There is a lack of stillness in our society, and being perpetually busy seems like a mark of maturity. Vacations never quite leave us rested. Hours of TV after work are not filling what needs to be filled. A fast food meal is a preferred choice over an hour of deliberate cooking. Even driving in your car without music, radio, or a podcast seems impossible. As Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, once bluntly said, “The public is on the lookout for distraction.” We seem both debilitated and busied by it, and so like birds in migration, we seem to be without a perch.
So is rest even possible? When we regularly want to go home after a full day of work and watch Netflix, and drink a beer or glass of wine before we restart the next day, have we even rested or have we just like that bird in flight given up on the long journey and settled for scraps and shade by a dumpster? It feels as though “rest” has lost its meaning. No longer is rest holistic but now just another word for numbing. Instead of taking walks by ourselves around the neighborhood, we pull up Facebook. Instead of a face-to-face dinner, we grab food and sit shoulder to shoulder on the couch. Instead of an intentional conversation with our roommate or spouse, we gaze into the world of happy families, extraordinary vacations, and perfect bodies on Instagram, and in the process, we are becoming more and more restless. Rest is crushed by distraction, and perhaps it is because distraction is busyness in a tranquil disguise.
In a constantly distracted life, we become emotionally dull. We often attempt to stuff away our fears, our loneliness, and all our anxiety in the busyness, and then we wonder why we are exhausted. Rest requires courage. It requires us, like a bird in a storm, to believe beyond the darkening clouds in front and beneath us. We have no clue what’s beneath those clouds. We are unsure if there is a roaring ocean, a scorching desert, or perhaps, even worse, nothing at all. Henri Nouwen, a well-renowned writer and priest, once wrote:
“Our culture has become most sophisticated in the avoidance of pain but our emotional and mental pain as well. We not only bury our dead as if they were still alive, but we also bury our pains as if they were not really there. We have become so used to this state of anesthesia, that we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us. When we have no project to finish, no friend to visit, no book to read, no television to watch or no record to play, and when we are left all alone by ourselves we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and … we will do anything to get busy again and continue the game which makes us believe that everything is fine after all.”
This is not to say rest is just a constant journey into morbid introspection. We absolutely need ways to cope and relax at times and to take our eyes off ourselves, but we must recognize that a constant life of distraction is a life that is centered on avoidance rather than a life of pursuit. Like that bird by the dumpsters, it was given some relief but forfeited its journey. It desired rest and some sort of stability, rightly, but in the process strayed from the flock and stopped before a far better destination. It gave up on the migration, but that’s not to say it could never continue again.
So then how do we go on, and how do we find the courage to simultaneously rest while keep going?
There is no single answer to this, but we do need companions. Whether it is the flock of birds flying in formation, Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter and his two dear friends Ron and Hermione, or you and your best friends, we need people to spur us on. We need people who can be with us on the journey and can allow us to bare our souls. Our proclivity to numbing dies when we have people who call to us, who plead with us to continue and to rest. When birds fly in formation, the bird in front takes on the most pressure until another takes its place and allows it to move backwards. Their flight fatigue is thus distributed equally. We need people like those birds who do the same with us, who share our suffering by moving to the front of formation for us, and encourage us to rest by allowing us to take a step back. We were never meant to journey alone. In addition, we need counselors, pastors, or mentors that help us deal with the darkness, pressure, or fatigue in our own lives which has driven us to seek relief in distraction. Often the weight of our shame, guilt, and exhaustion seems like too much. It is hard enough to stand with a load upon our shoulders, nonetheless fly, but like a good friend of mine once said, “Pilgrims are not comfortable, but they are not alone either.”
So what does resting along life’s journey look like if not numbing? If numbing is an extinguishing of desire then a life of journey is partly a life of longing. This is why pilgrims aren’t comfortable. Longing leaves us exposed to disappointment and hurt. A life of longing leaves us dependent but not divided, while a life of distraction has no need of grace, no need of community, and no need of hope. Staying attentive to our longings allow us to experience some sense of wholeness – a taste of what we were created for. If a bird knows it needs warmer weather to survive, then it must long for and pursue a warmer destination. Similarly, we are creatures of immense desire who are tempted to distraction as C.S. Lewis writes:
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child [or bird] who wants to go on making mud pies [or eating by dumpsters] in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Perhaps, most of us are so exhausted because we’ve settled for the destination that can not offer us the rest we desperately need. We were meant for more than mud pies, dumpsters, or Netflix. We were meant to journey together in a life of anticipation and hope, longing and sorrow, endurance and rest. Like that bird, maybe we have become comfortable with just enough to keep us preoccupied and deprived of that familiar longing: the longing to finally arrive home.