Normalizing Rest

A friend had major surgery last week.  When I went to visit her, she eeked out wearily, “you know you are overworked when you are looking forward to two days in the hospital where you can just lie still in bed.”

That her comment resonated so much with me, versus, say, sounding sad, or bizarre, caught my attention. I am on a quest for rest myself.

After 20 years doing social justice work, I am about to take some time off.  It’s bold for me to write that in 12 point font, as I have been whispering it for while – “I’m taking time off.” I have also stopped calling it a sabbatical because that seems to inspire people to ask me what I am going to DO on my sabbatical, i.e., what am I going to PRODUCE. My time off is about doing as little as possible – It is about trying to just be.

My news elicits a range of reactions. Some say, “Wow, I wish I could do that,” or ask “Aren’t you worried about money?” Given the work I do, I find it challenging to manage the assumptions and projections around privilege embedded in many reactions, most of which are off-base, but I manage them in service of the intriguing dialogue that inevitably follows -- dialogue often marked by effusive praise and exclamations of bravery. I appreciate the cheerleading, and, I hear underneath it the assessment that it’s radical, and even a wee bit crazy, to rest.

On my own journey learning and teaching about self care, I have come to realize that I am not without skill at energy management. I walk; I swim; I workout. Movement and exercise induce emotional composure, clearer thinking, and ultimately, increased productivity. I move to access my creativity; I get outside to open my mind. These practices are good for me, and they make me better able to support social justice leaders. When I don’t do these things, and I often don’t, I get tired, impatient, less creative, less resourceful. I see the limits of my contributions, and the toll on me, my clients, and my family.  I learned all this experientially, although these ideas I found later well-explained in a 2001 Harvard Business Review article -- “The Making of a Corporate Athlete.” (Source) While the title may not resonate with Move to End Violence blog readers, the central takeaway that chronic stress without recovery depletes our resources may strike a chord.

Why does this matter? Like every activist I know, I am a relentless overworker. I do what I do because the need is so great, because people are suffering, because so much is unjust, and resting feels self indulgent, disrespectful, and frankly, dangerous. My clients rarely rest. How dare I? So, I keep pace, and sometimes even use my reservoir as an outside-the-trenches person, to set or increase the pace when my clients are worn out. And around and around we go, as I watch my clients become depleted and I oscillate between encouraging them to take better care, and wearing myself out overcompensating for the fact that they rarely do!

My work life to date has been defined by “It’s me OR the work.” Work always “wins.” While I am grateful that I have skills in energy management, I have an intuitive knowing that the intent behind my energy management feels, well, abusive vs. supportive. Meaning, I don’t do these things as an act of compassion for my whole self, but to suck more productivity out of a weary body. Even my energy management is a way of driving myself.

In my time off I hope to embed recovery practices so that when I re-emerge, I can more fully incorporate rest and renewal into daily life so I don’t feel a need to withdraw completely from it.

Burning the candle at both ends both comes naturally to me and mirrors my clients and thus, has always provided me street creds. Managing my energy is wise and I should continue to do it, but I want to do so to support myself instead of to exploit what my body can deliver when I manage it for maximum productivity.

In my time off, I hope to embed recovery practices so that when I re-emerge, I can more fully incorporate rest and renewal into daily life so I don’t feel a need to withdraw completely from it, and so that my life is defined by a more humane relationship between “me AND the work. ”

You may know that the word Sabbatical comes from the Mosaic commandment to desist from tilling the land in the seventh year. A pause so that people can return, and the land can return, to a fruitful state of being.  That this might be a cyclical stage, a normal stage – vs, say, a radical concept, is why I titled this entry “Normalizing Rest.”  Because I don’t relate much to the very subjective word “normal,” I thought of changing the title. But when I looked at it a second time, I saw, “Norma-lizing Rest.” Given that Norma Wong, Move to End Violence’s faculty, is helping champion the importance of self-care and has helped many of us better understand the importance of rest and renewal, I decided as a personal expression of gratitude, to keep it.  

Lisa Silverberg

Lisa Silverberg partners with leaders to design and support organizational change. With experience in capacity building, leadership and team development, strategic and project planning, and meeting facilitation, Lisa helps social and economic justice organizations and multi-stakeholder groups clarify their goals and create conversations that help achieve those goals. More about Lisa >


Debbie Lee (not verified) replied on June 18, 2014

I could relate to this reflection. My mother had a mild stroke and I've spent everyday with her over the past 2 weeks: traveling to see her for almost 2 hours and spending the evening with her.  It has been contemplative and given me so much to think about and reflect.   I didn't know that I could manage it - fit it in... now its just life.  And I love my time with my mom, sometimes not talking or doing anything, but just being with her.

Maura Bairley replied on June 18, 2014

So appreciate this piece. I have been working with several leaders who are stepping away from the day to day to rest, restore, recover. I am amazed at how hard this is, how our habits around productivity cut us off from our reproductive capacity (not thinking about parenting here, but our capacity to create, generate, grow). We certainly do need to normalize rest and restoration as everyday practices of our work. Thank you!

Anonymous (not verified) replied on June 19, 2014

I have been a social justice organizer/ advocate since the early 1990s, and have twice taken 4-5 months off to rest. I do it because I need it, and in the face of the complete lack of respect and understanding that it seems to elicit from so many people. It's also not smart for me financially. I just in the last few months went back to work after my second-ever (wonderful!!) period of rest. Thing is, I went right back into my mode of overworking. I lost all the habits I had set, of exercising and cooking, during my time off. So I am thinking about how I can do this better.

Suzanne Koepplinger (not verified) replied on June 20, 2014

This is a great reminder about the importance of self-care. In my new role I am learning about the links between stress and disease, and it is significant. 80% of chronic diseases can be linked to stress, toxic stress in children (such as living with DV or surviving abuse) impedes brain development. And as Norma Wong has pointed out, sleep deprivation is a form of torture. We have normalized 60 hour work weeks and heavy case loads and need to use our proactive stance to establish personal well-being as a priority in our work. 

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