Rediscovering rest in all its forms

I came to rest through exhaustion.

I went to the doctor thinking I had some serious medical condition, but all the tests came back negative. It turned out I was just totally exhausted.

Around this time, I was given a book called “The Rest of God,” by Mark Buchanan, which reintroduces the virtue of stillness. Reading the book started me on a journey of rediscovering rest.

I first learned that there are different sorts of rest: physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual. We can all feel exhausted and may recognize our need for rest, but do we know the sort of rest that we need? How good are we at recognizing the areas in which we are drained, where we need to be refreshed, restored and re-energized?

Physical exhaustion is perhaps the area that we are most familiar with, and it may be that we have only ever thought about rest in terms of our physical needs.

However, for many today, work is primarily emotional and mental rather than physical, and we are just as likely to be emotionally or mentally exhausted as we are to be physically tired.

During a year of living with a pandemic, we have all been doing a lot of extra emotional, mental and spiritual work and are probably more drained in these areas than we would be normally, even if our jobs are physically taxing.

When we are physically drained, we know that we might need to eat or drink, sit down for a while, have an early night, or even take a nap. Do we have the same awareness about what we are supposed to do when we are emotionally, mentally, socially or spiritually drained? What can restore us in these areas?

When I was suffering from exhaustion, I thought I needed to stop and just do very little, to physically rest. But in fact, I found that even though I was doing very little, I didn’t feel any more rested at the end of the day.

Eventually, I discovered that my primary exhaustion was emotional, not physical. Physical rest wasn’t what I needed. Actually, in some ways, it made things worse, because “doing nothing” just gave me more time to focus on my anxiety and worry.

I gradually learned my personal ways of emotional rest. I discovered that being in nature buoyed me emotionally — in particular, spending time with trees.

There was something about their solidity, their rootedness, their age. They had been here before I was and would still be standing long after I was not. I was comforted thinking about how they went through seasons and weathered the effects of those seasons.

The different and bigger perspective on my circumstances brought me back down to earth and out of my own head. I found it peaceful and regenerative. In fact, I found that being in nature refilled me in other ways as well, giving me mental, social and spiritual rest.

Rest need not be inactive. For me, doing physical activity that requires focus can be emotionally restful. I garden, cook or create something. If I occupy my hands, I find that my mind wanders away from my concerns.

Active rest may sound counterintuitive, but resting can simply be stopping ordinary work. Doing something that might be work to someone else may be restful for you.

If you’re feeling exhausted, noticing the areas in which you are weary is a good place to start. Is your exhaustion physical? Or is it actually emotional, mental, social or spiritual? Or is your tiredness a result of a combination of these types of exhaustion? Discovering what sort of rest you need is key.

However, it is one thing to know what sort of rest you need and quite another to actually find that rest.

Today, perhaps more than ever, rest is contested. Eliza Cortés Bast illustrates this beautifully in her essay “Rest can be hard work.” There are many factors that can keep us from resting, even when we know what we need.

But Jesus has given us an invitation to come to rest (Matthew 11:28). Rest was even listed among the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8) — yet when was the last time we asked for forgiveness for not resting?

People in every walk of life are exhausted, but we have a God who gives permission to rest, who invites anyone who is weary to come to rest.

Rest need not be inactive.

When doing the research for her new book, “The Soul of the Helper,” Holly Oxhandler found that the lessons emerging from her study of mental health care providers would also apply to all caregivers, even those outside health care.

Looking at the degree to which mental health care providers were integrating their clients’ spirituality or religion into their mental health treatments, Oxhandler found a positive relationship with the quality of care — and a personal mission to help people acknowledge their own spirituality when caring for others.

Soul of the Helper book cover

“[Recognizing one’s own spirituality] is really applicable to everyday helpers, especially given the large percentage of folks who identify as being religious or religion being important in their lives,” Oxhandler said.

Across all sorts of care professions, having a healthy spiritual life oneself can correspond quite closely with being able to provide spiritual care to others, she argues in the book.

Oxhandler is an associate professor of social work at Baylor University and has a background in spiritually integrated mental health.

She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the book and the hope she has for caregivers to recognize and care for their own souls before caring for others. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Who are the readers you wrote the book for, and what did you hope they would learn?

Holly Oxhandler

Holly Oxhandler: The ideal readers that I had in mind with this book are the everyday helpers for whom faith is important, and perhaps they are wrestling with mental health struggles or they love someone who is wrestling with mental health struggles or they are bumping up against those edges of burnout.

They continue to go and do and help and serve in whatever ways they are uniquely equipped to care for others, but they’re realizing that in their efforts to serve, they just get exhausted. They are realizing that they need to find new ways to refill their own wells as they go out and serve others.

