Rest in Pandemic: A Paradox
Updated: Mar 18
In the face of social distancing, it is not lost on me that for the last three months, I’ve read three books about the idea of Sabbath rest. This notion is equal parts intoxicating and convicting to me, which, I guess, is why I keep digging. I feel an urge to draw parallels between my book, Sabbath, and the coronavirus pandemic. I can’t promise my words are novel, but they’re mine, and I’m offering them unabashedly to you. Maybe it will be a quick breath of fresh air, like when a friend brings you coffee without asking or cancelled plans liberate you for a free evening.
Muller, Wayne. Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. Bantam Books, 1999.
What does your personal timeline of the coronavirus pandemic look like? Here is mine, beginning Friday, March 6th, when I finally acknowledged there was a situation at all.
Friday to Monday, I traveled to Boston and back for a girls’ trip, and felt vague condescension for passerby wearing face masks. Tuesday, I asserted boldy that Mary Claire and I were going to Spain no matter what; brave in the face of others’ fears, ambivalent to the potential quarantine. Wednesday, we cancelled our trip and I cried for a day. Wednesday night, the president limited travel to and from Europe and I felt the universe mocking me. Thursday until today, I’ve been thinking.
These are my reflections on Sabbath rest and the coronavirus pandemic: hunger, relief, and privilege. I hope for a noticeable lack of resolution in this article. I think we do enough knee jerk problem-solving; let these words be a discussion, instead.
When Mary Claire and my three-week adventure de España was cancelled, I felt deep, aching hunger and it concerned me. Why was I frantically making alternate plans involving road trips and backcountry camping, desperate to escape town on schedule?
“The mind never tires of generating wants and desires. The Buddhists call this driving force ‘tanha’ - literally, thirsting, craving, or longing. Tanha includes not only desire for, and attachment to, material wealth and power, but also desire for, and attachment to, people, experiences, ideas, opinions, and even spiritual accomplishments.” (p. 126)
After a teary phone call with my mom, I realized I was tired. Tired on a daily basis, yes, but also on a soul level. Mary Claire and I spent months cultivating and dreaming about these sacred weeks spent together in Spain, eager for new joy and rest. In the last six months I have begun a new, exciting, and uncertain career path; become more involved at church; maintained a weekly commitment to high school girls I adore; traveled often, made new friends, and had much fun. My hunger for life has been insatiable and I have no shortage of ways to feed it.
“Life should not just make us tired, life should make us happy. Happiness grows only in the sweet soil of time. As our time is eaten away by speed and overwork, we are less available to be surprised by joy, a sunset, a kind word, an unplanned game of tag with a child, a warm loaf of bread from the oven.” (p. 124)
Now Mary Claire is self-quarantined in another state, and I have nowhere to go. No exciting plans or escape. But a sort of peace has begun to sink in as I’ve looked my calendar in the eye and said a firm “no.” And so I explore my second theme:
As I write this, my cat nuzzles my feet, Poppy the poodle snores, a candle flickers, and the rain drizzles. It is Sunday and because I have nowhere to go and fewer obligations, I birthed an idea to write. When events, meetings, parades, and even church services were cancelled, did you feel a guilty relief?
“All life requires a rhythm of rest. There is a rhythm in our waking activity and the body’s need for sleep. There is a rhythm in the way day dissolves into night, and night into morning. There is a rhythm as the active growth of spring and summer is quieted by the necessary dormancy of fall and winter. There is a tidal rhythm, a deep, eternal conversation between the land and the great sea. In our bodies, the heart perceptibly rests after each life-giving beat; the lungs rest between the exhale and the inhale.
We have lost this essential rhythm. Our culture invariably supposes that action and accomplishment are better than rest, that doing something - anything - is better than doing nothing. Because of our desire to succeed, to meet these ever-growing expectations, we do not rest.” (p. 1)
The world feels a little scary right now; quarantines and panic exist in paradox with confusion and nonchalance. How often does something ripple through the entire world? I’ve dubbed it a “global reckoning.” In my humble opinion, we needed to sit up and pay attention, to look at each other, to stop and breathe together. Nothing and no one can run forever without stopping - this is not a new idea.
“When we think of Jesus, we usually think of him teaching, healing, or being accosted by the hordes of sick or possessed who sought his touch. But Jesus would just as often send people away, or disappear without warning, dismissing those in need with neither excuse nor explanation, and retreat to a place of rest.” (p. 24)
Even in our reckoning for rest, there lives a third theme:
Coronavirus swept the world and did not skip the United States. As a country, and especially as a middle-class and frankly, white, citizen, we can feign ignorance to the blight of the world. Refugee camps, slave trafficking, climate change, and the corrupt American justice system cross our minds with the occasional headline or nonprofit fundraising campaign, but ultimately, work and family and fun take precedence. (If I’m alone in this, you can call me out.) Even when called to care, we often fail, due to our own exhaustion.
“With a few notable exceptions, the way problems are solved is frantically, desperately, reactively, and badly. Despite their well-meaning and generous souls, community and corporate leaders are infected with a fearful desperation that is corrosive to genuine helpfulness, justice, or healing.” (p. 3)
I say this not to shame us, but to speak aloud my own conviction. Even in these words, I recognize my own privilege of working from home. Healthcare workers, airline employees, military personnel like my brother, and nonprofit staff feeding the homeless like my roommate, are still at work. The blatant problem that their job is solving has not gone away; for some, it has increased.
“The Buddha taught that there are many kinds of suffering. We can all recognize the obvious suffering of physical pain, grief, illness, and death. But he said we may be slower to identify the subtle sufferings that plague us daily: anxiety, frustration, restlessness, lack of fulfillment, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, and having what we like taken away from us.”
I’m certain you could read my book, Sabbath, and draw the same, if not more complex and nuanced, conclusions. But this is what I have to say, drawn from my own busy, hungry, privileged point of view. I leave you with this:
“What if we are not going anywhere? What if we are simply living and growing within an ever-deepening cycle of rhythms, perhaps getting wiser, perhaps learning to be kind, and hopefully passing whatever we have learned to our children? What if our life, rough hewn from the stuff of creation, orbits around a God who never ceases to create new beginnings?” (p. 79)