I’ve Never Been Good at Downtime. Here’s What Happened When I Took Six Weeks Off

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Six months ago, I watched Eat, Pray, Love. (Late to the game, I know—but I was a kid when it came out.) The scenery, the cuisine, the love story all melted my heart. But what really resonated was a scene in which an Italian man gently scolds Elizabeth Gilbert for being unable to enjoy rest. He mentions an Italian phrase, dolce far niente, which translates to “the sweetness of doing nothing.”

I'd never found sweetness in doing nothing—only feelings of guilt and shame, which I then associated with laziness. No matter how much I might accomplish or achieve, a lingering voice in my head tells me that I don't deserve a break. "You haven't really earned it," it hisses. Relaxation? Time off? That's for other people, or so I'd always told myself.

Relaxation? Time off? That's for other people, or so I'd always told myself.

But the more I thought about dolce far niente, the more I wondered if I might benefit from some "doing nothing" in my life. So, burned out from an exhausting semester in college, I decided to take a six-week break before starting my final three courses.

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Easier said than done. Not having a full agenda made me feel antsy and irritable. For instance: During school, I liked to spend my weekends hanging out with friends, riding my bike at the park, and finding new restaurants. All of those things were enjoyable—as long as I was working Monday through Friday. But once I had more free time, I wasn't interested in doing those leisure activities during the week. I felt I didn’t deserve to do them. I felt lazy.

Unfortunately, I'm not the only one who tends to feel this way. Our society often associates rest and moments of stillness with laziness. Yet Americans are anything but lazy. According to the International Labor Organization, we work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers. These workaholic tendencies are embedded right into our culture.

Phedra Smith, LMHC, a therapist in Pensacola, Florida, says that people often praise high levels of productivity, but overlook the costs. “People may talk about how a person was a hard worker," she says, "but no one’s really talking about the fact that their health was steadily declining …  because they didn’t know how to rest."

This phenomenon is especially relevant for Black communities, as rest—or lack of it—is a strong factor in our overall health. Research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that African Americans experience more external factors, such as discrimination and low socioeconomic statuses, that can contribute to stress. That stress, in turn, can lead to health issues such as high blood pressure. These stressors are only compounded when Black people are forced into survival mode to stay afloat at work, school, and in the community.

Smith believes that this issue is rooted in the American era of slavery. "Rest was frowned upon. It wasn’t a good thing to rest and lay down," she says. "A lot of times, [enslaved people] were abused and even killed, so [prioritizing rest] is not something that is passed on generationally.”

For many Black people, rest can still be risky.

Even today, for many Black people, rest can still be risky. Consider the proverbial “you have to work twice as hard” speech so common in Black households. Downtime may set us back or, to those that stereotype our race, serve as "confirmation" that we’re lazy. Over time, to combat racist opinions of our work ethic, we’ve had to put our own well-being in jeopardy.

And perhaps over time, I let myself believe that resting and laziness were closely related. I spent much of my six-week break examining those beliefs. I knew that my body was telling me I needed a mental break, as it took me much longer to do basic tasks that I'd had no problem doing before. Yet in an overreaction, I tried to force myself to keep going until I simply gave up. Resting didn't come naturally to me, but I found that binge-watching Even Stevens and going to therapy were ways that I could press pause. Most importantly, my relationship with God kept me centered. Matthew 11:28, which commands the weary to come to God so He can give them rest, resonated with me daily.

All of these things made me realize that rest isn't weak. It can be powerful. The more I allow myself to rest, the more I recognize how much I benefit from doing it. Am I as comfortable with the concept of dolce far niente as the Italian guy in Eat, Pray, Love? Not yet. But with every moment of relaxation and renewal, the act of doing nothing feels just a little bit sweeter.

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