12 July 2023
By James Woodward
I was introduced to the book Rest by Alex Soojun-Kim Pang via Gillian Straine (do take a look at her work at GoHealth) and so picked it up, albeit reluctantly. Gillian’s recommendation was a far stronger motivator than any enthusiasm to explore my own patterns of work/life balance.
And yet I found it to be a clear, persuasive and challenging book. It was like being told that my regular walking route to work via Churchill Gardens, Salisbury, was the wrong pathway.
My conversation with Gillian began by sharing thoughts about where we found ourselves in these post-pandemic times. We acknowledged the scale of disruption through factors such as the decline of manufacturing, demographics, globalisation, automation and, especially, technology and the slow pace of recovery in our life and workplace.
I wonder what most disrupts you?
Those of us working in some sectors face particular challenges in building back. It is not always to understand why – colleagues are continuing to engage with the tasks and opportunities on their desks. The outward face of 2023 seems unchanged. It may be that people have less energy and readiness to travel. We make decisions and choices about how to use our time and resources. We have less money and we have reconnected with the delights and comforts of home. Pang invites his reader to consider what we do with those hours when we are not working. This might be a key that unlocks some doors.
There are, also, deeper cultural and political factors at work. Is burnout the price that we must pay for success? What is the relationship between work and home? Are they separate and opposing? We need to break through the notion that our life and work are opposites destined to be in a constant domestic squabble.
Pang writes that ‘Work and rest aren’t opposites like black and white or good and evil,’ … ‘They’re more like different points on life’s wave.’
This is a book that holds the creative tension between deconstruction and reconstruction – there is an invitation into creativity and flourishing. Rest isn’t about doing nothing – it’s a skill, he explains: ‘Rest turns out to be like sex or singing or running – everyone basically knows how to do it, but with a little work and understanding, you can learn to do it a lot better.’
Work then should drive creativity. Work provides us with the means to live but rest strengthens the brain, enhances learning, inspires innovation and to the fullness of life. It is no wonder that burnout is so common – we so easily boast about how little we sleep and turn to the emails as a way of keeping on keeping on.
Maya Angelou offers us this thought in her book, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now:
‘Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.’
This is not going to be easy. Accepting our deeply ingrained habits and facing how they shape us and others will take work – a lot of work! Seeing the busyness of our culture might be a starting point. Hanging onto means of keeping us always connected will not make us more productive or creative. But we have to be as deliberate about rest as we are about work.
Let us allow Pang the last word:
‘Rest is not something that the world gives us. It’s never been a gift. It’s never been something you do when you’ve finished everything else. If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.’
So, where will you start?
The Revd Canon Professor James Woodward is Principal of Sarum College.
James is leading the following study days at Sarum:
Exploring Spiritual Pain (13 September 2023)
Reflective Journalling (5 October 2023)
And will contribute to an evening on theology: Is Theology Still Relevant Today? (23 November 2023)