The value of rest in a worn out world
I have a question that I would like to ask a random group of people from all walks of life, all over the world. The question is, “When was the last time you felt deeply rested in body, mind, and spirit?”
I imagine a lot of people would admit to being exhausted – just like me, even if it’s strange to admit it. It’s not exhaustion that keeps me in bed and keeps me from doing the daily things I need to do. Rather, it’s one that seems to keep my body a little off, my mind a little fuzzy, and challenges my ability to be fully present in the way that I need and want to be. It’s deep exhaustion that won’t be resolved by 10 hours of sleep (although I wouldn’t mind testing that).
I think it’s a cumulative kind of wear and tear that a lot of us are still trying to find a language for. I know we feel like the worst of the pandemic is behind us and we have survived it. But what I’m not sure is if we figured out how to live in the world we have now. And I can’t help but think it’s important to name our deep fatigue out loud. It can remind us that there are important ways we may need to process the events of the past two years, which continue to impact how we engage with the world. And it might also help us find the tools we need to stick with them for a while. Simply because, with everything that continues to happen in the world, we may have to.
There is a calm but powerful painting titled “Generations” (2021) by Dutch artist and photographer Peggy Kuiper. Kuiper does figurative work of sharp-edged people whose limbs and bodies are often seated, standing, or bent in unlikely positions. Their fingers are long and bony and stand out prominently in his pictures. In “Generations”, an oblivious-looking woman in a sleeveless white dress, her mouth sad and lowered, lies in the arms of a standing figure. Four people dressed in warm and soft colors stand behind her like a human shield and look at her face with compassion. A deep sapphire blue wall is the backdrop to it all. The heads of the compassionate are turned to reflection. One of the people has a hand gently resting on his head. Another person grabs the arm of the wearer.
I was drawn to the tender care of fallen woman that Kuiper was able to express through this strongly drawn community of characters. I imagined the horizontal woman collapsed rather than dead, perhaps from despair, perhaps from exhaustion. The image of support and compassion made me think about how vital and necessary it is to have a community of Guardians who can testify to our varying states. We may feel some hesitation or fear of being judged or ridiculed for admitting that we don’t feel entirely like ourselves, especially when we seem healthy and in tune with life’s responsibilities. It is an image of being cradled and cared for in a moment of human weakness. The person with the hand on the head is wearing a robe that looks like a religious garment. I see this as a symbol of the sanctity of care and presence.
This painting leaves me with two lingering questions. How do we honor our feelings of exhaustion or fatigue, making us vulnerable to care? And when do we position ourselves to be one of those who reserve space for those who need it, even if they seem fine? There is a stillness to this painting – none of the figures are in motion. Stillness allows us to see, perceive and heal.
“The Agora”, by Magdalena Abakanowicz, makes me think about how we might need, as we venture out into the world, to find ways to be still again. Abakanowicz, a Polish sculptor and artist, lived through the Polish-Soviet War and World War II, and his work is inspired by his experiences and observations of humanity. Her art powerfully suggests the difficult and uncomfortable aspects of our humanity, as individuals and communities. “Agora”, on permanent display in Grant Park, Chicago, is a sculptural work of 106 cast iron human figures 9 feet tall. The bodies have no heads or arms, only legs and torsos, and are positioned in groups and alone, with their feet walking in different directions.
These sculptures illustrate the moment in which we find ourselves. The work is named after the agora, the ancient Greek public space where people gathered to dialogue about everything from politics and law to philosophy and religion. The agora was the center of community life and a marketplace of commerce. These characters move in and out of the meeting places of their lives, just like us. But they are incomplete in the deepest way, their bodies hollowed out. So that begs the questions, how do they know which is the best way forward? What good could they do in the agora, defeated as they are? And are they even aware of their condition?
Although positioned in motion, the characters are of course immobile. They are still. Stillness is what further stimulates my imagination to consider what these characters will achieve of themselves in stillness, what they might be able to name about their current state, and what they might discern from which they need.
I wonder if some of what we need more authentic rest. When I look at Eugène Delacroix’s watercolor “Le lit défait” from 1827, I want to fall into its rolled white folds for a few hours. The fact that this is an empty bed reminds us that exhaustion is upon everyone and that we all need rest, not just sleep, but rest that can help us regain our balance. And yet, sometimes we struggle to get the rest we need.
Not everyone has the freedom to walk away from the exhaustion of life. And while that doesn’t mean one should feel guilty for taking the rest one needs, it does serve as a reminder that rest is a basic necessity for everyone, not a luxury. Rest allows us to live, work and serve better in the long term. It is not a question of relinquishing one’s responsibilities or one’s concerns. To rest is to act wisely and keep a long-term view of our commitments. If none of us are admitting the worsening burnout in our lives, then how can we pay attention to the areas of our lives that need care and, by extension, be strengthened to care for others?
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