Canal boats

It’s vacation season once more and everyone seems to be posting pictures of themselves lounging by the river, sipping G&Ts. No better time, then, to consider the role of rest in our work. Academia seems to offer lots of ‘time off’: Easter breaks, Christmas breaks, and summer breaks can dwarf the terms they punctuate. But we all know that breaks are not really breaks for researchers. When undergrads are away, academics rejoice: now we can really start getting some work done!

The flexibility of academia is amazing, and I often take it for granted. However, there is a certain stress that comes with this flexibility. As academics don’t ‘book’ time off like most professionals do, we mostly designate our own holiday time. And if you’re anything like me, you may feel guilty when you do take time off or worry that you’ve taken too much because no one else has rubber-stamped your holiday plans. And because as researchers, our projects are often 100% our responsibilities, it is tempting to never fully go on vacation: ‘I just need to check my emails, I’ll be right back!’ And we do this because we know that somewhere out there, our peers are writing papers and building their resumes while we are walking through picturesque Cotswold villages or pottering in the garden shed.

Convincing myself that taking time off is worthwhile seems enough of a battle. But when I actually do take time off, I often find that actual rest eludes me. Even when I am not actually at my computer, my brain just won’t turn off; except, rather than chewing over work, it chews over worries instead. For those who struggle with anxiety, time ‘off’ can be very stressful: when not occupied with productivity, our minds can become the unwilling homes of worries instead. For me, time off can amplify my exhaustion, and I may start work again more tired than when I stopped.

Where do I find rest if not in rest itself?

Ultimately, restlessness is a result of refusing to fully hand my life over to God. I’m anxious because I feel like I have responsibilities and tasks that are too big for me: I just can’t manage. And actually, I’m perfectly right in thinking that; but I’m forgetting that I have a very big God who asks me to do nothing alone. Like most Christians, I know that ‘I can do all things through Him who strengthens me’ (Philippians 4:13) and ‘He will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Deuteronomy 31:6). But I’m afraid I often disregard these truths in my restless despair; I’d rather cling on to a mistaken belief that I am in charge—and to the misery that follows it like a shadow. 

Taking time off is something God desires for us—even in the academy! He knows we need it—and so does my husband, for that matter, who is always encouraging me to keep work in its proper place. But I’ve come to realize that the rest I really seek is not a holiday from work but a release from fear. I can actually have rest in busy weeks if I don’t feel the weight of the world is on my shoulders; and better yet, I can rest in vacations and weekends too, if only I remember that I am not captain of the world and that my security and identity is tucked safely away in Him.

This summer, God has challenged me to prayerfully consider whether my restlessness—at some level—is caused by an unwillingness to surrender my research, academic success, and life to God. Have I ‘cast’ my crown before the throne (Revelation 4:10), acknowledging my helplessness and accepting his grace? Do I truly live my life in the knowledge that my identity is in him, and all my strength comes from him? Perhaps in this season of ‘rest’, you may wish to reflect on these questions yourself, considering whether you too have been forfeiting the peace He has gifted.

Anxiety is a difficult beast to tackle, and the truths I know in my head take a long time to settle into my heart. Christ has been chipping away at the roots of my anxieties and fears, but anxiety and restlessness persist: I’m not there yet. But I trust that someday, I will fully ‘know that the LORD is God’ (Psalm 100:3) and in that, I will find my rest.