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True rest and relaxation come with difficulty, for me. This week I’ve been attempting to force myself not to do work, to take some much needed time off after a rather busy and stressful autumn. It is something at which, ironically enough, I must work. I’ve more or less managed to procrastinate any work which needs to be done, but I’ve been failing miserably at relaxing, and have certainly not felt guiltless about it.

I don’t think this problem is unique to me, however. Other academics seems to suffer from a form of guilt-marred time off as well, as this link shows quite well. The realities of the publishing imperative mean that all time for writing is needed, especially outside of teaching terms. If working on a holiday means another journal publication, the idea will remain in the back of the mind. The problem is also something Americans in general suffer from, and it seems expats like myself must carry that cultural baggage around the world with them. Americans work insane hours: this in part explains the power of the American economy, as well as the terrible levels of stress and unhappiness there. As far back as Weber, this problem has been considered a Protestant vice as well. Taking the idea of work to be a virtue resulted in rest becoming a sin. This entailed another irony in the form of the day of rest being a job to perform.

My cultural context provides enough reason to struggle with rest. Yet surely these traditions themselves hold elements which call for and allow for relaxation, even if these have been under-emphasized. I’m thinking primarily here of the idea of Sabbath or Sundays, so long encumbered by obligation rather than joy. (I’ve previously discussed the idea of Sabbath here, but from a very different view point). Already in the gospels Jesus states that the sabbath is for man, and even earlier the Torah provides for entire Sabbath years. We know from psychological studies that periods of rest are necessary for productivity and sanity, beyond just the commonsense understanding of its value. The more humanistic strain of academia to which I belong also has long touted the importance of a wholistic view of human existence and value, even though we seem to fail to apply it to ourselves. The American childhood is bound up with summers of pure time off, so culturally embedded in the works of Mark Twain. So with so much precedent, why is it still so hard to properly enjoy a guiltless period of rest?

Surely some of it is related to an obsession with quantity over quality. This is the quintessential American vice; it seems to be a vice of most administrative attempts at evaluating academic research as well. Getting back to the title of this blog, I wonder if it might not relate to Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety and the failure to relate ourselves to ourselves before God. This is his primary argument in the famous Sickness Unto Death. We can only be fully human, and fully at rest, when we relate ourselves to ourselves only, and do so in relation to God. This results in being true to our own natures in both work and rest. Failure to do this would result in seeking to avoid ourselves through distraction, whether this takes the form of excessive attempts at achievement or hedonistic attempts at escape. Clearly all of my contexts–Academic, American, Protestant–tend towards the former rather than the latter. But in Kierkegaard’s terms this is as much a form of anxiety as anything else which keeps us from being ourselves.

In this sort of Kierkegaardian analysis, the inability to rest or relax points to a much deeper existential issue. Kierkegaaard’s own answer to the problem is, of course, theological. Very different sorts of answers are provided by others such as Nietzsche, Sartre, or Camus. But I am trying to relax, so I won’t referee their various answers right now…