Especially after these last couple of years, the book is for parents, teachers, faith leaders, mental health care providers and general health care providers, but also the everyday helpers like the baristas and our engineers and our community organizers who are still serving others in their own unique ways. It’s those informal caregivers especially I was thinking of when I wrote this book.

F&L: How would you go about convincing people who don’t think they are caregivers that they are providing care?

HO: First of all, I think that each of us has the capacity to be a caregiver or to be a fellow helper in one way, shape or form.

As we go about our days, we are tending to and supporting and helping and loving those around us in a number of different ways, whether that’s through our volunteer service or in connection with our friends or family members or the people that we interact with at work. On a daily basis, we’re engaging in some form of helping or serving or just connecting with those individuals.

I really would hope that those who are serving in these myriad ways recognize that the ways that they interact and support and serve and help and care for others are profound and have a big impact on the lives of those around them, whether that’s a close loved one or a complete stranger.

As someone who identifies as Christian, I think about the idea of loving my neighbor as myself. That really does have a strong emphasis on recognizing that I am serving others in some capacity, even just as someone who identifies as a Christian or who is trying to embody and live out a life that follows what Jesus taught me. I mean, I would really push and try to encourage folks to recognize that we all have the capacity to be a helper in one way, shape or form.

F&L: Why do you think considering one’s own spirituality is so important in offering care?

HO: The heartbeat of this book is recognition that caregivers and helpers have got to wake up to the sacred, to that divine spark, that image of God within themselves as they go out and serve others.

We need to wake up to the fact that we are worth caring for and tending to — the gift of our precious and sacred life. And that this life is not promised, and that it is a gift to get to steward it.

We have to wake up to it within ourselves so that we can care for ourselves well, especially so that as we go out and serve others, we’re better positioned to discern and best meet the needs around us and to recognize and tend to the sacred, the image of God, that divine spark within our neighbors as we go out and serve.

In part, my fear is that if helpers are not taking that time to tend to their own inner landscape and all of those layers within them that make up who they are, there is a risk of them imposing the pain, the difficulty that many of us experience through our lives on those around them as they’re trying to help.

Father Thomas Keating writes about “programs for happiness” — that many of us will go through our lives aware or unaware that we are seeking power, control or affection. And my fear is that helpers are not paying attention to the sense of their own belovedness, that they are worth that love and care, and they will unintentionally go out and seek those programs for happiness as they serve others and unintentionally cause harm in that process.

F&L: What kinds of beliefs and practices do you think lead to burnout for caregivers?

HO: I want to emphasize that the contribution to burnout comes from individual but also systemic sources. Individuals may be wanting to seek the affirmation, the accolade, just the addictive dopamine bump that they get when they’re giving and serving and helping others, but also they may have been surrounded by systems that communicate that their worth is dependent upon what they do. If their value is dependent on their productivity, or the way that they help and serve, they just go without even realizing the ways that it could potentially be hurting themselves and others.

Then the other piece, especially around those systemic issues, is when we have organizations and systems set in place that don’t allow the helpers to truly heal and rest and recover from the occupational hazards of the work that they do in serving others.

Without having systems in place to support them, burnout is inevitable in some ways, because of the ways that health care providers, faith leaders, other caregivers are exposed to secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and more. Without having systems in place to allow them to heal, I think, it just really increases their risk of burnout.

F&L: What are some things that need to be realigned to create more sustainable habits or more sustainable conditions for caregivers?

HO: What would be implemented would be unique based on the individual, the organization, the system, the region, the type of caregiving and things like that.

Some of the things that need to be put in place, though, are individuals starting to recognize their inherent worth and that they are worth a slower pace, and beginning to advocate for others to have access to this as well.

This is a big part of what social workers do, and I love that I get to be a social worker and the ways that we can advocate for more policies and systems to be in place for things like, for example, a paid maternity leave.

I do hope to see more helpers modeling the need to do this work — to slow down and to ask for help, to learn to ask for help with humility, and recognizing that the previous helpers were not able to do everything for everyone all of the time. So learning how to humbly ask for help and to receive — not just ask but receive — that help.

That’s not easy for helpers. I don’t think that’s easy for many of us, but when we have picked up that narrative that we are the helpers, we do all the service, it’s really hard to humbly allow others to care for and help us. So I think some of that modeling is important. And the advocacy piece, I think, is important.

Advocating for more mental health care would be something that I would just love to see more generally.

We know that about half of all lifetime cases of mental illness in the U.S. pop up by the time kids are 14, and about 75% by age 24. So we see this in younger individuals. And then again throughout life, over 80% of us meet criteria for a mental health struggle at some point.

Having space for mental health treatment to allow us to do some of this self-reflective work, I think, is really important too, alongside our spiritual practices and religious practices that help us connect to God, to whomever we believe in in terms of our higher power.

F&L: What is your Namaste Theory for helpers?

