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Why We Need To Stop Conflating Sleep With Rest

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Sleep was my first coping mechanism. My mom likes to tell stories of how, as a toddler, I would protest unwanted visits with relatives by taking a well-timed nap. During my teenage years, I stubbornly slept through grounded weekends at home, successfully avoiding stern talks with my parents.

It’s a coping skill that I attempted to return to in March when the COVID-19 pandemic began, but that I quickly realized wasn’t providing the same relief it once had. I slept fitfully, plagued with confusing dreams that left me more exhausted upon waking. Frustrated by my insomnia, I would pick up my phone and scroll through various social feeds, letting its blue light trick my circadian rhythms.

Not long into this new routine, I began to notice a dormant depression rising within me, a common side effect of lack of sleep. I realized that if I wanted to shift my relationship to sleep, I would have to stop using it as a flight-response and get intentional about what it means to rest—to figure out how it goes beyond just sleep.

My favorite definition of rest comes from Dictionary.com. As a verb, to rest is “to relieve weariness by cessation of exertion or labor.” So often we expect our weariness to dissipate on its own, but this definition reminds us that an intentional pause is required to unload that burden. It also clarifies that while not necessarily easy, rest can be simple. By merely halting our efforts, we allow ourselves an opportunity to recenter and restore.

Framed like this, rest feels powerful. When I’m tempted to toss myself down an internet blackhole to escape the raging dumpster fire that 2020 has proven to be, rest reassures me that the ever-present “it” can wait. Rather than demand that I have all of the answers, rest gently reminds me that they’ll be easier to find if I’m not running on empty. When I think of the multitude of ways my ancestors were systematically denied rest and the various factors that continue to create barriers to rest, the simple act of resting feels like a political statement.

When I think of the multitude of ways my ancestors were systematically denied rest and the various factors that continue to create barriers to rest, the simple act of resting feels like a political statement.

The Nap Ministry, an organization that advocates rest as a form of resistance and reparations, echoes these sentiments. Led by artist, activist, and self-appointed Nap Bishop Tricia Hersey, the organization got its unofficial start in 2013, just as the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining national attention. At the time, Hersey was studying Black liberation theology, somatics, and cultural trauma in a graduate program at a predominantly white institution. In researching the narratives of enslaved Africans, she realized that her ancestors were denied rest in ways that mimic our current capitalist society. In the American South, enslaved Africans were forced to work upwards of 20 hours per day during harvest seasons and expected to meet impossible-to-fill quotas like picking 250 pounds of cotton per day. Knowing this, Hersey began to wonder what they might have dreamt about if they’d been given the chance.

“When we imagine a new world that centers liberation, rest has to be at the foundation of that,” says Hersey. “How can you imagine something you’ve never experienced? Black people in this country have never experienced living free. In order to imagine that, you have to be able to dig into a place that’s outside of grind culture and that place is the dream space. We won’t be able to imagine, invent, restore, and rebuild this new liberated world without resting.”

Our personal relationship to rest has far-reaching implications. Many of us have seen firsthand how lack of sleep, which is just one form of rest, compromises the quality of our work and relationships, so it makes sense that rest deprivation would jeopardize our ability to engage around social issues and create solutions to centuries-old problems. We are much more malleable when we’re exhausted and much more likely to let things slide that under rested conditions would spurn us into action.

For Basmah Osman, founder of Black Girl Feels—an online space that explores mental health, self-care, and collective care through community—rest extends far beyond sleep.

“Sleep is something we all do, but many rarely feel ‘rested’ upon waking up because our rest needs go beyond the physical—they are also mental, emotional, and spiritual,” says Osman. “Unlike sleep, rest is a conscious, daily choice that calls us to uncover our needs, challenge norms, and stay committed. A holistic practice around rest that includes play and self care can be liberating—particularly for Black women, whose labor is overwhelmingly overexploited and undervalued.”

For me, understanding what rest is not has been crucial in shaping this new relationship. Rest is certainly not the stress-soaked sleep I was experiencing at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s not doomscrolling on my devices, even if I am lying in bed while doing it. What I’m learning more than anything is that rest requires practice, even—perhaps especially—when it feels impossible.

Hersey uplifts abolitionist Harriet Tubman as an ancestor who holds her accountable to rest, saying that, “Harriet Tubman slept all the time and stopped to pray while she was being chased by white men on the Underground Railroad. Imagine that. We can’t even let ourselves stop for 10 minutes, but Harriet Tubman was literally stopping at trees while there was a bounty on her head and while she was walking thousands of miles to freedom.”

“The sleep science that [Tubman] knew is what I’m wanting Black people to tap back into,” continues Hersey. “You won’t be able to do that if you’re always grinding, if you’re always exhausted, or if you’re on the go. It’s actually the opposite of what we’ve been taught. Rest disrupts and makes space for this tapping in and for this invention. It connects us and slows us down enough to receive inspiration and ideas. You won’t be able to get these new liberated thoughts just from being in a grinded-out state.”

Throughout six months of social distancing, rest has taken the form of morning meditations, journaling, bird watching, floating in a pool, afternoon naps, cloud gazing, aimless walks through my neighborhood, solo dance parties, daydreaming, mindful eating, reading, detangling my hair, steamy baths, laughter-filled phone calls, and long drives to nowhere. Early on, when I was struggling to cope with quarantine, rest offered me a reprieve. In late May, when systemic racial violence reared its familiar head through George Floyd’s murder, rest focused my spiraling thoughts and helped me imagine new possibilities.

Once my preferred mode of escape, rest now fortifies me so that I’m able to keep showing up.

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