Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2012, Brett Beasley explores what he’s learned about rest from both his pet rabbits and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Crumpet and Clementine are experts in the art of rest. They love to stretch out and sleep for hours on warm summer days. They can rest anywhere: spread out on a rug, or with their bellies pressed on a cool tile floor. Often they even lie one on top of the other, slowly blinking and leisurely smelling the air. Such is the expertise of pet rabbits.
My wife and I have found that if you watch a rabbit long enough, you will begin to feel like you are trying to solve a riddle. There is something Sphinx-like and puzzling about a rabbit’s face. When you look into their dark glassy eyes you not only wonder what they are thinking but also whether what they are doing can be called “thinking” at all. Their stare is somehow wise and blank at the same time. If we could communicate, I would ask Crumpet and Clementine to teach me what they know about rest. But, of course, we live in two different worlds. I cannot know what they know, I can only wonder.
Clementine and Crumpet don’t watch Star Trek, but if they did I’m sure their general unimpressed attitude would extend to the show’s opening line, which announces that “space” is “the final frontier.” The world doesn’t hold frontiers for Crumpet and Clementine, and they don’t aspire to much apart from a general curiosity about the air and an enthusiasm for lettuce. For humans, however, the idea of “space” as a “frontier” is no mere piece of science fiction. It is more like a fact of human history. As the great Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, the story of “technical civilization” itself is the story of “man’s conquest of space.” For Heschel this points to something deeply troubling about civilization: its triumph over space “is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing…time.” And, for Heschel, time is “the heart of existence.”
His understanding of time led Heschel to rethink the meaning of progress and achievement. According to him, most of the contemporary world bases its understanding of achievement on the idea of spatiality. What has become important in our world are things, and the nature of things is that they can be acquired and accumulated. We each have our own empires in the realm of space made of an aggregation of degrees, awards, money, goods, property, etc. Heschel argues that these things are our attempt to outrun and defy time with our achievements. We try to build a career, an edifice, a legacy that will let us escape from time, or to race “against the clock,” so to speak, rather than allowing time itself to be our dwelling.
As a student about to receive a graduate degree and begin touting my “achievements” on the job market, I realize how often I have been taught to cast my life as a set of things, or items I can list as bullet points on my résumé. While I have been learning to achieve, I fear that my time as a student I has caused me to unlearn an attentiveness to time. Just a few years ago, many nights would find me still procrastinating at 2:00 a.m., about the same time that I would decide to make a final — or so I would assure myself — pot of coffee. I began to realize I had a serious problem when I started sleeping through afternoon classes. My experiences, I believe, are not at all uncommon. College, for many of us, is a place where we are schooled in the fine art of procrastination and trained as experts in the practice of last-minute, down-to-the-wire, no-holds-barred, last-ditch efforts. We get used to the idea that time, like any commodity in the realm of space, is scarce. What is more, these bad habits aren’t simply the practices of some irresponsible 18-year-olds in an artificially prolonged adolescence. They are increasingly the way of life for all sorts of working people, from executives to service professionals. In a recent TED Talk, Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, laments the lack of sleep that plagues many business people, noting that lack of sleep has become a topic of one-upmanship with one executive bragging to another about how few hours he or she rests.
Can we look to our faith communities to lead us to a different experience of time and achievement? I remember my extreme anxieties in my younger years over finding “God’s perfect will” for my life. I was convinced that if I didn’t, I could never achieve a true, meaningful Christian life. In the back of my mind was always the idea of eternity as the ultimate “lifetime achievement award.” Many of our churches perpetuate the idea that what we need to achieve is “out there.” We need to “go out” and conquer the world. Larger and larger church buildings all too obviously point out how even our faith communities are the captives of a space-minded idea of success. Heschel suggests that it is through the experience of the Sabbath, which he calls a “palace in time,” that we can begin to reshape these values and aspirations.
You might think that as prey animals rabbits would live terribly tense, anxiety-ridden lives. When given the right environment, however, this is not the case. As you can tell from the numerous videos of enthusiastic rabbit owners, most rabbits have a habit of doing series of reckless jump-twists called binkies when they are happy. Watching Crumpet and Clementine perform their binkies is fascinating to me because it shows that bunnies aren’t lazy. They explode into bursts of unbridled activity simply because it delights them to do so. And they collapse in complete relaxation for the very same reason. In fact, they can’t be lazy because they have nothing unpleasant to avoid.
What would our lives be like if our work were as delightful as our relaxation? In his recent book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer shows that we solve our toughest and most vexing problems only after we stop stressing out and begin to relax. “Labor is a craft,” Heschel writes, “but perfect rest is an art.” Maybe I will achieve perfect rest someday. Until then, I will draw inspiration from the furry little artists taking a nap on the tile.