HO: I found that mental health care providers who were more deeply motivated to live out their belief (whatever it was that they believed in) and were more deeply connected with the divine within themselves tended to have more positive views and were more likely to actually integrate their clients’ religion or spirituality into treatment.

And it wasn’t just in my sample of social workers, psychologists, family therapists, counselors and nurses, but we saw this in other samples where the mental health care providers who had higher levels of religiosity — were more frequently engaged in their religious practices — tended to integrate the clients’ faith in more.

Namaste, which translates to mean “the sacred within me recognizes the sacred within you,” really brought order to what I was finding within my research.

As I talked with other helpers, it made sense to them too. When folks are more deeply grounded in what they believe in, they’re able to hold that space for those around them to explore and to ask questions and to wrestle with their faith in a nonjudgmental way.

Translating that to the everyday helper is really where the heartbeat within this book is. And recognizing that we as helpers — it’s really on us to pay attention to our inner landscape, including that divine spark, that image of God within ourselves, as we go out and serve others so that we can recognize it within others while recognizing that we are worth the love and care that we give to so many others.

The text came in at midday on a Thursday. It was a parent writing in ALL CAPS. Ordinarily, this would worry me. But this text was different.

It was a mother thanking me because our ministry had managed to string together a few paid jobs for her teenage daughter. Just before Christmas, her daughter had reached out, looking to make some Christmas money. With some work and the generosity of some of our customers, her Christmas wish had come true.

But it was her mother who felt the gift most acutely, and she wanted us to know. She saw more benefits from the experience than just the money her daughter had earned. She sensed her child’s confidence growing, and she saw signs that physical labor was improving her daughter’s health and mood.

This is not uncommon in the ministry we do. My church is home to several entrepreneurial ministries, including a teen landscaping company and a strength-training program.

During the pandemic, we have had to temporarily shut down both enterprises; we’ve lost employees, suspended shared meals and had to rebuild the whole weight facility outdoors — twice. But it’s been worth it.

Students often say that participating in the weights program and the landscaping work is the highlight of their week. For many, it’s the one chance in the week to feel normal. For others, it makes the difference between a depressive day and a decent one.

At every turn, we have discovered the accidental blessings of these two ministries. Because they involve physical activity and enable students to have distanced interaction outdoors with one another and with adults, they have been of immense benefit to everyone involved.

And through all of those dynamic signs of the kingdom, I have sensed a deeper theological truth that COVID-19 is teaching us: the physical matters.

Over the past year, we have certainly been reminded of our mortality. COVID has demonstrated the transience of life on this side of the kingdom of God. And sadly, it has also demonstrated the devaluation of life in our society.

But those reminders show not just that we are frail and mortal creatures in death; they show that we are embodied creatures in life.

Every day, people are confronted with the fact that we cannot greet or hug or grieve in physical ways that would ordinarily serve as a kind of spark or salve. So much communal connection usually happens through corporeal means.

For several centuries, Protestantism has been accused of being lost in ideas. Artists and mystics have rightly accused Protestants of practicing a kind of disembodied form of Christianity. Many times, we try to think our way to faith rather than feeling it or even enacting it.

The irony of this mental trap is that we serve the Christ whose entire entrepreneurial expedition into the world was filled with physical risk. It was tangible. And while the accusations about our cerebral tendencies made sense to me previously, it took a COVID Christmas and a student work project to make me see how much the corporeal matters — to God and to us. Even our liturgy — stiff though it can be at times — has a physicality. And without it, we can feel disconnected.

As we approach Lent, Good Friday and Easter, this point is being driven home again. God doesn’t intend to discard his creatures or their physicality. God intends to magnify that creaturely nature in the resurrection of the body.

Resurrected spiritual bodies are still bodies, after all!

And indeed, every bit of creation matters to God. If Scripture is to be believed, God intends to redeem every last particle. If the physical matters to God, it ought to matter to us.

I think part of what inspired the text I received from that ecstatic mother was the encounter with an intuitive theological truth that physical creatures need physicality. Christ does not redeem humanity through disembodied truth or celestial empathetic “feels” beamed from on high.

Rather, the God we serve was willing to be accommodated in the human bodies of a Jewish child and a Jewish teen mom. God does not just feel passionately toward humanity. Rather, God “passions” for humanity in the form of bodily suffering.

People keep talking about the need to realize that there will never be a “return to normal” in the church after COVID. I think that might be true.

Perhaps in this time of physical denial, we should design ministries that tap into this aspect of our shared story. My ministry accidentally (or providentially) mimics the labor of a Christ who both labored in this world and was labored into the world in the most human of ways.

What if we began to frame ministries that more intentionally engaged our physicality? Could such embodied ministries rekindle the connections that feel so distant during this time? Could more-physical ministries participate more fully in Christ’s redemption of the physical and foster greater community?

