\”I\’m tired,\” I recently told a friend.
He looked at me with a hint of a smile and gave the obvious answer: \”Then you need to rest.\”

This simple, yet elusive answer hit me squarely.  I spend a large portion of my life being tired, yet I don\’t know how to rest.  Sure, I waste a lot of time doing things that are unproductive, but they are more a distraction or an escape; they aren\’t about rest.

I have been sick for the past few days.  I don\’t get sick very often, so when I do I get pretty grumpy.  This illness hit me especially hard, making me very tired and making it difficult to function during the day.  I contemplated canceling appointments and going home, but instead just pushed through things.  My job is to care for people, and they are looking at me to help them with their needs, their pain, and their weakness.  It\’s hard to know when my need supersedes theirs (a dilemma shared by teachers, nurses, and mothers everywhere).

Besides, I knew that I had Thursday off as a personal holiday.  I was supposed to go to a conference, but a rearrangement of personal priorities moved me to cancel those plans.  Thankfully, I left this day blocked off on my work schedule.

So after dragging through three days of fatigue, grumpiness, and self-pity, I came to today: my day off.  I had a bunch of babies to see in the hospital (there must have been some sort of fertility rite performed nine months ago) and was frustrated as I drove home, having spent much more time than expected.  I thought about the list of things I \”needed to accomplish\” on this day off, a list that serves more to make me feel anxious and guilty than to motivate.  I wouldn\’t want to waste this opportunity; I wanted to be productive!

When I got home I complained to my wife about the baby boom and went up to bed.  I quickly fell into a very deep sleep.  Four hours later I was a different person.  My head was clear, my thoughts were sharper, and my mood was better.  I had accomplished nothing \”productive\” but had changed everything.

As I lay in bed after my rest, I thought about things.  I don\’t think I am unusual in my unrested state.  We are all looking for peace and comfort, but we seek it in the wrong way: by doing instead of being. Rest is a very self-centered thing, it is about being.  You can\’t do it for someone else and you exclude others as you do it.  The focus of rest is on being nonproductive, and that makes doers like me very anxious that we are being selfish.  But I don\’t do my family, friends, or patients any good by running on empty.

There still are a lot of things to be done in my life.  I have to log in to my office and see what work piled up, my kids have homework and there is laundry to be folded.  But my rest has added substance to my view of myself.  I took care of myself, so now all of those tasks don\’t seem like a hamster wheel.  Instead of sucking life out of me, they are simply things that I need to do.  This all may seem obvious to some of my readers, but I have just realized how important it is to rest.

I have heard it said that the most important advice anywhere is that given by flight attendants every time a flight prepares to take off: \”If you are sitting next to a young child, first place the oxygen mask over your own face so that you can help those around you.\”  We aren\’t much good to others if we are empty or ragged.  It may seem selfish to put the oxygen mask over our face first, but it really just enables us to be of greater use to others.

So if you are tired and don\’t know what to do about it, don\’t do anything, rest.  Rest is about being, not doing.

5 thoughts on “Rest”

  1. Amen, amen, amen 🙂

    I wish that you, dear physician, could imprint this wisdom immediately into the brain of every one of your colleagues, and all those who train potential medical professionals … I recall reading a young doctor's memoir … He wrote that a typical shift during his training was 36 hours … ?

    Rest is as necessary as movement, and we moderns live at a frenzied pace …

    Thank you, Rob 🙂

  2. The flight safety announcement is an awesome analogy. I remember the first time I heard it as a parent and was appalled at the suggestion. When I had some time to think on it, it made perfect sense that taking care of myself was the only way to ensure that I was able to take care of anyone else.

    In 1996, I was mis-diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and handed prescriptions. They didn't work, and actually seemed to make the situation worse. (Depressed because I had to be SO CRAZY that even pills wouldn't fix it.) I changed doctors at some point and explained the weird sleep patterns, the sleepwalking, drinking to excess just to get to and stay asleep, etc. Everything pointed to disordered sleep, rather than mental illness. He put me on a mild dose of Xanax and told me to take it one hour before bedtime, maintaining a rigid bedtime (even on weekends). In less than two weeks, I was a different person.

    All these years later, I'm still taking the same dose of Xanax. One hour before bedtime, only on worknights and never with alcohol. I'm living proof that sleep-deprivation will make a person nuts.

  3. I read a tweet yesterday that said “Why are we called Human Beings? Should be called Human Doings. We're always DOing something instead of just BEing.” How often one hears someone say “I must just do ….”; I've never heard someone say “I must just be…”.

    Thank you for the post. I'm off to bed now for a rest until my alarm goes off 😉

  4. Dr. Rob,
    Man, you nailed it again! I had a period of enforced time off (two weeks each) after a couple of surgeries and it was really humbling to have my body call the shots. Even my intent to get caught up on reading was too ambitious. I took a lot of three-hour naps and had to get over feeling like I should be doing something, but it was a good lesson to learn. Thanks, again, for sharing your wisdom and doing for yourself what you would encourage your patients to do. Awesome post.

  5. I'm glad you took the time necessary to rest yourself, Dr. Rob. As a person with rheumatoid arthritis, finding a balance between doing and resting is vital for me, but it IS hard. Like you, I feel selfish when I rest, even though I need it if I want to be able to function in anything approaching normalcy.

    Today I was reading some blogs. On one of them, the blogger wrote about how, as she was walking in a park with her baby in a stroller, her pug on a leash, the pug suddenly flopped down in the grass and refused to walk any further. It was a warm day, humid, and flat-faced dogs tend to have breathing difficulties. She ended up rigging the stroller so that the dog got to ride along too. She laughed about it, but wrote how cool it was, really, that the dog knew when he'd had enough, and rather than worrying about how it would affect his mistress and her plans, he simply took the time he needed for rest. The blogger thought that was pretty smart and that we can all learn a lesson from our dogs. When we need rest, rest. It's as simple as that.

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