Being Human: the value of a sabbatical

Personally, I’m great at procrastinating, but I’m terrible at taking a real break from work. I never feel like I’ve done enough to deserve it. There always seems to be one more task to accomplish before I feel like I’ve really earned a break. Which means normally my ‘breaks’ only come when my body forces me or in other words when I get sick. I think my view of rest is in part due to the way society and certain ideologies have trained me to think about work and myself, where my worth and purpose is wrapped up in my ability to produce. This hasn’t seemed to be working for me terribly well, so in an attempt to find a healthier perspective on rest, I looked back to the past. And I came across a few interesting ideas from looking at the religious practice of the sabbath that I thought were worth sharing.

I often find answers to questions such as these in religious practices. Not necessarily because I find the theological argument convincing, but because I think religion tends to be where cultures stored and expressed those transcendental truths about what it means to be human and to live well. So when trying to rethink my ideas about rest, I found the practice of a sabbath a helpful place to start.

The best or at least most helpful explanation I’ve heard is that the sabbath was meant to be a day to just be human. It was a day not to be a labourer, not a machine, or a means of production, but to pursue those things that make us human; to transcend the material world and focus on our immaterial needs. Once upon a time in academia, these needs were recognised, and professors were allowed and even forced to take a sabbatical. A word and idea that finds its roots in the word sabbath. It was believed that to produce great work an academic periodically needed a time of rest. This practice appears to be declining and with it our recognition of its value and our very real need for it. I see it leaving people trying to do more and more with less and less. I think the idea of a sabbath or a sabbatical presents an understanding of those intangible human needs presents a way to acquire them. I do recognise these needs and how my own work and mental health suffers when I don’t make the time for rest, whether it’s not taking one day as part of a weekly routine or not taking my allotted holiday time. But this realization doesn’t seem to be enough and I still struggle to make the time.

Again, I think there is some helpful wisdom in the religious practice of the sabbath. The sabbath is viewed as a ‘spiritual discipline’ in Christianity. It isn’t seen as a reward or a gift, but a habitual practice that the faithful are commanded to observe. I think this presents a better way to view rest, as a discipline like going to the gym or eating my 5 a day. It shifts it from something I’d like to do, to something I should do. This perspective paints rest as a necessary priority that has positive effects on my personal and professional life, instead of something I have to earn or simply something nice I could do.

Now, I don’t think any of this means taking a ‘weekly sabbatical’ has to be serious, spiritual, or lofty.  I think the best way to practice this intentional rest is in the simple things that we enjoy merely for their own sake. Those things that make us human. These things can include time with friends and family, creating art, gardening, going for a walk, or just simply relaxing. It’s activities like these that remind us we’re not just machines, they recharge our batteries, and keep us mentally and physically healthy. My hope is that if I can change my thinking about taking a break, I can become better at actually taking them and therefore improve my own well-being and academic work. At the very least I hope I’ve given some of you the excuse you needed to take a day off or plan that holiday!


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