I know one mom who thinks they might.

Near the end of every December, as I consider new trajectories and intentions for the coming year, the idea of reclaiming rest is always on my list. Each year, I boldly declare that I will experience deeper rest, find better rhythms of rest, not wait to rest until I’m bent with exhaustion.

I will play more! I will unplug! I will read for fun!

Truthfully, I don’t know whether I want to pay the price for rest. Not real rest — the kind where you actually lose yourself in the stillness of mind, body and spirit.

Each layer of who I am challenges regular rhythms of rest: full-time minister, mom and wife, woman of color, student, mentor. Those bump against each other in a cacophony of competing demands. On my best days, they fall in line. On my worst, I am behind. I can’t afford long stretches of catching up, especially in seasons like this one.

Rest becomes expensive. It feels irresponsible and wrong.

During the holidays, I watched as social media accounts that I follow — those of brave leaders holding high the banner of biblical justice — hinted at rest. The posts were curious. Laptops put away. Mugs of tea, glasses of wine, fireplaces. Yet no pictures of them actually resting. No pictures of them curled up, reading. Accounts where I am used to seeing faces and arms raised behind the dais became just tableware.

It is very possible that this is truly what rest looks like. But I suspect that people simply do not want to see us rest. As people of color, championing our causes, we are not afforded the liberty of public rest.

People depend on the public expression of who we are — sharing our tweets, our images, our hashtags — to help further their own public spaces. Our defiant act of rest gives them nothing to move the cause forward. Pictures of rest are incongruent and feel counterproductive.

I can hear you yelling, “This isn’t healthy!” But there are realities you need to consider.

Rest can feel like a waste of resources. As a person who grew up in poverty and now dedicates my work to ministry, I know this well: rest feels like a waste of money.

For those of us in fields that are constantly hunting for money, doubly so. We mentally convert personal plane tickets and restaurant meals into salaries for our teams and essential food for the underserved. It is a constant internal exchange rate — every dollar or minute we spend on ourselves is a self-centered currency. It could and should go to the cause.

Opportunities — like the loan of a vacation house where we can decompress  — don’t come up for us often. When they do, we find ways to host a board meeting there, a staff retreat, a volunteer gathering. We are constantly aware that the people around us are giving, too, so we most likely will not use such a gift for personal rest. For ourselves, we will find a cheap space. We will pack our own food and drive our own cars.

We don’t have generational spaces to fall back on. When I first began full-time ministry, I was amazed by the number of people who simply disappeared in the summer.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, parents had to continue working during the summer. Neighborhood summer programs and camps were a necessity while kids were out of school. No one was going anywhere. There was consistent noise and clamor until the streetlights came on.

For the current world I find myself in, that is not the case. Family cabins and lake houses are passed down for generations.

This is not a disparagement. But amid the challenges of lockdown that so many of us experienced this past summer, I was surprised by how many around me packed up and headed to the generational oasis. It was hard to hear their bitter complaints of being confined as they rounded up swimsuits and sunscreen.

Rest produces guilt. Every minute I spend away, every minute I spend with my guard down, is an invitation to return to more work and more worry.

My absence risks the people I serve, the core of who I am. What if something happens to them while I am gone?

Rest often requires money. The money I spend to fill my tank is often the money that’s truly needed somewhere else.

Once, on a work trip, I got myself ready early and sat outside the inexpensive hotel. Back home was cold, so the California sun was a warm invitation to sit and relax.

I snapped a selfie, captioning it that I was soaking up the sun waiting for my ride. When I returned home, our head of donor relations went in hard, reminding me that contributors did not pay for me to sit in the sun and that my message could jeopardize the funding for the organization. They were not paying me to relax.

We, as people of color, remind ourselves often that we cannot always carry the ball for the systems we are in. We sometimes must let the ball drop. I courageously say those things, affirm those things and repeat those things.

However, when I return to the daily reality of my work, I see places where the ball was dropped, and the inbox is twice as full the next day with more meetings, more pain, more work. Gripping the ball, at least for a little longer, keeps our souls safer.

The media and the Scriptures remind us to rest. I feel my shame creeping in as I realize that my body, mind and soul say they need rest. I am not a martyr by any means. I am, however, a pragmatist. The times feel hopeful and hard, and there’s work to be done.

This year, my personal hope is for something new. With all the baggage and blowback that may come, I plan to choose extravagant rest.

It will be the slow art of baking in the middle of my work-from-home days. It will be bold pictures of me soaking in the sun, playing cards and reading books. It will be weekend retreats that are not filled with uninterrupted work and prayerful discernment but with goofy pictures, my mouth wide with laughter, my heart wildly unburdened and unbothered.

This year, rest will be resistance so that the strongest me can be restored to take on the demands of the work.