Busy, or existentially bored?

My instinctive reply to the casual prompt ‘How are you?’ increasingly involves the words ‘busy’ and/or ‘tired’, and it would be safe to assume I’m not alone. It was recently reported that although those with low salaries used to work much longer hours than their higher-paid counterparts, the very opposite was true by 2006 [1]. Indeed, while manual labour is often finite by nature, office work implies more gruellingly excessive hours than ever. The explanation lies neither in economic necessity nor productivity shortage; while you would expect to see technological advancement reducing the labour required to do our jobs, its effect is often the opposite—how many times do you refresh your inbox on the train?

With each new Rooftop Yoga club and meditation app, Londoners are acknowledging the problem and attempting to push back. As every certified physician and concerned mother will tell you, the threat is obvious: less sleep and more stress, decreased family time and increased blood pressure, etcetera.

A less-discussed but perhaps more urgent threat, however, is the collective existential crisis exposed by society’s shift towards ‘workaholism’ (the word itself is coined after a destructive addiction). Our culture now equates busyness with importance, hard work with ability. We like representing ourselves as capable, so our egos swell approvingly with each overtime hour logged. Our work has thus become our identity—when meeting new people, I’m likely to be asked ‘what I do’ before I’m asked my name. Even 2,000 years before Headspace offered free 10-day trials and lifestyle magazines wrote about mindfulness, Roman Stoic Seneca noted this human tendency with enough scathing accuracy to elicit a collective 21st-century cringe: ‘It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously... New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it’ [2].

If this is the Overwork that grips our modern-day culture, then its antithesis is not laziness; it is Restfulness, which Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard carefully distinguishes from the existential boredom that often underlies hyperactivity [3]. What is the source of this elusive Rest, if not the average Londoner’s seven hours and forty three seconds of sleep [4]? How can it be acquired?

True Restfulness is a condition of the soul, not necessarily obtainable via the annual holidays, weekend lie-ins, and lunch breaks that are mere components of the working schedule, added in to lubricate the gears of productivity. In contrast, experiencing true Rest renews us deeply from the spirit outward, naturally resulting in (but not occurring for the sake of) an energetic purposefulness during both work and leisure. It renders us, as German Catholic Josef Pieper describes, ‘capable of taking in the world as a whole, and thereby to realise [ourselves as beings] oriented toward the whole of existence’ [5]. The frustrating evasiveness of something so favourable and intrinsically accessible suggests that Overwork is just one symptom of a much more profound misalignment; perhaps society’s restlessness is deeply rooted in an estrangement from God.

It becomes quite clear then, that the Bible’s fourth commandment to ‘Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy’ [6] is about more than turning off your iPhone during Sunday service. The word Sabbath derives from the Hebrew verb shavath, to cease. To cease, to stop, to sit down, to be still—these synonyms are all utterly non-radical by definition, yet exceedingly counterculture.

In nurturing Restfulness and keeping the Sabbath, Christians practise faithful humility. When we finally curb our myopic micromanagement, we recognise God’s benevolent reign over the details of our lives. When we relinquish command of even our most grandiose agendas, we put our trust into the hands of a Father who is infinitely wiser. The human spirit is recalibrated by the freedom of delighting in creation and celebrating the Creator. Perhaps the most simple and beautiful expression of God’s desire for our Restfulness is His call for us to ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10) [7]. It is only in the stillness that we can begin to know God. In other words, it is only through Rest that we can understand what to work towards and how to do so meaningfully.

[1] The Cult of Overwork by James Surowiecki appeared in The New Yorker, January 2014
[2] De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life) written by Seneca the Younger to his friend Paulinus
[3] Enten – Eller (Either/Or) by Søren Kierkegaard first published in 1843 and translated to English in 1944
[4] Time Out London gathered statistics from 10,000 Londoners in The Great City Living Survey 2015
[5] Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1952) by Josef Pieper
[6] Exodus 20:8 written by Moses (American Standard Version)
[7] Psalm 46:10 is attributed to the Sons of Korah (American Standard Version)

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