In the face of fatigue, one woman committed a radical act: She rested.
I am a high-energy person, and the first time I went on a spiritual retreat I assumed I would be able to accomplish many things that were difficult to do in my everyday life. Without phone calls, other interruptions, and the responsibilities of family life, I reasoned, I could read the books I'd been longing to read, I could sit and think and write. To my dismay, I found that for the first two days I did little but sleep. I managed to stagger off to morning, noon, and evening prayers with the monks and go to meals but often napped afterward. When I tried to read in the evening, my eyes kept closing, and by 8 P.M. I was ready for bed. When I complained to an elderly monk about having no energy, he responded, "Oh, we hear that all the time from our guests." He added casually, "Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is sleep."
I was shocked. I had just been given permission to rest. It was permission I seldom granted myself. Even as a toddler, I resisted taking naps because I didn't want to miss out on anything. My poor mother, who must have longed for some free time, quickly learned that if I slept in the daytime, it was a sure sign I was ill. And here I was, in my mid-30s, being told that sleep was good for my soul.
In a way, it felt like liberation. I was free to say yes to the weariness that had seeped into my bones. Until I was in my room at the retreat house, in fact, experiencing silence and solitude for the first time in weeks, I had no idea I was so tired. I have since learned that this is a common experience among retreatants. We push ourselves so hard in our ordinary, workaday lives, and we become very good at pretending we're just fine, ready to face the next demand, take on the next task. But just a few moments spent alone in quiet reflection are enough to reveal our true condition. "My God, I'm tired," we say, as our house of cards collapses. If we're lucky, we can give in and rest without feeling guilty. We can stop doing and concentrate on being.
But it's not easy. There's so much to do, so many legitimate demands to meet. Why surrender to my lack of energy when I could reinvigorate myself any number of ways: take a brisk walk, drink a glass of orange juice or a cup of coffee. Isn't it just laziness on my part if I give in and do nothing? Normally, I feel that it's important to keep going. In this I take after my mother, who at 86 is in the gym of her condominium every morning at 5:30 and attends a tai chi class three times a week. On the rare occasions when she has no energy, my mother complains. The last time it was because she had a head cold, and I advised her to take it easy. To my amazement, she stayed in bed most of the day. The next morning she phoned to say that although she did feel better, she still didn't have the energy to exercise. "Stay in bed," I said. "But I did that yesterday," she replied, indignant. I hope that I will have something of her outlook at the age of 86.
But sometimes I have to admit that I simply need to rest. I need to listen to my body when it tries to call a halt, and above all I need to remember that I am not so important in the scheme of things that I can't give up control (or the illusion of control) long enough to take time out. It's hard for me not to feel guilty when my energy isn't up to the tasks at hand. But I've found it is surprisingly easy to alter my plans, to reschedule a meeting, even—and here I do battle with my most basic instincts—to put off until tomorrow something I could do today. Today I would do it badly. Tomorrow, God willing, I'll be more rested and alert, and I'll be able to do it right. The trade-off is that sometimes I have to give up events I would love: a concert, a movie, a dinner with friends. If I can't reschedule, I lose out.
I have also had to set some ground rules. If I lack energy because I haven't slept well, I might change my habits in the evening so that I am more ready for sleep. If I've worn myself down with too much activity, I try to pace myself. And if I sense that my weariness is more than physical, if I find myself disconnecting from the world in an unhealthy way because of emotional exhaustion or depression, I seek help.
I now understand that the old monk's wisdom was grounded in that of the Psalms he'd recited every day for more than 60 years. The Psalms remind us that whether we are full of energy or drained of it, we are in God's presence. Several Psalms imply that it's when we are asleep, and not so full of ourselves and the noise of our lives, that we are best able to hear God speak to us. In Psalm 16 we read, "I will bless you, Lord. You give me counsel, and even at night direct my heart." When I can truly accept being drained of energy, I see it not as an opportunity, because that implies too much control on my part, but as an opening. It's as if a window has opened, or a door, inviting me to listen. It is liminal (literally, "threshold") time, the fertile ground between waking and sleeping, between doing and being. It is when I am half awake, before my list-making brain takes over and pretends it's in charge, that my best ideas come. But on my off days, when I am stripped of energy and feel too stupid even to think, all I can do is pray.
I might pray for those whose energy is sapped by serious illness or the depredations of old age. I might turn to the Book of Common Prayer and try to adopt the bravado of one of my favorite morning prayers: "This is another day, O Lord.... If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly."