Why we need radical rest to allow something profoundly new to emerge

How allowing natural cycles frees us from the bondage of linear “progress”

The pandemic wall. It’s real y’all.

Virtually everyone I’ve talked with in the past few weeks has hit it.

I thought that if I could make it through the end of 2020, I’d be ok. I thought if we could make it to the Inauguration, America might be ok.

But now… I’ve run out of mile markers. And I’m burnt out.

It’s been difficult to focus. I’m constantly grieving; but I never know about what. And I often can’t bear to think about what to cook for the 1000th meal in a row.

So, what to do?

Keep pushing through? No, it’ll just yield me more of the same.

The radical answer: rest. …to create space for something new to be born.

I learned this lesson the hard way in my 20s / early 30s, but I feel like the pandemic has been trying to teach me this lesson at a completely new depth.

You see, in my 20s, I treated my body like a machine. Rest was for the dead.

Living in a culture that rewards productivity and judges “idleness” as lazy, I overrode my body’s signals to rest. I pushed myself to work 60-80 hour weeks. And even though I was collapsing from fatigue every ~6 months, pushing through seemed like a small price to pay for the professional success and security I was enjoying.

With the benefit of youth, this uni-dimensional approach to life worked well… until it didn’t.

In my early 30s, after living in chronic fight-flight for years, my body became so inflamed that I broke out in painful hives. My skin was covered with red welts that no amount of cream or balm could soothe or hide. After years of willfully denying my limits, my body was plainly showing me (and the world) the damage I’d inflicted on myself.

The deeper problem? Needing to rest felt like failure.

I looked around, and saw plenty of other people who were seemingly making this hard-charging, over-caffeinated lifestyle work. I took my body’s breakdown as a personal sign of frailty — that I couldn’t hack it.

But the full-bodied pain that had me wanting to peel off my skin forced me to STOP.

With the benefit of time and reflection, I realized that I’d unwittingly consumed the capitalist Kool-Aid that told me that anything that wasn’t linear “progress” was failure.

In the words of psychologist Dr. Devon Price, author of Laziness Does Not Exist, as a cultural descendant of the Puritans — who believed that work was a sign of one’s worthiness in the eyes of God — I’d internalized that:

“any limitation is a sign of laziness, and therefore undeserving of love of comfort. …Having needs made [me] weak, and limits are negotiable. …Health was a resource [I] could trade for money or accomplishments. [Hence I] could not trust my own feelings.”

I thought I was the one who was dysfunctional. But really, it wasn’t specific to me. The truth: the system we live in doesn’t work.

At best, holding onto these unsustainable patterns was only going to give me more of what I already knew and that I no longer wanted.

To thrive, I had to rebel.

Rather than wait for others’ validation, I had to give myself permission to rest. Rather than seek others’ opinions, I had to pause long enough to listen to myself. Rather than reflexively perpetuate a dysfunctional status quo, I had to consciously release old ways that had outlived their usefulness.

Rest was my revolution; and the pause my manifesto.

As I wrote about in my last post about the cyclical nature of transformation, the “letting go” in Autumn is the only way to make way for the “fallow” restorative season of Winter. Though it may look like nothing productive is happening on the surface, Winter creates the space for something profoundly new to emerge when Spring thaw arrives.

So in the dark of this pandemic Winter, rest is what we need now, more than ever.

I’d love to hear how your relationship to rest has evolved during the pandemic. Drop a note in the comments, or send me an email!

PS, This is more than a cultural metaphor.

Here in California, for more than a century, we’ve suppressed the natural process of letting small fires clear out forest underbrush. Fire fighters are brought in to stamp out any fire. Now that the underbrush has grown so dense, the state has turned into a giant tinderbox — ripe for megafires like the ones we endured in 2020.

By overriding the cycles that could have helped course-correct along the way, although the cycles were historically less frequent, they’re now far more devastating.

And without cyclical mini fires, the trees that only release their seeds in extreme heat can’t take root. The burn is essential to new life!

Update Feb 27, 2021:
PPS, Wow, so this post really hit a cultural nerve. It blew up in a way I’ve never seen before. A number of people DM’ed me, and it feels like people are hungry to talk about what to do about burnout.
So if you'd like to continue this conversation “What comes after burnout?”, journalist Roxana Popescu & I are going to gather on Clubhouse Thurs March 4th @ 6pm Pacific Time!
If you'd like to join the conversation, but aren't yet on Clubhouse, let me know - I have a few invites that I can share for folks on iPhones / iPads.

Melissa’s Reading / Watch List

What’s giving me hope?

The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Destiny

This was a NYT bestseller in 1997. And two amateur historians — Strauss and Howe — presciently predicted that the 2020s would be a decade of crisis.

It’s honestly eerie to read this book now because of how spot-on they were.

The TL;DR is that progress isn’t linear, and history moves through ~100 year cycles. Through the example of American history, they claim that after a season of Crisis (like the one we’re in now), there’s inevitably a season of Awakening where culture evolves to a fundamentally new, more vibrant expression.

(No need to read the whole book. The first few chapters will give you the gist.)

What’s making me laugh?

The Pandemic Wall is real metaphorically speaking (Tik Tok, <1 min)

The Washington Post’s TikTok account is hilarious! (This was my other fave WaPo TikTok from the past week. It nearly made me spit out my coffee from laughing so hard.)

What’s making me curious?

Climate is Getting Way More Extreme In Every Possible Way (Salon, 4 min read)

Climate change is not only increasing average temperatures everywhere, but it’s also increasing the variance in weather systems — explaining why we’re seeing such extremes (like the massive cold spell that blanketed Texas and much of the US this week).

And in case you missed it…

On Grief (4 min read)

As Americans, we tend not to be great at the “descent” part of cycles. But it’s essential to our wholeness and cultural healing.

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