Taking Rest into the New Semester

In my last post, I wrote about exhaustion and its many forms. But it would be impossible for me to spend so much time thinking about exhaustion without also reflecting on the reverse: rest and recovery.

Exhaustion was ever-present and inescapable; rest eluded me. Rest and, perhaps more importantly, recovery were the most difficult pieces of the puzzle. This probably sounds weird. What’s the puzzle? Isn’t it simple?

Tired + Rest = All good

Exhausted + More Rest = All good

Right? Wrong. The thing is, that second equation wasn’t working for me. I mentioned this briefly in my last post. I recognized that my exhaustion was getting especially high and I rested. I took a whole weekday off. I cooked myself good meals. I exercised. I took a whole weekend off – no work at all. (But when a professor asked about how my weekend was I told her I’d “worked less than usual.” Which was not a lie.) Yet after all of this “resting,” I didn’t feel any different. My resting was keeping me at a baseline but wasn’t enough to help me recover.

Rest vs. Recovery

It might be helpful to pause here and talk about how I understand these terms. Rest is immediate, short-term, and regular. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it in many ways, including “a bodily state characterized by minimal functional and metabolic activities” (aka sleep), “freedom from activity or labor,” and “peace of mind or spirit.” We need to sleep and take mental breaks regularly, although I’m unsure about how often any of us achieve a “peace of mind” regularly.

Recovery is something I see as a longer process and only necessary after some damage has been done. The root word recover means “to get back,” “to bring back to normal position or condition,” or “to find or identify again.” We might also say that recovery must be targeted or focused; you need to know what you are recovering from before you can start to make progress.

So I was exhausted. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. Personally. As well as disillusioned and frustrated by oppressive practices. Now what?

You might note now that this blog post is titled “Taking Rest into the New Semester,” not recovery. That’s intentional. Because I don’t quite know how this recovery thing works, especially when you’re forced to be in settings where harm is still enacted on you. But rest is one piece of the puzzle.

Rest: Re-defining & Re-envisioning

As a culture, and certainly in academia, we have some pretty twisted ideas about rest. So this semester, my intention is to challenge those beliefs so that I can begin to unlearn them. I like the language of “unlearning” or “undoing” damaging beliefs and practices. However, I also recognize that this is impossible. Nothing can ever be “unlearned.” Nothing can be undone. We can only work with what has happened. We can accept, perpetuate, ignore, or deny. But we can also question, challenge, and counteract. And this applies broadly to social change and justice, doesn’t it?

Regarding harmful beliefs about rest, a more realistic intention may be this: identify, question, challenge, assert alternatives, and repeat. The repeat part is just as important as the rest. Change is not a one-time thing. This semester – because my life is broken up into semesters now – here are the beliefs I am bringing in to replace the old:

Rest is intentional.

Given our always-be-hustling, sleep-when-you’re-dead work cultures, not being intentional means you follow these same principles. Intentionality doesn’t mean I’m planning out my rest time in advance or adding it to my calendar. For me, intentionality involves first, recognizing upfront that rest is just as important as any to-do list item. Second, I am practicing listening to what my body needs, rather than suppressing my needs to meet work goals.

Rest is not a luxury.

When we’re busy, rest is often the first thing we sacrifice. College students say they have to sacrifice one of these three things to succeed: good grades, sleep, or a social life. Guess which one usually gets the chop?

In the post-college version, we think more in terms of career advancement and family time – both fulfilling and socially-rewarded demands on our time. But sleep? No accolades for that. Instead, you’re more likely to receive praise for how much you sacrifice and how little you sleep. I hope you realize that’s nonsense. We should be able to talk about “free time,” relaxing, and getting good sleep without getting side-eyed looks.  

These attitudes treat rest as a luxury – particularly an undesirable one that indicates a lack of passion or drive. But if not having something destroys your health and well-being, guess what? That’s called a necessity.

The work can wait.

An alternatively, the work will still be there for you after you rest. In a Cite Black Women episode, Dr. Vilna Bashi Treitler shared that she asks her mentees if they take one day a week off. She reports other academics being shocked at this advice. But as Dr. Treitler notes, if you don’t develop these habits as a graduate student – if you don’t learn how to rest now – do you think you’ll do this later in your career, when there are even greater demands on your time?  

And so, I tell my workaholic brain: The work can wait. The work will be there when I return. The work will be there after a nap, an hour, a half-day spent drawing, or a weekend trip.

The world will not come crashing down.

The rebuttal to that last belief is simple and can be described in one word: deadlines. Some of the work comes attached to a specific timeline. Sometimes delays in our work can cascade and impact other people negatively or cause wide-scale delays or result in missed opportunities or, or or…!

The potential imagined consequences are endless. But most of the time, they’re just that – imagined. In reality, many deadlines are flexible, no one is concerned about your research taking longer than expected, and some tasks are flat-out unnecessary. I am learning to push at the veneer of workload expectations and narratives, finding that too often they are false. We are not really working 70-hour weeks.  

And in the event that the world really will come crashing down, all because of you, you have too much on your shoulders and may need to reevaluate. For an excellent resource on how rest is actually resistance (and on-point Instagram account to follow), check out The Nap Ministry.

I wish you rest this week.

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