“The sole cause of mankind’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Or at least, so sayeth Blaise Pascal. Of course, he was a grumpy Jansenist and math nerd extraordinaire who probably liked staying quietly in his room. But he might have been on to something with these words, part of a famous tirade against humanity’s addiction to distraction: the art of occupying the soul with anything besides its own mortality, sin, and desperate need for God.
Pascal’s implicit challenge is particularly appropriate during these summer vacation months, and not just for parents who need a tart rejoinder to their children’s inevitable lament: “I’m bored!” Rich or poor, most Americans reflexively devote summer to diversion: beach days, outdoor dining, road trips, museums, water parks, sports events, resort all-in-one packages, luxury cruises, the occasional trip to Fiji. Are we simply rejuvenating from the soul-crushing grind of everyday life? Or are we seeking to avoid the existential moment when we are alone with our broken selves and “otherwise unoccupied”?
The answer, as with most such questions, proves to be complex. Our human experience of “rest” – and therefore our motives in pursuing it – can be understood in at least four radically different ways. The first is the sense of “rest” as the natural culmination of work – the moment when some long labor is brought to completion and we cease work, stepping back to celebrate some new perfection. “…And He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made” (Gen2:2) This sense of rest is embedded in the rhythm of the created order, and we participate in it on festivals and celebrations of all sorts: graduations, dedications of new buildings, victorious carousing at the pub after winning glory on a playing field. However, honesty must compel us to admit this is not the primary sense in which we seek “vacation” or “recreation” on weekends and over long summers. Pascal’s suspicion that we are engaged in collective escapism should still be niggling at our conscience.
We most often seek rest in its second sense, that of mere respite from burdensome work – with the sole purpose of fitting ourselves to take up the heavy yoke of work again. To delve into this meaning of “rest”, we need to further examine Work. “Work” is, after all, the universally recognized counterpoint to rest and the other unquestionable axiom of our national culture. But the much touted virtue of hard work is an odd fish: our human experience of work seems rooted in the fall of mankind. Scripturally speaking, toiling in the sweat of one’s brow and pain in childbearing don’t become all the vogue until Adam and Eve make that fatal decision to live in disharmony with their Creator. Work, as we understand it and live it out from day to day, is a symptom of our alienation from God. It is repetitive, difficult, and never quite finished – placing “rest” in the sense of “completion” as a retreating target always just over the horizon. Instead we have mere “respite,” a temporary parole from our sentence of ultimate futility. This kind of rest allows us to recharge for another round of work, whether hoeing a row, performing surgery, changing diapers, or crafting propaganda to disseminate on social media. No work – be it menial or mental, altruistic or diabolic in intent – is exempt from this cycle of grueling effort and temporary relief. We sleep, we take a day or two off, we soothe our overtaxed nervous systems with mindless amusements at the end of the day. There is no shame in admitting that we all need and take rest in this sense quite frequently – but there is a peril lurking just behind the scenes.
The danger lies in the inevitable question: why rest simply to return to the grind? Why work? What is it all for? What are we all for? What kind of a being am I, anyway? Once the edge of initial exhaustion has worn off, awful doubts lie in ambush. Enter the third sense of “rest”: mere recreation, the pervasive habit of distraction bemoaned by Pascal. In the absence of work, it is desirable to fill the void otherwise filled by existential dread with rich and captivating experiences. We “consume” them to fill our emptiness – to avoid our emptiness. They can be as crass as lewd movies or glitzy casinos, as saccharine as a million dollar theme park resort, as high-brow as curated art exhibitions or historical sight-seeing tours. So long as we package the Experience and consume it to stave off spiritual hunger, we will stay astonishingly busy “at rest” – busy as only a hive of ontologically bankrupt drones can be.
It doesn’t look good for humanity. What then? Shall we all lock ourselves in our rooms and stay there in quiet but dignified despair? Our sin has rendered God’s “seventh day” only a fleeting memory which we taste in echoes and glimpses, while the reality of crushing work drives us to mere respite or cancerous distraction. Can there be no true rest for the wicked, even in this life? Perhaps the answer is both yes and no; if there is hope, then it lies in a fourth sense of rest. The “rest” of the “eighth day” – the rest of restored and redeemed creation – is the solution to our dilemma. This fourth sense of rest, I propose, most closely resembles what thinkers like Joseph Pieper term leisure: the freedom to act in accord with the highest and original purposes of human nature. This kind of rest is paradoxically more active than work itself, since it involves a state of intense doing and making best compared to play. In other words, this fourth sense of rest is rest as redeemed and transformed work – a kind of “work” which is as good and sweet and enchanting as play. As Christians we look forward in hope to a new heavens and a new earth; isn’t it therefore absurd to suppose that our existence in the resurrection will be mere cessation of work? Wouldn’t it be better to imagine a world in which redeemed humanity is “busy” – not at grinding work, but at acting in the image of God? When we seek knowledge for the joy of knowing, when we love one another for the joy of loving, when we create beauty for the joy of creating: these are tastes of the true rest, for they all point back to our Lord and Creator and to a human nature which will never be alone in its room, for it will be forever in the presence of God.
This summer, as we carve out some rest for ourselves or plan that long-anticipated vacation, let us reach for that “eighth day” – for the true sabbatical, the kind of refreshment which is more than playing hookey from the grind and better than gloated distraction, packaged for consumption. If we can find time to seek after some tiny fragment of truth, or create some beautiful thing, or deeply love and rejoice in our mate or children or friends – and if we can do any one of these things even for an hour or a day or a week, with the abandonment and verve of someone who has all the leisure of eternity in which to do so – then we will have truly spent our time well. We might even briefly touch the garment of Him who alone can truly cure our fatal distraction and bring rest to our souls.