“I would love to live like a river flows,
carried by the surprise of it’s own unfolding.“
These words of the late John O’Donohue have been on my mind recently, perhaps because of an awareness of my distance from this life-place he describes. If my life were a water-course, it sometimes feels like a concrete channel, hard, directed, functional.
Work has always created pressure on us as people, but the tools we have recently developed – ostensibly to make our lives easier, like all tools are meant to do – have created untold tensions within people. Always-on email, instant responses and decisions required, the need for each moment to turn a profit. When we feel a sense of control over it, this can make work rewarding and exciting; when we lack that control it creates anxiety.
A recent article in The Observer entitled ‘Welcome to the Age of Exhaustion‘ William Leith described his own battles with crunching fatigue and illness that was no more than a symptom of modern living.
What we need of course – and what I am taking for the next 10 days or so – is a holiday. A ‘holy day’. An extended Sabbath. A time in the tradition of Jubilee when we are liberated from our labour. In modern terms: a time to down tools.
We may mock Orthodox Jews for their often comic attempts to get round the Sabbath obligation to do no work, and with the recent case of a Jewish couple suing their landlord because he installed energy-saving automatic lighting in their building – which meant they ‘worked’ by moving and turning the lights on, it’s sometimes not hard to see why. But, as is so often the case, beneath the comic veneer is a sound principle that we are foolish to have abandoned: we need regular times away from our tools.
Too often, because of the business of our lives (or the shocking lack of annual leave afforded US citizens) we try to pack so much into our holidays. We spend fortunes visiting far off places and trying to consume new experiences, all the while clicking away on cameras and nipping into internet cafés to catch up. We drive and fly back jetlagged and exhausted… only to have to return to 50 weeks work.
In his article Leith quotes a New York doctor, Frank Lipman, who has identified this condition of being at the end of our tether with a succinct diagnosis. These people, he says, are ‘spent.’ He is spot on. In a world of ubiquitous consumer ideologies, what better way to describe those who cannot compete any more? They are spent people, with no more in the bank.
As we come to the summer, I want to encourage you to think about the holiday you may be taking. I believe part of the art of being on holiday has to be a deliberate attempt to down tools, to step away from our technologies and simply be present. Having been ‘created from the earth’ an essential part of our re-creation should be to reconnect with that founding substance of the earth.
The explorer and prolific walker Sebastian Snow once described what happened on a long walk:
“By some transcendental process, I seemed to take on the characteristics of a Shire [horse], my head lowered, resolute, I just plunked one foot in front of t’other, mentally munching nothingness.”
This is recreation in process: mentally munching nothingness. The art of the holiday, the art of downing tools and entering a period of Sabbath, is no more than a decision to strip away the wires that tie us, to walk, and sit, with no pressure to spend.
Enjoy your time away, whether that’s a holiday in your own living room, or to some farther shore. I hope it feels like the river when it flows, joyful, surprising and unfolding.