Feelings of “rest” and “restlessness” seem to shake out differently for creatives than they do for others. Rest for the artist often looks a lot like work. Once an idea grips us, we hurl ourselves into sustained activity—like a runner who hits her stride and finds that stopping actually requires much more effort than continuing. We’re often most calm in the eye of the storm, dreading the void that’s waiting for us when the maelstrom passes.
This ambivalence comes to us from all sides, not only from our peers and workplaces but also from our families and even our church environments, all of which seem to share much more in common than makes us comfortable. All of them seem to have one thing to say to the creative person in the throws of their craft: “Stop. Take a break. You owe yourself a rest.”
The fever of creative activity certainly doesn’t seem like rest to them, and maybe they’re right. Publications such as Forbes and Business Insider stage ongoing debates about the benefits of implementing a four-day work week. New Zealand and parts of Europe are already experimenting with this model, providing people with extra time for family, sleeping in, playing, and rebooting. In a 2015 article for Today’s Christian Woman, Sherry Surratt challenges her readers, “I Dare You To Rest,” calling rest itself a “surprising skill that’s central to great leadership.” Surratt explains that she builds “rest” into her days, intentionally settling into a slower, quiet tempo where God can speak into her life and enable her to work more efficiently. In our work-focused labor culture, shouldn’t we be encouraged by this call to take a break?
Rest for Productivity
Three-day weekends are often discussed precisely in terms of what they offer the labor market, namely happier and more productive workers. Surratt’s theologically-charged rhetoric of rest feels especially strange, as “rest” becomes a “skill,” the primary purpose of which is to make her more efficient at “great leadership.” This hierarchy of values is even imputed to God, making the message clear: rest is good insofar as it makes you better at working. Thus, in an excellent essay from 2014 in The Christian Century, Benjamin Dueholm applauds churches for taking steps to recognize burnout culture, focusing on self-care in the realms of “the family, the home, and the sacred community,” but he also points out that these efforts often belie the deeper systemic issues at work in our environments. “Sabbath piety,” he says, “is no substitute for an engagement with sabbath politics.” In a world where rest is being politicized, even conscripted into the realm of work, “It will take more than individual piety for us to avoid permanent exile from time’s palace. We will need a sabbath politics and a sabbath advocacy. We will need a commitment to life as its own rationale, its own form of wealth, its own glory.”
The Work-Life Balance
Somewhere stuck in the middle of all this are people like me and my friends—poets and authors and painters who can’t find rest in the ways we’re encouraged to find it. This may well be due to the nature of creative work itself and its unique capacity to either resist or enable the distillation of ourselves into our work. Dueholm notes that today’s freelance culture has transformed what were once leisure activities into new forms of labor. This isn’t to imply that art was never labor to begin with, but it draws attention to the ways in which even creative tasks have been caught up into the realm of menial work and economic purpose.
Fewer people read for pleasure because our school system inculcates the idea that reading and study are primarily grade-producing labor. A popular internet image features the proverb, “Do What You Love, and You’ll Never Work A Day in Your Life,” except the latter clause is scratched out and replaced with the scrawl, “You’ll Kinda Work All the Time.” As a society, we are becoming more paranoid about work-life balance, and yet we’re finding fewer and fewer life activities that don’t already count as work. Consequently, it’s becoming harder to find forms of activity that don’t impinge on the rest that we are obligated to take. As a result, we feel guilty not only for the times when we let Netflix trundle along on autoplay, but also for the times when we don’t. Bosses, parents, spouses, even our own voices profanely echo the pharisees who interrogated Jesus—“Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?”
These voices are sometimes right, though when they are it is often for the wrong reasons. Whether knowingly or not, we are victims of a culture that wants to measure everything by efficiency, output, and use-value. My poet friend can feel guilty for not spending time on the things she loves because there is already an unstated expectation that these life-giving activities are really tasks that must be accomplished in a limited amount of time. This is her purpose, and yet the ways she experiences it contribute to her burnout. Should she try and unmoor her loves of language and music from those assumptions, to re-engage them as life-giving activities, she is met with skepticism. We have all lost some imagination for thinking rest as anything other than passive distraction.
Act and Potency
It might surprise us to learn that there is a long-lived philosophical issue at play here, one that has subtly informed our theology and our politics for millennia. Words like “activity” and “potentiality” roll off our tongues without a second thought, but these ideas bore tremendous weight in older contexts. For the Greek philosopher Aristotle, one could not think of divinity without the categories of act and potency. Aristotle thought of God as “pure act,” because potency implies a capacity for change that God does not possess. As Aristotle’s work passed on through Christian theologians—especially Thomas Aquinas—these categories were sharpened and defined even more strictly, and “potential” became another way of naming human finitude and weakness; our potentiality separated us from the perfection of God’s activity. If Western philosophy has defined pure activity as one of the markers of perfection, then perhaps we can begin to see how our labor culture has arrived where it is at today.
