace our culture demands is one our bodies just can’t continue without a cost. In this moment, something as simple as a nap can be an act of ministry, a spiritual practice, an act of revolutionary change.