"I'm tired," I recently told a friend. He looked at me with a hint of a smile and gave the obvious answer: "Then you need to rest."
This simple, yet elusive answer hit me squarely. I spend a large portion of my life being tired, yet I don't know how to rest. Sure, I waste a lot of time doing things that are unproductive, but they are more a distraction or an escape; they aren't about rest.
I have been sick for the past few days. I don't get sick very often, so when I do I get pretty grumpy. This illness hit me especially hard, making me very tired and making it difficult to function during the day. I contemplated canceling appointments and going home, but instead just pushed through things. My job is to care for people, and they are looking at me to help them with their needs, their pain, and their weakness. It's hard to know when my need supersedes theirs (a dilemma shared by teachers, nurses, and mothers everywhere).
Besides, I knew that I had Thursday off as a personal holiday. I was supposed to go to a conference, but a rearrangement of personal priorities moved me to cancel those plans. Thankfully, I left this day blocked off on my work schedule.
So after dragging through three days of fatigue, grumpiness, and self-pity, I came to today: my day off. I had a bunch of babies to see in the hospital (there must have been some sort of fertility rite performed nine months ago) and was frustrated as I drove home, having spent much more time than expected. I thought about the list of things I "needed to accomplish" on this day off, a list that serves more to make me feel anxious and guilty than to motivate. I wouldn't want to waste this opportunity; I wanted to be productive!
When I got home I complained to my wife about the baby boom and went up to bed. I quickly fell into a very deep sleep. Four hours later I was a different person. My head was clear, my thoughts were sharper, and my mood was better. I had accomplished nothing "productive" but had changed everything.
As I lay in bed after my rest, I thought about things. I don't think I am unusual in my unrested state. We are all looking for peace and comfort, but we seek it in the wrong way: by doing instead of being. Rest is a very self-centered thing, it is about being. You can't do it for someone else and you exclude others as you do it. The focus of rest is on being nonproductive, and that makes doers like me very anxious that we are being selfish. But I don't do my family, friends, or patients any good by running on empty.
There still are a lot of things to be done in my life. I have to log in to my office and see what work piled up, my kids have homework and there is laundry to be folded. But my rest has added substance to my view of myself. I took care of myself, so now all of those tasks don't seem like a hamster wheel. Instead of sucking life out of me, they are simply things that I need to do. This all may seem obvious to some of my readers, but I have just realized how important it is to rest.
I have heard it said that the most important advice anywhere is that given by flight attendants every time a flight prepares to take off: "If you are sitting next to a young child, first place the oxygen mask over your own face so that you can help those around you." We aren't much good to others if we are empty or ragged. It may seem selfish to put the oxygen mask over our face first, but it really just enables us to be of greater use to others.
So if you are tired and don't know what to do about it, don't do anything, rest. Rest is about being, not doing.