I’m never more disoriented than at the end of an academic semester. In place of the busy structure of an academic term comes a powerful restlessness of heart. To put it this way is to intellectualize it though. It is not so conscious; and it's not at all clear. It is as if my body acts out a restlessness under my mind's attention. It's not what my mind knows, it's what my body does. I'm carried away into attempts to quiet the restlessness, to numb it, before I'm even aware that I have it.
Why does the prospect of rest seem so unnatural to me?
Why is it so uncomfortable?
Why does rest feel like self-betrayal?
And another question I have about rest is this: What is the difference between rest and boredom? If inactivity and inoccupation of body and mind are the cause of either states of experience, what factor determines how I experience the stillness? Is the experience of boredom or rest actually learned response to inoccupation?
I remember getting in trouble as a child when I would say, “Mom, I’m bored! I have nothing to do?” You might of thought “bored” was a four-letter word. “We don’t get bored in my family,” was the lesson I learned. Boredom is not to be welcomed; It’s neither invited nor paid hospitality. When one feels “bored,” one fights against it by doing something.
“Bored! You are bored?! Well I’ll give you something to do! There’s a world out there of things to do. Choose something and do it or I’ll chose it for you and make you do it!” I don't’ know if that’s exactly like what my mom said to me. But it is what I have said to my own two kids.
I hear the same thing out of the mouth of Mary and Zion and I have the exact same strong reaction as my mom did. There is an assumption in the heart of a child that life should never be boring. Why is that?
But why can’t I be unoccupied? Why does it feel so dangerous?
Even on days when I’m "off," it’s not uncommon for me to wake up in 4 o’clock hour of the morning with a churning mind. Much like I did today. My task list is over 10 items deep. Papers to revise for publication. Courses to prepare for the spring semester. Book reviews to write. Books to read. Blog posts to write. Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera.
But it's not the task list that is the problem; it didn't materialize out of nothing. I created it. A series of decisions I made in the past have produced this list.
And I can’t seem to stop the relentless motion.
I’m not alone in my struggle with restlessness in stillness. I recently had a conversation with a colleague who offhandedly mused whether the academic life was a healthy one for him. He said, “I’m not sure I have the personality for the swaths of unstructured time that the academic life requires. Maybe I would be better at a job that has a more regularly structured schedule.” My friend is struggling in his own way with the threat rest presents.
Writing this piece has been a struggle. I began writing it early in the morning at a Starbucks in San Francisco over a week ago. Mary and Zion sat next to me occupying themselves on their iPads. My little early risers were up at 4 am PST since it felt like 6 am CST. Karla was still sleeping having come into the hotel late from work. She had a two-night layover in San Fran so we decided to go with her as a family – the perks of the airline industry.
I knew I needed to be curious about on the restlessness and disconnection I was feeling and the disorientation of rest – that I’m still feeling a week later.
But there’s been a significant obstacle.
I started writing and it was not flowing. I couldn’t finish a thought. Sentences didn’t run together and no lines of thought were leading anywhere. It was chaotic.
“I don’t want to write!” I actually said it out loud. The attempt to write my body’s voice, this almost inexpressible struggle with rest, felt like self-enforced torture. I know it may sound odd, but my body was reacting so strongly to my attempts to give it voice. It was creating chaos in me.
It’s was trying to run. “Go! Go! Go!”
I was trying to engage my body in conversation, “Why do you want me to stop writing? Why do you want to run?” But it was having nothing of it. “Why is this so hard?”
In that moment, and those subsequent to it, as I’ve made attempts at working on this, I feel a strong sense of flight; I don't want to be in my body. I want to be distracted. I want to be disconnected. Is this why rest is seems so dangerous?
Rest invites me back into my body, into the fullness of me. But I don't want to be there.
Instead of writing, what I want to is immerse myself in information, my chosen form of distraction. A quest for learning quiets my restlessness.
But what I don’t want to do is sit here are write. Sit here and attend to my body’s desire and powerful discomfort.
The dense academic book sitting there next to my iPad keyboard in this Starbucks in San Francisco offers me something I nearly can’t refuse. But what really does is it offer me?
Escape? Accomplishment? Power?
The allure of a book.
What does a book promise?
What hope is in a book?
Why do I pack four books on a one-day, two-night trip with my family?