Mental Health, Spirituality

Working Harder at Resting

In school I became a straight “A” student after my mom gave me an earful about my grades. I received a less than stellar fourth grade report card, which my parents promptly put on the refrigerator as a badge of shame.

Then there was the dreaded parent-teacher conference. Let’s just say mom grabbed my ear while dragging me back to the car in the school parking lot afterwards. That unfortunate incident spurred me to promptly get on the achievement path.

A Type-A personality emerged in fifth grade that drove me to work tirelessly toward my goals and finish well before deadlines. Whether by carrot or by stick, my motivation to keep working served to get me through years of school and then serving the church as a minister.

Sadly, though, I get a resounding “F” for resting.

My Mentor’s “Fail” Challenge

In my first year of seminary my mentor at church, Pastor Tom, recognized my inner perfectionistic drive. So, he challenged me to get a lower grade in a theology class.

I felt overwhelmed with studies, health (psoriasis flares back then–terrible), and stay-at-home parenting our firstborn, a toddler. I tried exceedingly hard to do less so I could rest more. I agreed with Tom that I could change my approach to theology papers. Having less of a perfectionistic drive would allow for a bit of margin in my schedule. I could focus on a few areas of my life direly needing attention.

I reasoned that getting a lower grade in a seminary class would not prevent me from graduating. Seasoned ministers told me church hiring committees don’t typically ask to see seminary GPAs. (Turns out I’ve never been asked my GPA in any ministry position interview).

To my infinite surprise I received a solid “A” in that theology class. I had failed Pastor Tom’s challenge to learn how to rest in the midst of the busyness of life.

I Know I Should Rest More

As a minister I taught parishioners about Sabbath rest. The Bible teaches how God rested on the seventh day and so should we. Sabbath is built into the rhythm of creation. The principle of rest is embedded in our body, mind, soul, and spirit. Just try staying up for a day or two straight to test the theory. Too bad my lessons became more do as I say and not as I do.

Even those who don’t believe in the teachings of the Bible understand the need for breaks, recreation, and getting away from the daily grind. And then there are a couple of economic principles (probably the only two) that stuck with me since college. First is the law of diminishing returns. I become less productive the longer I work without a break. Second is the principle of opportunity cost. When I’m slaving away unproductively I’m missing out on doing something else–namely resting.

It’s not a secret to anyone who knows me, especially my wife, that I should rest more. I need more sleep, more breaks, more re-creation time. But sadly, my time to rest often turns into activities to achieve, strive, and compete.

Rest that Turns Into Work

I enjoy following sports, especially baseball (SF Giants) and hockey (SJ Sharks). But when they lose or go through long rebuilding years I feel down instead of refreshed. I exercise regularly, more walking now than running. But with my Apple Watch tracking my progress workouts become opportunities to compare and progress.

Maybe it’s my competitive spirit. Or I’m still trying to make my parents proud like a child offering a good report card. Perhaps it’s my personality that turns everything into a game to win or lose. Whatever it is, a hobby can become an obsession. Time to rest isn’t restorative.

I clearly need to work harder at resting.

Making Effort to Enter Into Rest

During the pandemic I stayed home for months. If there was a time to rest it was during those days I didn’t need to go anywhere. Of course, I had work online and video calls/meetings. But the anxiety and stress of COVID-19 reminded me that finding rest is more than not working. Something internal, not external, needed to change.

A passage in the Bible from Hebrews inspired me to think more about resting in this way. The exhortation is to “make every effort to enter that rest.” The rest is holistic, including a spiritual rest that comes from trusting God for anything and everything in life.

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:9-11)

The work I needed to do entailed letting go of what kept me wound up in a cycle of striving and achieving. My need for control takes away my joy and keeps me in a state of anxiety. Added stress no doubt leads to worse psoriasis and overall health.

I wish I could write more papers, run longer distances, or check more items off my to-do list instead. This gut-wrenching internal work is much harder, but it’s what’s needed.

If only I could take my mentor’s challenge again and get an “A” at accepting less than perfect. I’m not at that crossroads any longer. But I can take the daily challenge of learning to trust, let go, and live in this moment. That’s something worth working toward.