In my younger life, I lived down the street from a man named Richard Hughes. A major league pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, he retired and turned chicken farmer—and was one of the most productive men I’ve ever met. He was also one of the healthiest men I’d ever known—he knew there was so much more to life than work. He’d get up with the sun and work hard for the duration of the morning, come in at lunchtime for a sandwich and iced tea, then get horizontal and nap for at least a half-hour.
He knew how to take a break. Everyone in the small town where Richard lived knew not to call or knock on his front door during that time; those minutes were sacred. He’d wake rested and then put his hand to the plow of the afternoon with renewed vigor until quitting time (also known affectionately as suppertime).
Research indicates the most productive people in the workplace know how to regularly turn it all off. Some advocate working for 52 minutes and then breaking for 17, while others prefer a 25-on-5-off schedule. The gist is the same: Take a break. This holds equally true for the job we each call life, especially in these fractured days where our culture is full of unimaginable violence and fast-running hate. And such things are all the more in our face due to the hemorrhage of online news and ever-changing trends.
Many Christians hear a quaint story like Richard’s and immediately point to the idea of Sabbath or a Sabbath rhythm of living. That’s fair. But I never heard Richard Hughes use that word, ever. It was simply something he did, as natural as breathing, something incorporated seamlessly into his life. In my own life, it’s often much easier to say Sabbath in conversation than it is to actually do it in daily life. I can be a pretty good talker but a measly practitioner, a reality both Jesus and Isaiah were quite familiar with: “These people make a big show of saying the right thing, but their heart isn’t in it” (Matt. 15:7-8 MSG). If I were a betting man, I’d bet that any time Sabbath has the look or sound or feel of a big show, then I’ve gotten it wrong.
What would it mean for us to give people the permission to skip out of work for the afternoon for something comprehensible like baseball or the back of their eyelids?
Question: What would it mean for us to give people the permission to turn it all off, to skip out of work for the afternoon for something comprehensible like baseball or the back of their eyelids? To draw the circle in a little tighter: Maybe we can extend that to others, but can we give ourselves the same permission? Is it possible such taking-a-break behavior could elicit a “well done!” from our Father who’s always near? The answers speak to how much we trust that God really does have the whole world in His competent hands and that He loves us so.
What we’re talking about is retreating for a short period of time. That’s right—retreat. Now I can just hear some immediately standing to attention and rallying the troops to correct the “retreat” mentality. “No,” they’d insist, “we must be always advancing into the world, to take back ground we’ve lost,” and so forth. Well, maybe. That’s one of those lines that sounds so very spiritual but upon closer examination reveals a nervous Nellie anxiety that runs counter to Christ’s admonition to not be anxious. One of the strongest ways we can witness to a watching culture (and the culture is watching) is to demonstrate our trust that God’s got this, so to speak. We can truly step back and the world won’t collapse, because it is in God’s good hands. We’ve got to learn to retreat. The best way to learn is to practice, practice, practice. The best time to start is now.
One of the strongest ways we can witness to a watching culture (and the culture is watching) is to demonstrate our trust that God’s got this, so to speak.
In his memoir Townie, writer Andre Dubus III describes an afternoon of learning this lesson from his also-a-writer father Andre Dubus, while watching a baseball game. It was a lesson learned not by instruction but by inclusion—something he was invited into. But the experience left an indelible mark on him, of the good kind.
But that afternoon … sitting in the sun with my father and his friend, trouble was momentarily out there in the streets, away from the thousands of men, women, and kids watching these famous men play this famous game. Maybe the trick was to turn it all off sometimes. To concentrate on something comprehensible, though I knew it would take me years to understand this sport with all of its rules and apparently hidden strategies. I kept glancing over at Pop. He knew baseball and enjoyed every bit of watching it. He also spent his mornings writing deeply about men and women in some kind of pain. What was wrong with taking a break from all that?
Doesn’t that sound, well, kind of good? Desirable, even?
If you’re fortunate to live in the same town as your Pop, maybe you go watch a baseball game together. Maybe you take a Richard Hughes nap. Maybe you go for a thigh-burning bike ride—to the ice cream shop! Whatever a break looks like, do it for your own sake, but also—sometimes more importantly—for the sake of those around you. Most of us spend plenty of time dealing with our own and others’ pain in this beautiful world. That’s evidence we’re engaged with life; it’s a good thing. But there’s nothing wrong with walking away from it for a time. In fact, there’s something very right about it.
Selection from Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III © 2012 reprinted with the permission of W.W. Norton & Company.