What if rest was a form of resistance?

27 nov. 2023


What if rest was a form of resistance?
Laetitia VitaudExpert du Lab

Autrice, consultante et conférencière sur le futur du travail, spécialiste de la productivité, de l’âge et du travail des femmes

In the US today, there appears to be a growing awareness of the importance of rest. The hustle culture prevalent in the 2010s is slowly but surely being reevaluated. Many people have come to recognize the negative consequences of constantly prioritizing work and productivity over personal well-being and rest. This shift towards valuing resting more than hustling is epitomized in the popularity of the 4-day workweek. This reflects a profound change in societal and workplace attitudes, with more emphasis on results-oriented productivity, energy savings, and talent attraction.

I’m convinced it’s crucial to grant rest a bigger role in transforming the future of work. But rest shouldn’t be seen only as serving work and productivity. In fact, rest for rest’s sake is a radical idea that has deep roots in US history. It may still often be presented as a matter of individual self-care, but it is fundamentally a political issue. Rest is deemed unproductive and therefore not readily granted, even by ourselves. We perceive it as a reward rather than a necessity, a means to an end (increased production) rather than a goal in itself.

In my exploration of the concept of rest, I’ve encountered the work of Tricia Hersey and her beautifully named Nap Ministry. Trained as a theologian, this African-American poet, who refers to herself as the “Nap Bishop,” asserts the importance of rest as a racial and social justice issue. Her book titled Rest is Resistance, designed as a prayer, pays tribute to her enslaved ancestors and calls for greater emancipation through rest. Hersey writes: “Rest is a form of resistance because it disrupts and pushes back against capitalism and white supremacy … The systems have manipulated and socialized us so that we stay exhausted … Capitalism was created on plantations. The roots of it are violence and theft.”

How slavery, capitalism and rest prohibition are intertwined

Slavery played a pivotal role in the growth and consolidation of capitalism during the era of European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. The labor of enslaved individuals generated vast profits, enriching not only Southern plantation owners but also paving the way for the rise of significant capitalist ventures in the US and Europe, all heavily reliant on the proceeds of the slave trade and forced labor.

The transatlantic slave trade was intricately linked to the emergence of modern financial systems, with European banks financing the trade and insuring slave ships. In many ways, slavery can be said to have laid the foundational framework for modern capitalism, including the development of credit and insurance industries. Additionally, the cheap cotton produced by enslaved individuals in America played a huge role in the Industrial Revolution.

Many activists have emphasized that this substantial and often underestimated historical debt can never truly be repaid and continues to manifest itself in the present day. The idea of reparations stems from the acknowledgment that the consequences of historical injustices persist across generations, resulting in contemporary socioeconomic and political disparities. Sleep deprivation and the denial of rest are intertwined with this history of systemic oppression.

Alas, the sheer exhaustion faced by so many Black people is far from being only a thing of the past. It lingers in American (and European) societies today. Notably, Black women continue to experience lower wages and increased exploitation. They constitute a significant portion of essential care workers while remaining among the lowest-paid. They are still exhausted.

Let’s take a nap

Extensive research indicates there’s a sleep gap between Black Americans and white Americans. That’s why Tricia Hersey established the Nap Ministry in 2016. Her organization advocates for rest as a form of reparation and a pathway to connecting with her ancestors. Collective naps, initiated in 2017, have been described by those who participated in them as liberating experiences as they awaken with the realization of their profound exhaustion. Many of them hadn’t comprehended the intensity of their burnout until experiencing a mid-day nap.

Hersey’s initiative, hosted in various collective spaces, expanded to reach yoga studios, church basements, city parks, conference rooms, libraries, theaters, bookstores, and more. As the Nap Bishop, she draws on Christian theology and rituals to emphasize that individuals don’t need to earn or deserve their rest; they simply need to be. “The Nap Ministry has always been the personal experiment of an exhausted and curious Black woman artist. I was aware of what rest had done for me, but to watch it transform into a collective healing moment for others has been a complete blessing,” Hersey writes.

Daydreaming for a better future

What if daydreaming was much more powerful than you thought? Besides sleep, rest also includes other “unproductive” modes such as daydreaming and contemplation, which for Hersey have the power to allow people to stay connected to their ancestors and to envision possible, imaginary futures.

Indeed rest (and daydreaming) serves as a fertile ground for imagination. Well-rested people tend to envision new possibilities and are more capable of engaging in community care and political action. That’s why it is emancipating and potentially disruptive. No wonder owners didn’t want enslaved workers to engage in daydreaming! That would have been risky.

The daydreaming mode generally holds great cognitive value, facilitating novel connections, innovative ideas, and memory consolidation. It helps people explore alternative perspectives, simulate scenarios, and imagine future outcomes. It also plays a vital role in shaping our identity and sense of self by helping each of us understand our past and future trajectories.

“I can daydream for hours a day and vividly remember this as a daily practice since I was a child. In those daydreaming moments, I was processing my own history and imagining worlds that felt real… As I got older, these moments happened less and less. I was rushed off by my parents, teachers, classmates, colleagues, managers, and friends. All of culture is in collaboration for us not to rest,” writes Hersey.

Rest for all overwhelmed by our productivist culture

Movements advocating for social justice, racial equity, and workers’ rights have drawn increased attention to disparities in the workforce. Rest and work-life balance are becoming part of these conversations, particularly concerning marginalized communities. Today’s popularity of the 4-day workweek clearly aligns with this trend. It reflects the broader cultural and economic shift towards greater recognition of the importance of rest. With the 4-day workweek, rest is given sufficient space to become a means of resisting the toxicity of our productive systems and creating space to simply exist.

Rest, as a form of resistance, addresses the legacy of slavery and ongoing racial discrimination. But it also serves as a universal call to protect all bodies subjected to a culture of overwork and productivity. In a world facing unprecedented ecological crises and health challenges, rest becomes a form of resistance against a grind culture that disregards our planet as well as all its inhabitants.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Follow Welcome to the Jungle on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram to get our latest articles every day, and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter!

Les thématiques abordées