Image: Noon – Rest from Work, Vincent Van Gogh (license)
“I was seeing all these documents from plantations in the South: A horse: $50. One Black child: $20. I was crying over those archives of African American people being human machines, and I became obsessed with the micro-details of their daily life in the cotton fields. What time did they wake up? When did they finish? All these small details I never knew. What about the women who were pregnant? What happened at night, how did they see? What kind of lights were guiding their way?”
Tricia Hersey, while working as an archivist became consumed with researching slave narratives. She began imagining what her ancestors’ lives were like, without agency over their own time or bodies, unable to rest when they physically could work no longer. As abolitionist Frederick Douglas wrote, “more ‘[slaves] are whipped for oversleeping than any other fault”. Rest is a privilege of the free.
In the country I currently live in, maids and house-helps have no rest. During this time of Ramadan, they will be working from 4 am to prepare food for after the sunrise prayer, cook food during the day and won’t get to sleep until the small hours of the morning. Rest is a privilege of the free.
Sometime around 1300 BC Semitic tribes escaped slavery in the Nile Delta: “They ruthlessly made the sons of Jacob (Israel) work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field.” Rest is a privilege of the free.
We construct our lives around rituals of performative exhaustion. We worship our collective societal doctrine to work harder, stronger, faster. We exert ourselves at maximum capacity all day every day for the glory of productivity. We treat our calendar as sacred, completing goals at the break-neck pace of the digital world we’ve scaffolded around ourselves.
Grind culture seeks to rule over our self-isolation; one pandemic has collided with another.
You’ve got nothing else on your plate, surely you’re using this pandemic time to work harder and be more productive. This is your chance to check off all those goals you haven’t managed to achieve yet. Also, have you not learnt a new language, started baking sour-dough, run a half marathon, and read all of your saved-for-later articles?
Or are you laden with guilt? Do you feel even more exhausted than before, despite seemingly doing less?
While archiving at the African American collection, Tricia Hersey also began to talk to African Americans who’d lived through the Jim Crow era about how their decades-old trauma manifested physically. According to a large-scale 2015 study, Black Americans get almost a full hour less per night than their white counterparts. Reasons for this range from environmental factors to psychological ones. After exploring the psychology of how the brain uses sleep to process trauma, Hersey became taken by the idea that rest could be a form of reparations and that sleep deprivation is an issue of racial and social justice. Rest wasn’t just personal; it was political.
Hersey founded The Nap Ministry in 2016 and has been pushing back against grind culture since.
While the message is for everyone, The Nap Ministry centres on the black community and pushes back against cultural stigmas around rest stemming from the time of slavery and colonisation. Nonetheless, Hersey says her message of rest is for everyone:
There is a trend right now happening in speaking and writing about rest. Most of the culture is not actually resting. The trend of talking and writing about it is rooted in capitalism, toxic group-think and opportunity – both connected to grind culture and the way media consumes things alive. The everyday pace of our culture is not healthy, sustainable, nor liberative.
Productivity is the God of Western culture. It’s a harsh master and Hersey says it makes slaves of us all.
Cambridge is filled with the children of high-flying city workers, who even turn the Cindies’ smoking area into a networking event. In an interview with the New York Times, Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founder of a software company, Basecamp, said despite research showing that longer hours don’t improve productivity or creativity, the gospel of grind culture’s call to overwork endures because it justifies the extreme wealth created for a small group of elite ‘success’ stories. “It’s grim and exploitative,” he said . We can be slaves to grind culture.
Remember that you were once a slave in the land of Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out from there; therefore He has commanded you to take a Sabbath day. On that seventh day, no one should work – not family, not workers, not even livestock – so they may rest as well.
Productivity provides us with meaning almost to a spiritual level. Any life hack, caffeine pill, organisation app or study drug that allows us to fit in even more work, isn’t just desirable but is intrinsically good.
In a 2016 interview with Bloomberg, the former chief executive of Yahoo commented on the value of hard work, “The actual experience was more like, “Could you work 130 hours in a week?” The answer is yes, if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.”
In all honesty, it’s a terrifyingly cultish dedication to work which has attained a level of religious zeal. In a twisted sort of way, its self-worship; the non-stop grind makes us feel important, and prevents us from having to spend time alone to deal with the difficult things inside us.
The irony is, it makes a slave of us. Psychotherapist Bryan E. Robinson says, “When the hustle culture drives you, you unwittingly relinquish your personal power and become a slave to internal and external pressures such as deadlines, work demands, or pleasing friends and loved ones.” You’re a slave to your daily grind.
Putting our value in productivity is dehumanising and dangerous, are we worth keeping around when we have an accident or a nervous breakdown? Our only value as humans becomes our productive capacity. For most of us, when defining our worth or life by what we accomplish, we don’t add up to a whole lot.
I remember sitting across from the former Head of the Department of Sociology at Matriculation where he told me that we should work fewer days. His research pointed toward no lack of productivity if we took more days off, and that work intensification was potentially worse for well-being than longer hours. I scoffed. Didn’t he work at Cambridge?
Two years in and I think he may have had a point. We’re worshiping at the altar of work. In Productivity we trust.
I’m really interested in soul care, which takes a deeper view of yourself as a human being worthy of self-care. You can’t even get to self-care until you can look at what’s happening on a soul level. – Tricia Hersey, The Nap Ministry
We need to reclaim and reset our time. I started noticing some courageous people in my life who were on a mission to do that: a friend who went on a weekend of silent retreat, another who honoured a no phone Monday, others that carved out daily prayer times to sit and spend time with God.
Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word for seven, and means taking one day a week off, to remind us that making a god of work isn’t rewarding, and to focus back on God, the good gifts we’ve been given and what is truly important in life. This was one of God’s top ten priorities for people and he even commanded them to take a day off as an oasis in time.
I started taking one day a week completely off. It’s the one day I feel completely no guilt for not getting things done. I’ve stopped apologising for not replying on my day off. Something about it shouts out that my value is not in what I can produce, an act of protest in a world that praises productivity. I’m not inadequate if I’m not constantly pushing. In the midst of these demands to prove ourselves, the act of Sabbath says stop, rest. By resting we remember that we are human, not God.
But the truth is, we’re terrified. We don’t know what will happen if we opt out of our grind culture. It’s truly revolutionary to say no.
Rest is a privilege. For frontline workers and carers, this is an exhausting time. For others, self-isolation may be in a toxic or lonely environment, an emotionally stressful time. The pandemic weighs heavy on the ill and grieving. Rest too can be your resistance. We’re not commodities and we’re not indispensable.
Sabbath is a weekly appointment between God and us, a chance to know who we are, a respite from turmoil. It can take place in the confines of your isolation room or a hospital bed just as well as in the liberty of health and freedom. With many things we took for granted no longer a part of our lives, we can see time afresh, as the gift it really is.
So then, a Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labours as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest.
Take a day. Turn your phone off. Dance. Write a list of things you are thankful for. Take a nap. Play a board game. Take time to speak to God. Read a short story. Make something. Sit outside. Pray. Meditate.
Don’t give up on the work you’re doing, it has value. But remember that rest is resistance too.
 1:11,12-13 The book of Exodus (Shemot)
 5:15,14 The book of Deuteronomy (Devarim)
 Hebrews 4