We’re a month into 2023, and you know what that means. People are starting to abandon their new year’s resolutions.
Of course, not everyone sets aside their personal goals so quickly, but it’s likely most gyms have a large spike in membership in January that drops off a bit in February.
I’ve never really been one to make new year’s resolutions — never felt compelled to do 7,300 crunches in a year or commit to read 52 books over the next 365 days. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s good that people have goals and want to better themselves, but why are new year’s resolutions always about doing more? Just once, I’d love to hear someone say “My resolution this year is to do less — to push against capitalism, productivity demands and grind culture. My resolution is to rest.”
We live in a culture that glorifies being tired and overworked for the sake of accomplishment, making rest a rarity. Even when we have time to rest, technology and our collectively shortening attention spans often prevent us from participating in truly restful activities.
The purpose of rest
Rest is a fundamental human need, but its importance is easily overlooked because we misunderstand the purpose of rest.
“A metaphor we often use now for rest is recharging — I need to recharge, like we’re iPhones that need to be plugged in overnight so we can work again in the morning,” says journalist Ezra Klein in a conversation about sabbath and rest with Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World.
We tend to talk about rest as a means to an end, claiming rest is valuable because it allows us to do more. But surely, as readers of the biblical text, we can see that rest is about more than a simple recharge.
“Man is not a beast of burden, and the sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work.”
Jewish philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Man is not a beast of burden, and the sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work.”
TikTok at work
I’ve been thinking about rest in part after seeing a recent TikTok trend that’s caught a lot of attention and led to a mixture of envy, judgment and pity for its female subjects. The trend, called Stay-at-Home Girlfriend, features short videos of a day in the life of young women typically in their early to mid-twenties who do not have conventional jobs but spend their days cooking, cleaning and running errands while their boyfriends are at work.
The videos are aesthetically pleasing with slow shots of brewing coffee, neatly smoothed sheets and manicure sessions accompanied by a soft voiceover explanation of the day’s activities from the girlfriend.
Unsurprisingly, people have a lot of opinions in response to the trend.
Some are envious of a life that appears relaxing and easy. Many of the women sleep late, and the “errands” they run frequently include going to various beauty treatment appointments and shopping for the home and themselves. The days, which of course are meticulously edited and coordinated snapshots, look rather dreamy to a lot of viewers.
Other people are wildly judgmental of this lifestyle, saying it is anti-feminist and overly privileged. These people disapprove of women spending the majority of their day focusing on the needs and schedules of their boyfriends and seemingly contributing little to society. The critics also note this lifestyle is unattainable for many. The women in the videos are firmly living in the middle-upper to upper class thanks to the money their partners bring into the home.
A third group of people are concerned. They respond with pity that these women are placing their own lives on the back burner while revolving their days around their partners. More insidiously, many have pointed to the problem that these women do not have any financial independence from their partners who control and fund everything in the women’s lives. People are worried about this level of control that could easily lead to financial abuse, and that if the couples break up, the women will be left without financial security or job experience.
Everyone has an opinion
As popular as this trend is, critiquing its merits and pitfalls has become even more popular. Everyone seems to have an opinion about these women’s choices.
“I don’t want to give this lifestyle a blanket approval or disapproval.”
Personally, I don’t want to give this lifestyle a blanket approval or disapproval. I believe all women have the right to make choices for themselves about how they live life, including whether or not they hold conventional jobs. Society is too quick to dismiss the value of unpaid labor done by women.
However, I’ll be honest: The first time I saw one of these videos, it made me uncomfortable. I didn’t love the glorification of a materialistic and privileged lifestyle. I, too, had opinions and even judgment for this trend.
In response to all the criticism, some of the women have spoken out, claiming they see their lives as acts of feminism that promote a healthier lifestyle of rest.
“It’s become so normalized for women to work like 40 hours a week and have two side-hustles and look after her kids and her husband. So I’m just trying to show them that they don’t have to be everything and they don’t have to be everywhere, and that’s OK,” said stay-at-home girlfriend Zöe Rae.
The pandemic exposed the ways women are expected to do it all. Many studies found the harsh social effects of the pandemic on women’s advancement. When in-person school and child care no longer were a possibility, women most often were the ones in the family who took on extra responsibilities. Women were more likely than men to leave their careers for the sake of caregiving and other increased duties at home.
