The value of rest in a worn-out world

I have a question I would love to ask a random group of people from all walks of life, all around the world. The question is: “When was the last time you felt deeply rested in body, mind and spirit?”

I imagine many people would confess to being exhausted — as would I, even if it feels strange to admit it. Mine is not an exhaustion that keeps me in bed and prevents me from doing the day-to-day things I need to do. Rather it is one that seems to keep my body a little off-kilter, my mind a little hazy, and challenges my ability to be fully present in ways I need and want to be. It is a deep exhaustion that will not be resolved by 10 hours of sleep (though I wouldn’t mind a chance to test that out). 

I think it is a cumulative type of worn-out-ness for which many of us are still trying to find language. I know it feels like the worst part of the pandemic is behind us, and that we survived it. But what I’m not so sure about is if we’ve figured out how to live in the world we have now. And I can’t help feeling it’s important to name aloud our deep fatigue. To do so can remind us that there are significant ways in which we might need to process the events of the past two years, which continue to have an impact on how we engage with the world. And it might also help us find the tools we need to abide with them for a while. Simply because, with all that continues to happen in the world, we might have to. 

There is a quiet but powerful painting called “Generations” (2021) by the Dutch artist and photographer Peggy Kuiper. Kuiper makes figurative work of sharp-angled people whose limbs and bodies often sit or stand or bend in unlikely positions. Their fingers are long and bony and stand out prominently in her images. In “Generations”, an unconscious-looking woman dressed in a white sleeveless dress, with a sad, downturned mouth, lies in the arms of a standing figure. There are four people dressed in warm, muted colours standing behind her like a human shield and gazing compassionately at her face. A deep sapphire blue wall is the background to it all. The heads of the compassionate ones are cocked in reflective concern. One of the people has a hand resting gently over her head. Another person grips the arm of the one carrying her. 

‘Generations’ by Peggy Kuiper (2021)

I was drawn to the tender care of the fallen woman that Kuiper was able to express through this strongly drawn community of characters. I imagined the horizontal woman collapsed rather than dead, perhaps from despair, perhaps from exhaustion. The image of support and compassion made me think about how life-giving and necessary it is to have a community of safe keepers who can bear witness to our varied states. We might feel some hesitation or fear of being judged or ridiculed for admitting we are feeling less than wholly ourselves, especially when we seem healthy and in step with life’s responsibilities. It is an image of being cradled and attended to in a human moment of weakness. The person with the hand on her head is wearing a robe that looks like a religious garment. I see this as symbolic of the sacredness of care and presence.

This painting leaves me with two lingering questions. How do we honour our feelings of exhaustion or fatigue, making ourselves vulnerable to receiving care? And when do we position ourselves to be one of the ones who hold space for those who need it, even if they appear fine? There is a stillness to this painting — none of the figures are in motion. The stillness allows for seeing and perceiving and tending. 

“The Agora”, by Magdalena Abakanowicz, makes me think of how we might need, as we venture back out in the world, to find ways to be still again. Abakanowicz, a Polish sculptor and artist, lived through the Polish-Soviet war and the second world war, and her work drew on her experiences and observations of humanity. Her art powerfully suggests the challenging and uncomfortable aspects of our humanity, as individuals and communities. “Agora”, on permanent display in Grant Park, Chicago, is a sculptural work of 106 9ft tall cast-iron human figures. The bodies have no heads or arms, only legs and torsos, and are positioned in groups and alone, with the feet walking in different directions.

These sculptures feel illustrative of the moment we are in. The work is named for the agora, the public space in ancient Greece where people gathered to enter into dialogue about everything from politics to law to philosophy to religion. The agora was the centre of communal life and a marketplace of commerce. These figures are out walking in and out of the meeting places of their lives, just as we are. But they are incomplete in the most profound way, their bodies hollowed out. So it begs the questions, how do they know which way is the best way forward? What possible good could they do in the agora, undone as they are? And are they even aware of their condition?

Though positioned in motion, the figures are of course motionless. They are still. The stillness is what further stirs my imagination to consider what these figures will realise about themselves in the stillness, what they might be able to name about their present state, and what they might discern they need.

I wonder if part of what we need more of is genuine rest. When I look at Eugène Delacroix’s 1827 watercolour “The Unmade Bed”, I want to fall into its tumbled white folds for a few hours. The fact that it is an empty bed is a reminder that exhaustion befalls everyone and that we all need rest, not just sleep, but rest that has the possibility to help restore our equilibrium. And yet we sometimes have trouble taking the rest we need.

Not everyone has the freedom to step away from the exhaustion of life. And though that doesn’t mean one should be guilt-ridden about taking the rest one needs, it is a reminder that rest is a basic necessity for everyone, not a luxury. Rest enables us to live, work and serve better in the long run. It is not a bowing out of responsibilities or concern. To rest is to act with wisdom and to maintain a long view of our commitments. If none of us fess up to the exhaustion that is deepening in our lives, then how will we be able to pay attention to the areas of our lives that need care, and by extension be strengthened to care for others? 

Follow Enuma on Twitter @EnumaOkoro or email her at [email protected]

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