I don’t know about you but I have a hard time admitting I need a break, particularly as an artist, maker, writer, producer, curmfurdler, and space pirate. I push myself too hard too often refusing to admit that I need a break and then either my body breaks or the environment forces me to take a break and I crash. Hard. Frequently I have overbooked, overcommitted, and overextended myself trying to make up for the deficiencies in myself and the world through work. But the truth is busyness is simply the other side of the idleness coin: those who live lazy, idle lives have the same problem as those of us who pass our days with work. We’re all afraid to face our true selves in the quietness of a lonely day. And therefore we fear admitting — ever — that we need a break.
Many years ago I heard a talk by Jon Weece about the ways to orient your day, week, quarter, and year so that you don’t wait until you need a break to plan for when you’ll take a break. I honestly don’t remember much of it, but I remember enough to say that I’m using some of his phrases as a rough outline for this article:
Most Christians, particularly those with some sort of Puritan or monastic influence, get the idea of a daily prayer or meditation or study time or times. A lot of them think about their day in terms of “morning devos,” while many others actually break up their day into the various hours of prayer. And it’s not just Christians — Muslims borrowed their idea of the hours of prayer from the monks. And the Jews have practiced something similar. Certainly many in the Buddhist tradition have primed the pump of the day with meditation. And then you have those who praise the psychology of “morning pages,” a sort of brain-vomit that forces you to focus on a handful of images in order to prepare yourself to write through the rest of the day. One pastor treats journaling like this and, in looking back through them over the years, sees the practices as “overhearing God” through the big changes that have happened in his life without notice.
Whatever the case, if you divert daily — if you start your day with a deep breath before the plunge — you won’t scramble for a spare thought when the time comes for you to need a break.
The Jews get this better than anyone and for those who really want to understand, I highly recommend reading the book The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Now I’m no Jew, much less a Jewish theologian, but I really don’t think that matters. For years I framed up my “day off” in terms of getting more energy for the next work week. But that’s defining my life by my work, rather than my being.
This is really, really hard for Americans like me to understand.
But it’s so important.
Who I am.
What I do.
No matter how many times I get asked, “What do you do?” at a party, I will never be defined by the output of my life, by the work I produce, by the craft or career or discipline I pursue or the education I inhabit. All of those things only shape me and the world around me. That I am is far more important than what I am. That’s not to diminish the idea of being something good. It’s simply saying existence — itself — is a good thing.
Which means when I need a day off — a stop — a rest — A Sabbath — I actually need space to be myself and nothing else.
We withdraw weekly and slow down our pace and sing silly songs and color pointless pictures and read stories that aren’t on our to-do lists and take small, slow walks, and sleep in and take our time with sex and write out thoughts (or not) or simply sit and be still because we need to remember that our output, our outflow, our outgoing personalities are not the whole of us.
Sometimes we need to withdraw and simply be.
That’s the point of Sabbath: to remember that we work to be ourselves, we don’t be ourselves to work.
About once a quarter or so, you’ll find yourself buzzed from the overabundance of electromagnetic radio waves and conversation and internet distractions and the workload and the family drama and the neighborhood asks and the “for business” travel and the grind of the mundane tasks. It’s too much. Just too much.
So what do you do?
You leave your computer at home.
You leave your work at home.
You leave your tasks like walking the dog or watching the kids in the hands of someone else — even someone less competent that you. The kids and the dog will live. And if they CAN’T live without you then you have some serious codependency problems and you DEFINITELY need to get out of town: the lives and sanity of your pets and kids depend on it.
You’re going to turn off your phone.
You’re going to leave your reading list at home. Yes that reading list. The one that weighs over your head for your PhD or your book club or your work study.
You’re going to leave Yelp alone. And your bucket list. And everything else in your being that’s bent towards the touristy or foodie or thrill-seeking or list-checking or photo-blogging part of you.
Whatever food you stumble across.
And something to process with.
Take three days or so: at least two nights, maybe more.
Potentially consider camping since it’ll reset your internal clock.
And get out of here.
After about three hours you’ll feel like yourself again.
After about six, your mind will start to wander. And wonder.
After about nine or twelve, you’ll start to freak out and think it’s a bad idea and reach for some sort of security escape hatch you brought because you didn’t take the first part of this section seriously.
Don’t do that.
Leave the phone off and in your car.
Leave the computer alone.
Whatever it is, it can’t help you.
Only going in will help you.
You need a break.
Not a break-ish working vacation.
You need a break.
So take one.
Rather: let it take you. Take you to places you haven’t been for awhile. Stop fighting it. You can’t fight a river. You can only yield. So yield and let it take you to places.
At the end of three days, you’ll find yourself coming up with all kinds of ideas.
You’ll feel rested.
If you did the week-long camping thing, your insomnia will be gone.
And yes, your work will be stronger and fuller and more meaningful and more productive.
But not because it’s the point.
Rather, because you put work in its place because your biggest need isn’t the accomplishment. Your biggest need is the break.
Seek Asylum Annually
Retreats won’t cut it for the long term. About once a year, you’ll actually need to take a longer two-three-four week vacation. As in “vacate the premises.” It’s like the difference between sleep mode (Sabbath), the restart button (retreat), and total system shutdown (asylum). You need to turn it off. Completely.
The term “holiday” is literally “holy day.” As a side note: that’s why Christians getting worked up over “Happy Holidays” is literally the most ignorant seasonal thing all year. Both names refer to a tradition of the sacred. If you want to get mad, get mad at greeting cards and things like “Season’s Greetings,” but not “Happy Holidays.”
Stupidity aside, the idea of a holy day is to put the rest of the year in check through a festival of celebration of the meaning of the things we do. We need a break because we need to break open the mundane parts of our world and expose the truth of the existence of things like work and success and money and fame. A holy day — a holiday — does that: it shows us the sacred things again and reorients life around the sacred.
You need this more than you know.
You need the consistency of the yearly, but you also need the change of the seasons.
Holy days — and the vacations you plan around them — will help you mark time and reorient the entirety of your year around that.
Go On Sabbatical Seasonally
Briefly: I think everyone should consider full-blown sabbaticals. Large swaths of time off. The trick is overcoming the “I can’t afford that” impulse.
You actually can. You just have prioritized your cable, your Netflix, your daily coffee, your weekly splurge on drinks, your cigarettes — the list goes on. If you saved, though, and if you also pushed for change in the national conversation, you could do this easily.
Australia, for instance, encourages months of vacation time.
In Sweden, maternity leave is almost a year.
We cram it all into retirement.
You turn 65 and suddenly POOF!
…you leave and no one hears from you again.
I don’t believe in retirement.
I think retirement is why we have nursing homes: retirement is why we praise youth. Retirement is absurd.
I believe in sabbaticals.
One of my colleagues is over 70.
He has practiced this idea of a sabbatical.
And now he’s back in the game.
Working with me.
As a mentor.
Just like in Asian or Mid-Eastern cultures.
The way to repair the teenage wasteland is through apprenticeship and rights of passage. The way to offer those is through the return of the sage or the wiseman. The way to get those guys back in the game is to stop idolizing retirement and start making room for large blocks of time off between seasons of life involving massive change. The way to do that is to make room for it both personally and in policy.
And if you divert daily, withdraw weekly, retreat regularly, seek asylum annually, and go on sabbatical seasonally, you’ll wake in a world where all your work has meaning, a depth of care, and a connection to all the people who brought it from the place of consumption to the place of production.
And in a world like that, you’ll find out you don’t need a break anymore.
You already have them.