by Meg Riley, senior minister, Church of the Larger Fellowship
Years ago, I directed the UUA’s Washington Office. It was a challenging time in U.S. history, marked by the passage of the civil-rights-denying Patriot Act, pompous patriotic righteousness about the need to attack Iraq, support for fundamentalist Christian-style “family values,” and endless attacks on vulnerable communities. Nothing that Unitarian Universalists cared out about had much of a chance of moving forward at that time, and I was in charge of our legislative advocacy.
My staff used to joke that I spent my time reframing what “success” meant, since it could never mean actually passing legislation we wanted. With all humility, I have to admit that reframing is something of a superpower for me. So we redefined success: How many op-eds could we get people to publish? How many UUs would gather and rally publicly against the latest horrible thing? How many ministers would go and speak to legislators? What new interfaith partnership could we join or convene? We were like Sisyphus, trying every day to push that boulder up the hill.
Though I am a master of reframing, and worked with wonderful people, gradually I could feel burnout and depression edge up on me. At the time, before blogs and before we could easily send out a formatted weekly newsletter, I sent out a weekly email update to people who were interested. One week, I shared how deeply discouraged and tired I was. The responses I received back were kind and understanding. Others were also tired and discouraged, and appreciated my honesty.
One email stood out from the rest. It was from a rabbi I knew, someone I worked with on many common agendas: Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who directed (and still does, at age 84) something called The Shalom Center. His email contained only three words: “Honor the Sabbath.”
I wrote him back in something of a whine. How could I honor the Sabbath, I asked, when most Sundays found me out in some congregation or another, prodding people to take action and organize? He responded, “You’re a UU, not exactly Orthodox. Take Sabbath some other day.”
Desperate, I took his advice. Monday became my Sabbath. I hung out with my young child, stayed off the computer, avoided the news, made and ate good food, walked with my dog in Rock Creek Park. Gradually my week began to revolve around those Mondays, which revived me so that on Tuesday I could start pushing the rock up the hill again.
As so often happens, when I wasn’t desperate anymore—when the despair and burnout subsided—I stopped doing the practice that had brought me respite. It wasn’t until recent elections brought me to my knees again that the idea of Sabbath re-demanded my attention. I’m not as rigid about it as some people are (probably to my detriment), but I do take weekly time away from social media, news, emails, and phone calls. Simply to leave my phone and take a walk feels liberating. I am joyful to have brought the idea of Sabbath back into my life, and I vow not to let it go again.
Of course, this is not easy for everyone. I am aware, writing this, that people who are fulltime caregivers or currently incarcerated or holding down three jobs simply do not have the luxury of claiming a day for themselves. I wish that this were otherwise and a full day Sabbath was possible for everyone. Failing that, in the most stressful and overwhelming times of my life, I used my superpower of reframing in a way that really helped me. I offer it to you.
Each morning I would wake up early and think of at least one time in the day that would be a gift of rest and renewal to myself. It might be, literally, a bathroom break, where I would take my time and not rush with anxiety. It might be to focus on enjoying the minutes of transit between several demanding jobs, with plans to play particular songs on the radio. It might be holding a stone in my pocket and rubbing it when I was bored in a meeting.
I would plan these times out as pit stops, and I would center my day in them rather than in the overwhelming avalanche of items to do in between them. I would think of them as the most important part of the day.
This really did work for me. While “Sabbath moments” are not as deeply satisfying as an entire Sabbath day, framing my day to make them central offered me some sense that rest was, indeed, at the core of who I was and what I was doing. Despite the constant sense of overwhelm I felt, I could look forward to and savor these respites.
Sabbath moments, Sabbath days, Sabbath seasons—all are good for the soul. May you find a way to live into the renewal that comes from rest, wherever you may find it.