Downtime is undervalued in today’s busy, always-on world. But for most of human history, rest – time in which we can recharge the mental and physical batteries we use while labouring – was prized as a gift. To Aristotle, work was drudgery and necessity; only in leisure could we cultivate our mental and moral abilities, and become better people. In The Sabbath (1951), Rabbi Abraham Heschel argued that, in Judaism, this day of rest was more than just a pause in the week, it was a ‘palace in time … made of soul, of joy and reticence’. Even for the less philosophically inclined, leisure provided the time and freedom to do what they loved. When George Washington retired from public life in 1759, he threw himself into building and maintaining Mount Vernon, an enterprise that, according to the historian William Abbot, ‘had on him a stronger and more enduring hold than did either war or politics’.
Today, though, it’s become commonplace to think of work and rest as opposites. Work is active and valuable: it’s where we prove our worth and create a legacy. Popular books such as What You Do Is Who You Are (2019) by the venture capitalist Ben Horowitz carry the implication that being and doing are synonymous. Busyness is a badge of honour, even a sign of moral superiority. Rest, in contrast, is often treated as if it’s passive and pointless. Indeed, I’ve noticed many people hardly think of rest as its own thing. It’s just a negative space defined by the absence of work. [Continue reading…]