The news is overwhelming. Hurricane Sandy has left many underwater and out of power. Iran and North Korea want a place on the nuclear playing field. And then there are the elections. Both sides find themselves polarized: conservatives fear that the country is headed for a liberal free fall, and liberals believe that we are being led down a path of strident fundamentalism.
Next month the battle lines will change and the hurricanes will have new names, but the tsunami of information coming at us will continue to swell. For the last decade, we’ve been told that we live in the age of information overload. We can do anything, buy anything, and find out about anything twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The problem is that our 24/7 world is not only making us anxious and unhappy—it is killing us.
A growing number of studies reported in the medical literature and popular press all point in the same direction. This generation’s brave new experiment of working more and resting less is making us fat, anxious, and short-lived.
As a former ER physician, I treated the physical and mental effects of our always-on society in my patients. As an A+ personality type, I felt the ramifications in my health, my marriage, and my work. Then a decade ago, my family switched from a 24/7 way of life to a 24/6 rhythm. On multiple levels, taking a weekly “Stop Day” saved our lives. It can save yours, too.
Remembering to Rest
Some 4,000 years ago on the Sinai Peninsula, a quick-tempered abolitionist repelled off the north face of Mount Sinai with a top ten list of thou shalls, thou shalt nots, and one remember. The fourth on his list told everyone and everything, including beasts of burden like you and me, to remember to throw life in park one day out of every seven.
This was a radical social experiment. In the pre-Moses culture, the Egyptians outdid the Beatles’ eight-day week and functioned with three ten-day weeks per month. Irrespective of whether one believes the Bible’s account or if one holds to the Cecil B. DeMille of deliverance from slavery, a weekly Stop Day began permeating culture once the Hebrew people exited from Egypt.
More than a thousand years after Moses, the custom of ceasing (Sabbath literally means to cease or stop) had taken hold. The Greek writer Philo (20 BC—AD 50) noted, “Who has not shown his high respect for that sacred seventh day, by giving rest and relaxation from labor to himself and his neighbors, freemen and slaves alike, and beyond these to his beasts?” Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca (4 BC—AD 65) reported that the customs of the Jews “have gained such influence that they are now received throughout all the world. The vanquished have given laws to their victors.” In Rome, Josephus (AD 37–100) wrote that there was no city from Grecians to barbarians “nor any nation whatsoever” where the observance of Sabbath did not come.
For nearly all of the last 2,000 years, Western society has observed a day of rest each week. Only in my lifetime has this 24/6 prescription been lost. The side effects are making tempers flare and civility wane.
I am not advocating for the reenactment of Blue Laws or for Judaism or Christianity to become the state religion. But as a former laborer in the 24/7 world of medicine, and as a practitioner of a weekly day of rest for the past decade, I can attest to the healing power of rest—for individuals who chronically feel stretched too thin, and for us as an overworked nation.
What is rest? Figure out what work is for you, and then don’t do it one day in seven. And then protect the right of others to rest: The Fourth Commandment specifically extends the right of stopping one day a week to children who are not literate, illegal immigrants and minimum wage workers (Exodus 20:8-11).
Stopping 24 hours a week
Several weeks ago after preaching at the National Cathedral, I had lunch with a politically diverse group. At the table sat people from the left and right, from blue states and red. Peace prevailed. We stopped working and ate. We found common ground. We lay down our labels and came to rest.
We are the richest society ever to exist, yet many express discontentment with what they have. We have great literacy concerning nutrition, yet we are obese. We have access to more information but feel overwhelmed. Perhaps the solution to America’s anxiety is not more, but less.
Political seasons, hurricane seasons, and new threats will continue to loom, but taking a day of rest one day a week helps us define ourselves outside of these events—not as human doings but as human beings.
Everything has limits, including us. To believe we don’t have boundaries is hubris. As global challenges confront us, we must not tune out—nor must we gorge ourselves at the all-you-can-eat buffet of news and information.
When one adds a day of rest each week and multiplies it times an average lifespan, one spends a decade in rest and peace. Multiply this times an entire nation and an ocean of time spent with family, nature, and community has gone missing.
What’s missing from our lives does matter. Rest, love, and forbearance are not the subjects of news headlines or debates, but they are the things that make society civil and life worth living.
Perhaps the best thing we can do for the peace and healing of our country is to take a weekly day of rest, beginning now.
Dr. Matthew Sleeth, a former emergency room physician and chief of a hospital medical staff, is the author of the new book, “24/6: Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life.” He currently serves as executive director of the faith-based nonprofit, Blessed Earth, and is a monthly guest preacher at the Washington National Cathedral .