How Rest Can Save the Conversation on Vocation From Itself: Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts adapted from a white paper prepared for Wheaton College’s Theology of Vocation Project

It is nothing short of ironic that I was asked to produce a white paper on the topic of rest. The news that I had been paired, in Wheaton’s Theology of Vocation Project, with this particular topic elicited wry laughter when it was first reported to a staff member in our Center for Urban Engagement. Friends and family reacted similarly.

While I certainly enjoy rest, I haven’t exactly earned a reputation for taking time off. The “napping corner” of my office – fully equipped with a backpacking air mattress, pillow, blanket, and airline-issued eye mask – probably testifies just as much to a lack of adequate rest as it does to my respect for rest. Indeed, even when I make use of that corner of my office, I’ll often tuck my phone away nearby to be sure that fragment of rest doesn’t prevent me from keeping up with important communications. While some have thought that part of my office means I know how to rest, many who know me best recognize it as a paradoxical sign of my shortcomings in this area. Tellingly, my napping corner points to both wishful thinking about and fragmented experience of rest.

Equally telling is the fact that I wrote most of this essay on Sundays, justifying myself with a facile excuse: “nothing could be more appropriate than writing about the Sabbath on the Sabbath.” But it is clear that time-fragmenting technologies, coupled with an expansive sense of calling and an affirmation of the worthiness of work, contribute to my neglect of rest. In other words, dysfunctions in my own understanding of calling and work sometimes keep me from resting well.

I know I’m not alone in my unintentional neglect of rest. I’ve heard from both colleagues and students whose spiraling responsibilities leave them with a sense that their time is too pressured or fragmented for proper rest, and that their agency in doing something about it is diminished by the circumstances of their lives and work. While I have spent countless hours with students experiencing trauma, grief, loneliness, abuse, and mental and physical illness, the one issue that comes up more often than any other is a near-constant experience of being overwhelmed and restless. (I refer here to multiple aspects of restlessness: both the sense of anxiety, lack of focus, unceasing activity, and perpetual motion and the inability to remain at rest, the lack of rest, and neglect of rest that can accompany this perpetual motion. )

Many students are diffuse in their attention, trying to do everything, because YOLO. Or because they have FOMO. But even those with a more focused approach to their callings as students often neglect rest. As is the case with my own negligence, my students with a dysfunctional relationship to rest tend to not to be overvaluing it, but instead tend toward a hypertrophic sense of work’s worthiness. Work, for them, has grown to unhealthy proportions in the scheme of their lives.

A better understanding of vocation may free us to find an otherwise elusive sense of focus and balance, but simply layering an emphasis upon career, work, calling, or vocation – as important as this emphasis is – on top of existing experiences of being restless or overwhelmed by our various commitments and responsibilities risks exacerbating dysfunctional perspectives, practices, and experiences of rest.

Those with an overdeveloped sense of career, those who have devoted considerable time to vindicating work, and those who have taken on too many responsibilities due to insecurity or an underdeveloped focus most need a better understanding of rest.

This essay on rest will not be focused on a vindication of work. Nor will it attempt to diminish enthusiasm for rest, leisure, and play -despite the fact that overenthusiasm for rest, leisure, and play can actually create alienation from work. The fact that rest cannot itself fulfill misplaced longings is not a vindication of some more expansive view of work. If limitations to rest, leisure, and play were somehow to serve as independent, if indirect, vindications of work, that would be analogous to suggesting that the Sabbath somehow serves as an independent, if indirect, vindication of working six other days per week.

Rest is central to a theology of vocation for at least two reasons. First, any Christian understanding of calling that goes beyond work – and any Christian understanding of calling must go beyond work – should include all of the responsibilities and relationships to which God has called us. Here I am drawing upon the definition of vocation offered in the project on Vocation and the Common Good at the New City Commons, a Charlottesville-based think tank:

Vocation refers to a set of social relations and responsibilities through which we serve God and realize our agency. This means that it can never be unitary or totalizing. Vocation is always discerned as a response to God and neighbor and, as such, cannot be fixed once and for all time. It also means that, even though we are concentrating upon spheres of social activity that either are professions or sure look a lot like professions, we can’t reduce vocation to the realm of paid work. We are all, each and every one of us, called by God to multiple relationships of different kinds; and to neglect familial, civic, or ecclesial duties in an attempt to emphasize ‘vocation is to misunderstand vocation in its most basic and general sense. So, along with the best of our theological heritage, we affirm that vocation is an ensemble of relations and responsibilities.

One such responsibility is rest. Moreover, rest is often central to honoring the relationships we have been given. Second, a right understanding of rest can correct for various dysfunctions, faults, or perversions of the emphasis on vocation. Indeed, my central thesis is that a right view of rest not only offers rest to a restless world, but may help to save “vocation” from itself.

Stay tuned for the second post! Meanwhile, you can follow me and contribute to the conversation on Twitter.

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