While the expectation for women to work and take care of the majority of unpaid labor at home is certainly a norm worth questioning, the stay-at-home girlfriend trend is not the most equitable way to go about it.
Several critics have noticed the majority of people participating in this trend are young, white women. This is no coincidence when it comes to who is able to participate and how we respond.
“If Black women were to do the same thing, they would be framed as ‘lazy’ or ‘welfare queens,’” said assistant professor of sociology Hajar Yazdiha.
“Throughout history, white women have been frequently painted as victims, regardless of the situation.”
Lilian Wright, an assistant at UCLA Law, noted not only do we not view these white women as lazy, but many people are “concerned they are being taken advantage of” through financial abuse and instability. Throughout history, white women have been frequently painted as victims, regardless of the situation.
Wright also urges us to ask, “What do these videos tell you about A) who gets to rest? B) who deserves rest? And C) how you get rest?”
The church should be asking these same three questions and viewing rest not as a luxury for a small group, but as a justice issue for all people.
‘Legacy of exhaustion’
Tricia Hersey, founder of Nap Ministry, claims rest as a form of social justice in her new book Rest is Resistance. Hersey writes that rest is a radical act of resistance against the structures of capitalism, white supremacy and ableism. She traces the history of chattel slavery and plantation labor to our system of capitalism today, noting that rest historically has been robbed particularly from people of color on whose backs capitalism was built.
Hersey writes about a “legacy of exhaustion.” We are all overworked, overstimulated and in need of rest, particularly people of color and people in other marginalized communities.
In our fast-paced, hyper-connected, productivity-driven world, finding time for sabbath and rest seems like a luxury at best and impossible at worst. However, Hersey argues everyone is worthy of rest, which is not a limited commodity to be earned: “Rest is not a luxury, a privilege or a bonus we must wait for once we are burned out. … Rest makes us more human. It brings us back to our humanness.”
Good Samaritan experiment
In her conversation with Klein, Shulevitz talks about a 1973 psychological experiment that studied what causes someone to stop for a person in distress. The study was conducted on students at Princeton Theological Seminary because the researchers wanted people familiar with the Good Samaritan story.
The students were tasked with writing a sermon about the Good Samaritan and asked to walk across campus to preach the sermon. One-third of the students were told they had to hurry because they were late. One-third were told they weren’t late but they shouldn’t take too much time getting across campus. And the final third were told they had plenty of time.
On their walk, there was a person slumped against the wall in distress. Several of the students who had plenty of time stopped to help the person, and a few of the students who were told they weren’t late stopped as well. But none of the students who were told to rush stopped for the distressed person, and many hadn’t even noticed the individual in need.
The study revealed a person’s tendency to help someone in need is not determined by moral beliefs, personality or cultural conditioning, but rather by the person’s own context of busyness and perceived ability/inability to take time to pause. The study concluded that “ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily life increases.”
“Ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily life increases.”
The speed of daily life robs us of rest, makes ethical living a luxury and takes us further away from our humanness.
During the height of the pandemic, countless articles were published about how the lockdowns were forcing society to rest as the hustle of life grinded to a soft murmur. Even the earth got a moment to breathe as emissions from planes and cars were drastically decreased. This kind of involuntary rest was possible only because it was communal.
Shulevitz emphasizes that sabbath happens collectively when entire communities agree to rest. “When I talk about the sabbath, I say it’s not just non-work or non-productivity. It’s absolutely collective non-work and non-productivity because I simply cannot stress this enough. If it’s not happening collectively, it’s not going to happen.”
Shulevitz cites the 1961 Supreme Court decision about Sunday closing laws when Justice Felix Frankfurter defended a societal need for collective rest. Frankfurter “talked about Sunday and Sunday quietness on the streets, near the stores. He talked about it as a cultural asset of importance, a release from the daily grind, a preserve of mental peace, an opportunity for self-disposition. … It made our civitas a better society.”
Neither Shulevitz nor I are pushing to reinstate blue laws, but Shulevitz is pointing to the reality that not everyone can rest until we’ve all committed to set aside the demands of productivity and capitalism for the purpose of sabbath. And when that happens, the whole of the community is bettered.