Among the few truly popular academics writing today, the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben has taken aim at Aristotle’s distinction between act and potency. In a lecture entitled “What is the Act of Creation?”, Agamben argues that the work of art itself threatens to give the lie to Aristotle’s distinction between act and potency, and that our current political situation can only begin to heal by allowing this distinction to collapse. Every creative act, Agamben says, wrestles with its own potential to not happen, its potential to be otherwise. By this, Agamben means that true works of art cannot be “reduced to perfection,” as was once said of the Italian painter Titian. The true master of a craft always holds something back. This “impotency,” as Agamben calls it—this wrestle with the work, a timidity that Dante described as a trembling of the hand—ties act and potency together in a moment of what Agamben calls “contemplation,” such that they can never really be separated. Poetry, for example, suspends language’s ability to efficiently communicate and instead contemplates language itself, and all the different things language can do.
The root of the word “poem”—poiein—itself means “to produce,” and thus every act of production can, or should be, a poetic act. But to be truly poetic, such acts need to be unburdened by any primary purpose other than contemplation. We can start to see how Agamben might define rest: Rest is simply anything that takes contemplation as its priority. Rest can be activity or inactivity, but it isn’t rest unless it isn’t “for” anything. Rest is all about contemplating what else we can be “for,” and that we are never for any one thing. This isn’t simple laziness, which defines “rest” as the interruption of “work” and so admits that our work still defines us. According to Agamben, the ancients instead understood work as the negation of contemplative life. Leisure wasn’t the cessation of labor, rather labor was a rhythm in life. Work-life balance would have been a nonsense idea because work was already understood in the context of life. “[But] Aristotle,” Agamben says, “soon leaves aside the hypothesis that man as an animal is essentially argos, inoperative, and that no work or vocation can define him.” Here he claims that Aristotle got it all wrong, even though the truth was staring him right in the face—the human creature is inoperative, isn’t for anything, and this is precisely the source of humanity’s justice, truth, and grace.
What are people for?
This sounds encouraging, until we remember how stark the class divisions in ancient Greece could be. The capacity for contemplation that Agamben is describing sounds a lot like the privileges of the rich and powerful. Yet his rethinking of act and potency—and of the potential to “deactivate” the over-determining purposes in our lives—still rings true to me. Thus, I’ve lately been fascinated by how Agamben’s metaphysical thinking maps beside the mud-caked, blue-collar philosophy of the American poet Wendell Berry. Indeed, Agamben seems to have spent most of his career asking the same question that Berry has: What are people for? Agamben, of course, concludes that people aren’t “for” anything, and by this he means that the human being is not meant to serve some greater economic or social purpose, that by rendering such purposes inoperative we “show what the human body is capable of; [we] open it to a new possible use.” If letting ourselves be defined by our “purpose” means forgetting what else we are capable of, then our task is to forget our “purpose” and to remember those other potentials, with nothing less than our very being at stake.
Berry, I think, provides some necessary correctives to Agamben’s position while still affirming its essential wisdom. The question “What Are People For?” is also the title of one of Berry’s very short essays from 1985, and there he takes the loss of the American farm as an object lesson for where the language of “purpose” has served us poorly. Here, he describes farms that “deserved to fail” according to an economic logic that made them compete with bigger and bigger technologies and finally deemed them the “least efficient producers.” The losing farmers, having lost their “purpose,” were displaced into cities to join the ranks of the “permanently unemployable,” or else to pursue what Berry elsewhere and sardonically calls their “liberty” to “seek retraining and get into another line of work.” For them, the cessation of their labor did not bring them rest; in fact, paradoxically, their purpose became the enemy of their rest. Once their purpose was made obsolete, their right to sabbath disappeared as well.
For Berry, this state of affairs demonstrates why the question of labor cannot be separated from the question of what people are for. He asks,
Is their greatest dignity in unemployment? Is the obsolescence of human beings now our social goal? . . . In a country that puts an absolute premium on labor-saving measures, short workdays, and retirement, why should there be any surprise at permanence of unemployment and welfare dependency? Those are only different names for our national ambitions.
Berry’s words here may seem to contradict Agamben at first. He certainly appears to be advocating for the human person’s right to work until they die, saying that technology has cheated us out of the valuable pain of hard labor. But beneath the clear frustration—a frustration we might be tempted to chalk up to the old-fashioned voice of an older generation—I think that Berry shares a great many values with Agamben. As a poet himself, as well as a farmer, Berry clearly does not believe that the human being only finds its value in persistent hard labor; rather, he is remembering a time when labor also put life first as its own rationale, wealth, and glory. For Berry, the greatest concern isn’t technology itself, or the increased efficiency of labor, but the value system that has come along with it: a set of economic and social “purposes” that render persons fungible. Berry sees a society desperate to achieve a culture of “laziness” that Agamben likewise sees as insidious: in this endeavor, the right to cease from labor never finally comes back around to making life itself a priority.
