Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On Cultivating Virtues in the Academy: Sabbath

The deeper I went into Master's work, the more my Saturdays became homework days. By my third and last year, it was an ideal work day, particularly if my wife was planning on doing something with friends. Sunday was already a work day, but usually better for reading; Saturday, as it turned out, proved great for writing: no responsibilities other than the yet-to-be-written paper sitting before me on the blank computer screen. By spring of last year, writing my thesis, I could apportion a piece of my writing schedule -- one chapter per week -- to every day of the week; so if a chapter was about 25 pages long, I need only plan 3-4 pages of writing per day.

Needless to say, when I began doctoral work in the fall I went into it with the unquestionable assumption that, given what would assuredly be a sizeable increase in workload, weekends would be work days as much as weekdays -- with slight allowances made for fun (Saturday) and church (Sunday). In theory this would relieve each day's work by some slight but meaningful percentage, thus creating post-work time within each day for other things (whether relational, marital, practical, etc.).

A few weeks into the semester I noticed that my fellow first-year in theology, Ross -- he and his wife already fast friends of ours -- was keeping a sabbath day each week. Sundays were intentionally free of homework, so as to create unintruded, unintrudable space each week for worship, family, exercise, leisure, fun, and rest.

Initially, this seemed appealing in the abstract, but impractical in reality -- a nice idea, like how we'd all appreciate an eighth day of the week. Unfortunately, there are only seven.

However, the appeal only grew with time, and I realized -- in discussion with Ross as well as with my wife -- that its impracticality rested entirely on my decision to make it so. If I decided that one day a week was off limits (you know, like an entire people group has done for 3,000 years), then it simply would be.

So I tried it.

And I never looked back.

Since mid-October I have practiced a homework sabbath every Saturday, without exception, and I cannot exaggerate how much of a blessing it has been. I chose Saturday instead of Sunday for a number of reasons, but it has had a significant, though unintended, rest-extending consequence: Because I usually finish my school reading sometime Friday afternoon (always by 6:00 pm), and I don't pick it back up until after lunch on Sunday, the sabbath actually regularly approaches something like 42 hours in total, even some weekends spanning a total of two full days in real time.

Academics are a notoriously anxious bunch, and I am no exception. There is always another book to be read, another article to print, another paper to write, another proposal to submit. What a specifically school-work sabbath does is what the sabbath does more generally: remind you that you are not the still center of the spinning cosmos. (Reminding you also, of course, who is.) Just as the world will keep turning without your busily working self -- and this is good news! -- your academic career (or semester grades, or final paper, or . . .) will, without fail, not collapse in a heap of failure if you take a day off.

Most of us need this reminder.

Among other benefits, it is difficult to describe, in this my eighth consecutive year of post-secondary education (following 13 years of primary+secondary!), what a psychological relief it is to spend an entire day -- or two -- at rest, utterly carefree, sans work commitments and the guilt that ordinarily accompanies leaving them unattended. It is simply extraordinary.

So I commend the same to others: choose some specific amount of time each week, set it aside for whatever you like except academic work, and keep it holy. It may seem like law at first, but rest assured that it will be pure gospel. What seems to constrain will invariably work to free you. Try it.

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