I recently asked someone what they counted as rest, and they listed out ‘sleep, walking, making coffee’ and maybe a few other things. Undeniably, the list successfully conjured up the proper impression of a rather tranquil passing of time – nothing too hurried, too strenuous, nor stressful. And yet, I couldn’t help but ask a stupid follow up, ‘What doesn’t count as rest?’
She didn’t respond with the obvious ones though. Instead, she paused, thought, and has yet to reply.
The ones that would have easily finished the conversation would have been work, errands, deadlines, projects: the daily grinds of life.
But since it didn’t, the question opens up the opportunity to ruminate over paths of relativity. The most ready example of ‘rest’ as a relative term is the archetypal ‘workaholic’ going berserk in a quiet cottage, disconnected from the rest of the world, and having bubbling on a nervous breakdown because there is nothing to do. The example that suits our worldly shades of grey would be people who would never want to be parted from the hustle and bustle if cities that burst with opportunities and discoveries around every corner and every minute of the day. For them, speed, options, and novelty drive them from one day to the next, hungry, to live life.
I’m not going to go down the much beaten topic of judging what appears to be an overstimulated society that cannot slow down.
Instead, I’m interested in thinking about what rest is and how people rest. Intuitively, all people need rest, or else they burn out, suffer health deterioration, and a cascade of other maladies. After taking the biological bottom line of sleep aside, how do people ‘rest’ during their waking lives?
This piece is not a counter to any scientific findings. The sciences have been illuminating in the systematic observation and analysis of physiological effects of relaxation, meditation, physical activity, and other strategies that largely help us get away from work and the dredges of life.
However, I will stick to mere anecdotes. My observation is that enforced slow paces, rural landscapes, disconnection, and lack of itineraries is not for everyone. While it is true that those accustomed to fast paced lives need time to slow down, it is also equally true that people just have different lifestyle preferences, and some operate at an optimal level if their life was a steady – ‘medium’ – pace. I know people who thrive under regimens as well as no schedules, those with spurts of projects and those who are consistent in their daily loads, and those who like long vacations with nothing as well as long vacations with a packed itinerary. There are also those who seem to work incredible hours with both calm and efficiency, as well as those who seem to have little on their plate, and nonetheless feel overwhelmed if they had one more item.
If I can define rest as a state that is defined by your increased energy, optimism, and engagement after as opposed to before, how would that manifest and would that allow enough room for diversity in how people can recharge?
Going back to the friend that nudged me to do this piece: rest for her would be, in my mind, disengaging from many things and centring herself around her own interests and pace. In essence, rest, would be truly letting time pass.
I had asked her the obvious question because while I could understand Hong Kong people’s frequent use of the term ‘rest’, I could not quite relate to it. ‘Rest’ in this case often referred to a shutting off of the brain: in watching television, reading the news, napping, spending time with family. Picking up a textbook is exertion.
In contrast, reading is relaxing for me, but at the engagement level of textbooks, academic articles, literature, philosophy texts, and theory books. Rest to me does not signal any less of an intellectual engagement with the world, but rather a different type that does not come with the pressures or stresses of work or obligations. Even obligations done at a leisurely pace, and with the right environment, can be relaxing. Rest can mean sleeping more when neccessary; it can equally mean doing sports for a day, or an extended period, because it releases energy, gives me a high, and clears my head of thoughts. In short, both focus on an activity (mental or physical) as well as lack of focus can be restful. I can be equally exhausted from talking to too many people as from thinking too much on my own. However, the level of engagement with life is nonetheless the same; it is just different. Rest, if anything, for me, seems to be switching states of engagement. However, the idea of not engaging is foreign: watching something mindless, not learning, not enjoying the aesthetics of my environment, not building something, not doing something mindful (say meditating) seems bizarre.
Of course, still others rest by going on a vacation. Many really need the sleep. Still others will go out to socialise. If it’s affordable, enjoying the the benefits of earned income – spending – on food, on clothes, on entertainment, is also relaxing.
Instinctively, I don’t think that those of us who, in the eyes of others, always seem to ‘keep busy’ would feel that we are when we do the things that engage us. Those of us who ‘keep busy’ also do so in different ways: some will truly pack their schedules, and feel that is how they are optimally engaged. Others like myself like a bit of flexibility here and there, and the option to go slowly in order to go fast comfortably. Some of us like to do one thing at a time while others like to have multiple pots on the stove.
Ultimately, though, it seems it’s not only how we pass the time, but how we think of how we pass our time that reflects us and others whether we are refreshed and energetic.