Rest and restlessness

Mark Stephens ponders what might be behind our constant busyness and craving for distraction.

A work colleague recently reflected to our staff that, in 2020, we had January, February, then COVID. That’s it. That’s the year. Apparently, it’s late Spring, but I think it’s just a rumour.

I’m all out of rhythm. I’m not quite sure when I’m at work or at home, seeing as they’ve often been the same location.

Rhythms matter. Like a good script, they “cue” you into how to inhabit the moment. Well I know how to work. But I’m not sure I know how to rest. Did I never know how to rest?

In pre-COVID days, whenever you asked a Sydneysider how they were going, the inevitable reply was: “tired.” Busyness is modernity’s badge of honour. An uncluttered diary seems signpost for a wasted life.

Then 2020 happened, and our diaries emptied for a time. A window of opportunity for peace and restoration.

But we stayed tired.

I thought the problem was my diary. Turns out the problem was me.

In the 17th century, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote at length about how people craved distraction. Although we treasure dreams of endless time just to sit and reflect, when the time for downing tools arrives, we’d rather be ceaselessly occupied. In his book Pensees, Pascal wrote:

“I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”

His point was that we don’t want an undistracted life, because we don’t want to confront the bigger questions of life, and the sense of emptiness within ourselves. This was before Netflix and Instagram, but I sense Pascal’s advice would remain unchanged. Perhaps our inability to rest is more than a matter of sleep. Perhaps it’s a matter of a restless heart and soul.