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Jet Lag and Learning What I (Don’t) Mean By ‘Rest’

Have you ever dealt with a bad case of jet lag? Yeah, same. It can be really disorienting and even a bit frustrating; getting where you’ve worked to get and then feeling so unwell that you barely feel there at all. A few years ago, I hatched what I thought was a brilliant plan to deal with jet lag on an upcoming international flight. I would stay up all night before my flight, sleep the entire 11 hours from SFO to Frankfurt and when I arrived, I’d feel refreshed and focused.

It almost worked, this “brilliant” plan. I did, in fact, sleep the entire flight and wake up when the plane touched down. I also felt refreshed, mentally, having slept. But I’d spent that sleep balled up and crooked in my window seat, so when I stood up and grabbed my bag, I threw my back out and spent the next three days in pain, struggling to get out of chairs much less get out of bed.

My host (who was an Army chaplain) was patient and kind with my slowness as well as all the noises I was making. Eventually, he said “We need to get you checked out. I’ll call the chiropractor.” Thing is, the chiropractor he referred me to was working on the army base in Heidelberg and seeing an army doctor wasn’t the most comforting thought. I was imagining myself doing jumping jacks while being barked at by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket: “You want me to adjust that back, son? Adjust that attitude first!

It wasn’t that way at all. The chiropractor was a soft-spoken Canadian named Sara who got me straightened out over an hour-long session, during which she said “Wow, you really slept wrong.”

I found that such a strange sentence and idea. That I could “sleep wrong.” Turns out, there are quite a few ways I have tried to rest that are actually harmful.

  1. We rest so we can get back to work.

  2. We rest as a reward for work

  3. We rest infrequently

That’s naming just a few. I’ve certainly found other ways to rest poorly. The heart of the matter in all of it is that I’ve too often treated rest like a simple tool to fix my tired, distracted soul. But true rest is a practice. In fact, rest is a life-long practice in and through which I learn myself, over and over, so that I can be more whole (not only more rested). Rest is a loving and curious conversation between my conscious mind, my soul, and The One Who Holds My Life together.

On my way to Germany, I had “rested” in a way that, quite literally, distorted me. I think that happens more often than we figure. The best example I can recall is the way I might become “vacation dependent.”

I’m not anti-vacation, but I do think vacations or leisure trips can be more restorative (and more enjoyable) in the context of a life in which rest is a regular practice. Consider how many people you know come back from a long-awaited vacation and immediately wish they had a few days of vacation to recover from their vacation!

Too many of us return from an escapist vacation adventure to our regular patterns of work and home with a deeper resentment for daily life. Justin McRoberts

More problematic than that, a reliance on vacations can distort my relationship with my everyday life. Maybe you’ve heard people talk about how badly they wished they lived in Hawaii or Tahiti or Tahoe or wherever it is they “get away.” As much as I understand that sentiment, it’s also a dismissal of the goodness available right where we live. “Home” becomes a “boring” place where things get done, while “fun,” “happiness,” and “the good life” are on a beach a thousand miles away. That’s a terrible way to live.

A dependency on vacation can also mal-form my relationship with work. I can end up thinking of “work” as a thing I have to do but something I am happier getting away from. Work becomes a necessary evil, while “vacation” becomes the antidote. Too many of us return from an escapist vacation adventure to our regular patterns of work and home with a deeper resentment for daily life. All of that is to the detriment of the loved ones and projects and organizations we’d joyfully given ourselves to at some earlier point. I’d hope a departure from our normal patterns can lead to a renewed love and joy for the life we get to live. Too often, in the absence of a regular pattern of rest, “vacations” steal that everyday joy.

So here’s what I’ve learned:

A regular Sabbath practice gives me the opportunity to stop in the middle of the good life I’m already living and appreciate it so that I am not resting from the life I’m living; I’m resting in it. The proximity of a Sabbath practice (in that it happens in regular, direct relationship to my every day relationships and circumstances) helps to clear my vision to see what I have more completely and lovingly.

A regular Sabbath practice isn’t just about “recovering from work” or even “getting rest.” In a regular Sabbath practice…

  1. I learn what “rest” looks like for me in this season of life.

  2. I have room to pay attention to my own soul so I can re-learn what rest looks like when the season of my life changes (because it will).

  3. I have room to stop and see (and remember) I have a good life, given to me by the same Good God who is also inviting me to rest.

  4. I re-remember the goodness of my life when I forget.

As it turns out, one of the reasons jet lag knocks people out so hard is that our bodies and minds are already so tired that we don’t have the ability to recover quickly from the disorientation. Which is to say, part of what I learned in Germany was that it probably didn’t matter how I went about addressing my need and desire to show up “rested” for that trip. I needed to learn what my soul even meant by “rest.” That knowledge has only come by way of practicing.

You can read more of Justin’s work on Sabbath in his latest book Sacred Strides: The Journey to Belovedness in Work and Rest available on May 30 from Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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