The value of rest in a worn world

I have a question I would like to ask a random group of people from all walks of life around the world. The question is, “When was the last time you felt deeply rested physically, mentally, and spiritually?”

I imagine many people would admit their exhaustion – and so would I, although it feels odd to admit it. Mine isn’t an exhaustion that keeps me in bed and prevents me from doing the everyday things I need to do. Rather, it seems to throw my body a little off balance, keeps my mind a little fuzzy, and challenges my ability to be as fully present as I need and want. It’s a deep exhaustion that 10 hours of sleep won’t cure (although I wouldn’t mind trying that).

I think it’s a cumulative kind of wear and tear that many of us are still trying to find a language for. I know it feels like the worst part of the pandemic is behind us and that we survived it. But I’m not so sure we figured out how to live in the world we have now. And I can’t help but feel it’s important to name our deep fatigue out loud. This can remind us that there are significant ways we must process the events of the past two years that continue to impact how we interact with the world. And it might also help us find the tools we need to get along with them for a while. Quite simply because with everything that continues to happen in the world, we may have to.

There is a calm but powerful painting entitled Generations (2021) by Dutch artist and photographer Peggy Kuiper. Kuiper creates figurative works of acute-angled people, whose limbs and bodies often sit, stand, or bend in unusual positions. Her fingers are long and bony and stand out clearly in her paintings. In “Generations” a seemingly unconscious woman in a white sleeveless dress lies in the arms of a standing figure with her mouth sadly lowered. Four people dressed in warm, muted colors stand behind her like a human shield and look sympathetically into her face. A deep sapphire blue wall forms the backdrop. The heads of the compassionate are bowed in thoughtful concern. One of the people has a hand resting gently over her head. Another person grabs the arm of whoever is carrying it.

Generations (2021) by Peggy Kuiper, acrylic on canvas

“Generations” by Peggy Kuiper (2021)

I was drawn to the tender care of the fallen woman that Kuiper was able to express through this heavily drawn community of characters. I imagined the horizontal woman collapsed rather than dead, perhaps from despair, perhaps from exhaustion. The image of support and compassion made me reflect on how life-giving and necessary it is to have a community of safe keepers who can witness to our varied conditions. We may feel some hesitation or fear of being judged or ridiculed for admitting that we feel less than ourselves, especially when we appear sane and in tune with life’s responsibilities. It is an image of being cradled and cared for in a human moment of weakness. The person with the hand on the head wears a robe that looks like a religious robe. I see this as symbolic of the sacredness of caring and presence.

This image leaves me with two lingering questions. How do we respect our feelings of exhaustion or tiredness and make ourselves vulnerable to nurturing? And when do we position ourselves as one of those who hold space for those who need it, even when they’re fine? There is a stillness to this painting – none of the figures are moving. Silence enables seeing and perceiving and nurturing.

“The Agora”, by Magdalena Abakanowicz, makes me think about how perhaps, as we venture out into the world again, we need to find ways to be still again. Abakanowicz, a Polish sculptor and artist, lived through the Polish-Soviet War and World War II, and her work drew on her experiences and observations of humanity. Her art impressively suggests the challenging and uncomfortable aspects of our humanity, as individuals and communities. Agora, on permanent display in Grant Park, Chicago, is a sculptural work of 106 9-foot cast-iron human figures. Bodies have no heads or arms, just legs and torsos, and are positioned in groups and individually, with feet going in different directions.

These sculptures illustrate the moment we are in. The work is named after the agora, the public space in ancient Greece where people would gather to engage in dialogue on everything from politics to law to philosophy to religion. The agora was the center of community life and a place of commerce. These characters, like us, go in and out of the meeting points of their lives. But they are deeply incomplete, their bodies hollowed out. So the question becomes: How do they know which way is the best way forward? What good could they do in the agora, undone as they are? And are they even aware of their condition?

Although positioned in motion, the figures are of course motionless. you are still The silence further stimulates my imagination to think about what these characters will see about themselves in the silence, what they might be able to name about their current state, and what they might be able to recognize that they need.

I wonder if part of what we need more of it is real rest. Looking at Eugène Delacroix’s 1827 watercolor The Unmade Bed makes me want to sink into its ruffled white folds for a few hours. The fact that it is an empty bed is a reminder that exhaustion hits everyone and that we all need rest, not just sleep, but rest that has the opportunity to restore our balance. And yet sometimes we have trouble finding the rest we need.

Not everyone has the freedom to break away from life’s exhaustion. And while that doesn’t mean you should feel guilty about taking the rest you need, it’s a reminder that rest is a basic necessity for everyone, not a luxury. Tranquility enables us to live, work, and serve better over the long term. It is not a denial of responsibility or concern. Resting means acting with wisdom and keeping our commitments in perspective for the long term. If none of us acknowledge the weariness that deepens in our lives, how can we pay attention to areas of our lives that need nurturing and thereby be empowered to care for others?

Follow Enuma on Twitter @EnumaOkoro or email her

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Adam Bradshaw

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