Shulevitz compares the biblical rules of Sabbath to a “mutual noncomplete clause” where closing businesses for one day a week, for example, is only possible if competing businesses do the same. Similarly, we are able to individually rest only because of the mutual societal agreement that we all rest.
“Without a collective commitment, rest is a luxury for the privileged rather than a basic human need for all.”
Without a collective commitment, rest is a luxury for the privileged rather than a basic human need for all.
Who gets to rest? Who deserves rest? And how do we get rest?
Mary and Martha
I’ve been thinking recently about what the story of Mary and Martha might teach us about rest. I often find preaching on Mary and Martha to be a little tiresome. Normally, the lesson I hear from the narrative is that we all should be more like perfect Mary who sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him teach, and that we should never be like nagging Martha who is distracted by silly things like feeding her guests.
The sermon application for our own lives is usually not to worry or be distracted by daily stresses but to focus on Jesus. It’s not a bad application; it’s just a limited one. And I worry about the double standard it sets for women in the church.
We’ve created impossible standards for women who are most frequently tasked with the majority of responsibilities in the home. And yet, here we have a story of a woman fulfilling the duties of the home who is scolded by Jesus.
Many Christians use the Bible to justify the parameters they’ve made for women’s limited roles in their families and in their churches. In this narrative Jesus rejects these roles. This passage about Jesus’ critique of women’s roles in the home is rarely pointed to as an example of Christian gender roles, rarely used as a text of liberation for women.
I’ve always empathized with Martha for the bad rap we’ve given her. And I’m a little uncomfortable with the way Jesus scolds her and her acts of care — yet another man doling out judgment over a woman’s unpaid labor.
“Did she feel the sting millions of women throughout history have felt that even when they’re doing it all, it’s not enough?”
I wonder how Martha felt in this encounter with Jesus. Was she hurt by the way he dismissed the importance and care of her unpaid, unseen and unappreciated labor? Did she think, “Fine, make Peter cook dinner then.” Did she feel the sting millions of women throughout history have felt that even when they’re doing it all, it’s not enough?
Or I wonder if perhaps Martha felt liberated. Did the disciples stare in shock as Jesus released her from the cultural expectations dictated by her gender? Did she feel empowered to join Mary as a student of Jesus and later a teacher of others? Was she giddy at the prospect of rest as an act of resistance.
If Martha indeed felt liberated by Jesus’ words, she likely sat with Mary to listen or to rest. If she did, I presume someone else had to pick up Martha’s tasks and preparations. The text doesn’t tell us exactly what Martha was doing, but it’s likely she was preparing a meal for everyone and making sleeping arrangements for Jesus and his companions. These tasks still had to happen, but Jesus saw someone in society too often over-labored and he extended an invitation for rest.
We all need more rest
If I’ve learned anything in the past two years, it’s that we all need more rest. In our post-pandemic world, I’m struck by a new movement that rejects grind culture and claims that worth is not dictated by productivity.
There are probably very few Americans who aren’t overworked and overtired. We all need better sabbath — not in order to be more productive but to be more human.
As we rebuild the future of faith communities, ministers are doing the work of attending to our collective anxiety and trauma. We also must take time to tend to our collective exhaustion.
Who gets to rest? Who deserves rest? And how do we get rest? These should be dominant questions we ask in our churches and surrounding communities this year. Like water, food and shelter, we all need and deserve rest. But like other basic human needs, it’s time to think of rest as a justice issue.
Who in our communities are deprived of rest? Who spend their days or nights doing the majority of society’s paid and unpaid labor with little appreciation and even less rest? To be equitable, rest and sabbath must be communal realities rather than limited luxuries for the privileged. And for those of us in positions of privilege, perhaps we should ask what we can do to make rest a possibility for those who are most often deprived of it.
This year let’s do less. Let’s rest more. And let’s invite Martha to sit down because it’s Peter’s turn to make dinner.
Laura Ellis serves as project manager for Baptist Women in Ministry. She is a former Clemons Fellow with BNG and previously served in ministry with Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership against Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse. She lives in Waco, Texas, and earned a master of divinity degree from Boston University School of Theology.
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