Like Agamben, Berry appears to have a vested interest in deactivating the economic purposes that so often hold human beings captive, and is essay “Economy and Pleasure,” Berry demonstrates that there is perhaps more tying him and Agamben together than finally keeps them apart. Here, Berry names the essential, fatal ingredient in our modern economic thinking as competition, a rule under which no “good or satisfying life” can take root. Under such a rule, the “use” of a thing becomes immediately synonymous with its defeat, the exhaustion of its potential for the sake of the economy. Instead, he asks, “is it possible to look [for] a nation of countrysides in which use is not synonymous with defeat?”
As it turns out, a world in which use is not synonymous with defeat is one which begins by remembering the multifaceted potentials of things and refusing to reduce them to a “purpose.” “Our truest and profoundest religious experience,” Berry says, “may be the simple, unasking pleasure in the existence of other creatures that is possible to humans,” precisely because it is actual for God. The dominant term of Berry’s reimagined economy, therefore, is pleasure, and he is careful to tell us that this isn’t the sort of pleasure our culture pursues on a daily basis. We pursue pleasure, he says, precisely because “pleasure is gone from our workplaces and our dwelling places.” For Berry, “pleasure-seeking” is really just the deferment or relocation of cost. What he is talking about is not something he learned from university economics but from harvesting tobacco fields—the “net pleasure” of non-competitive community activity, of work that is best learned through play and of life undivided from itself. The possibilities for pleasure, and for contemplation, do not require the cessation of work. They are potentials that are already embedded in work, potentials that we can activate only by first poetically deactivating the competitive economy of our work as we currently experience it—a process that Agamben says looks an awful lot like “neglect.”
What is our purpose?
My wager is that deactivating and neglecting our oppressive economy may mean neglecting our “purpose” as well. This is a language that has been near and dear to us as Christians for generations and deactivating it will be a hard thing. It will be especially hard for artists like myself and my friends, who find so much of our identity in our craft. But the values of maximal output and minimal labor that constantly encroach on the things we love can only emerge from a misplaced confidence in what a thing's purpose is. The biblical sabbath—such an important theme in Berry’s poetry—also becomes skewed in this economy. If we think of sabbath as the mere cessation of labor, we will continue letting the ground lie fallow only because we think that rest is integral to the earth’s efficiency. But in doing so, Agamben and Berry both say that we fail to think the earth’s ownmost potential, that the ground's own rest reminds us that it exists for so much more than just our own provision.
This, I think, is what the Apostle Paul may have been getting at in his famous exhortation to the Corinthians:
From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties.
The negative phrase that Paul uses—hos me, “as not”—is not an actual negation. Rather, as Agamben elsewhere notes, it carries the same connotations as what he means by “deactivation.” For Paul, life in Christ cancels every “higher” purpose for the human person, permitting the full range of possibilities for the image of God to show themselves. We do a disservice to the mystery of Christ every time we take what He has emptied and try to fill it back up with content, every time we try and shape a new “purpose” to capture that which He has made free. Our “rest” is the place in Christ where every determination of who we are is powerless to override our being his beloved. To do justice to this requires that we be creative, experimenting with our forms of life in hard ways. But from within that place, we find that we are safe, perhaps even safe to be restless in Him.
This is, finally, a call to the church to be an institution where we can be restless in restful ways. For the time being, we live our lives caught in a strict division between act and potency, wherein we feel guilty for not being able to “sabbath” in the ways that others do. These feelings aren’t limited to artists and creatives, but the creatives amongst us, so often and so desperately tangled in our desire for “purpose,” can perhaps serve as a barometer for our thus-far misguided attempts at balancing our lives. If we are to neglect the language of “purpose,” the church must enable artists to take on a new vocation, as reminders to the rest of us that sabbath does not mean we cease from activity: it means that we let all the positive effects and purposes of our activity fall away, so that other God-given purposes might show themselves. We have yet to perceive the extent to which our competitive economy only holds the power over us that we permit it to hold, and the neglect of this economy is the necessary condition for real rest and real worship. For the sake of a true sabbath, the church must become a space for imagining such a neglect. Berry, in fact, sets us up with a very clear, practical name for the form that such a neglect might take, a mode of reclaiming pleasure and “affection” as the ultimate human motives and which no economist has any power to deal with—he simply calls it “help.”
Cover photo by Val Vesa.