TO REST (ONLY A LITTLE) IN PEACE
All Things Like to Rest
Resting, physics teaches us, is where all things end up. All the forces in the world work to diminish a thing’s energy, slowing it down and bringing it eventually into a state of rest.
Rest is also what we wish for ourselves. Our tombs are inscribed with wishes of our ancestors to rest in peace, echoing times of toil and hardship when a break from all that, even eternally, was seen as a blessing.
Our fairy tales and practically all our stories end with a state of rest. The adventure ends, and then we live “happily ever after.” Les Miserables, for instance, ends with everybody at rest – Valjean dies (an end to his hard life) and Marius and Cosette inherit the money of Marius’s grandfather, and Valjean’s estate, and live happily in a state of bliss. War and Peace ends will all the main characters either dead or settled in a state of quiet domesticity.
We still long for rest – the weekend, vacations, the couch at the end of a day, even death if you’re Canadian. This is all very natural – exerting energy is hard, not exerting it is easy.
However, it is also very natural to like sweet things. The sweet tooth guides chimpanzees to look for highly nutritious fruit. They fight extremely violent territorial battles to claim sweet-fruit-bearing trees, and it makes sense – the fruit has all sorts of nutrients that are good for them. They’re worth the longing and the fight.
But if you unleashed the chimpanzees in a candy store, the sweet tooth mechanism would be short-circuited and provide false signals. Yes, the craving for sweet things is natural and healthy in the Deep Congo, but completely useless and even malicious outside of the Congo. There is no nutritional value in gummy bears, lollipops, and suckers.
And even if gummy bears had some sort of value, there is certainly no value in having so many, and so easily. In the jungle fruit is scarce and a chimpanzee has to spend much effort to get it, even to fight at times. At the candy store, the gummy bears are plentiful and require no effort of obtaining at all.
The same is true for rest. Previously, when most toiled from dawn to very late, and days off were practically unheard of beyond Sundays (sometimes only half a day), rest was in short supply. Dreaming of a paradise of leisure and repose is not very harmful when that paradise remains a dreamy fantasy, unreachable for most.
But paradise is here now! And it doesn’t feel much like paradise.
How is paradise here? Well, there has never been a time when so little effort was required for living well. Most people (alas, not this author) have free evenings, two-day weekends, and between these officially sanctioned periods of rest – easy jobs that mostly involve the sending out of emails.
But it doesn’t feel like paradise, and it certainly doesn’t look like paradise. Why? Mostly because most of us have no idea what to do with such leisure and such ease of life. A little bit to aspire to is fine, but too much of it, and we are lost: the homosexual obsessed with perpetual partying, the family regressing to television and YouTube, the groups of friends at brunch conversing about nothing but the shows the watch, the AWFL committing herself to unhinged ideologies and weird yard signs, and then the drunks, the druggies, and so forth.
Now, none of this is exactly new. Humans have been getting drunk since the discovery of wine, but the opportunity to fully commit one’s self to leisure had been scarce until recently.
Well, that’s not completely accurate! The leisurely classes, or the aristocracy, have a long history of committing themselves to things that do not involve working for a living. If we focus on the 18th century through the middle of the 19th century in England, one can conclude that the leisurely classes had been actually rather good at combining leisure with dignity. How?
Well, first they led a very public culture. Everybody’s eyes, including your servants’, would be on you. You could do opium every night and not wake up until 2 PM, but people would begin to talk. Like Dorian Gray, you’d eventually be left friendless and ostracized. As a woman, you’d be completely ruined.
Second, which is related to the first, there was a dreaded Hell to go down to. Being ejected from the Elysian heights of the upper classes, one would have to associate with the unwashed middle classes. So snobbery, or the fear of mixing in with the undesirables, was a great force to keep people in line, making sure they didn’t abuse too much their privilege of leisure. You wanted to remain “one of us,” and that meant a set of limits on your conduct (on average, etc.).
Third, which has to do less with personal conduct but with the nature of available things – entertainment in the 18th and 19th centuries was less passive and degrading in its consumption than it is now. Say, during the London Season, you went to the opera or the theater every night. It is not even close to watching Netflix every night. You’d have to dress up splendidly, polish on witty things to say, maintain a public image, and of course – you’d be consuming Handel and Porpora, not Shonda Rhimes.
What to Do
The short answer is to emulate our betters from times gone by. But it’s not very easy to do. To be a middle-class person emulating a “genteel” culture was easier when such genteel culture had been in existence. Now it doesn’t exist.
But we can certainly set some rules and employ a bit of healthy snobbery.
- As Hyacinth Bucket would recommend – find something to polish. Always have at hand something to do, collect, clean, or organize.
- Your activities should come with high stakes. I’m not a big believer in maintaining a hobby for the sake of nothing but entertainment, it makes it difficult to commit. But if, say, you volunteer as a private tutor, or at a local choir, this is high stakes and public – you can’t just renege on your commitments. Somebody will suffer if you do. You’d be ashamed if you screw up.
- Exercise a healthy form of snobbery. Why should you consume the same pop culture slop as the lower classes? They twerk then watch dumb TV and superhero movies. Why would you do the same? And no, there isn’t much of a difference between watching “Succession” vs. watching “Tyler Perry’s Medea.” In both cases, you’re a passive couch potato consuming from a feeding tube of slop.
Try it. I suspect #3 should be easy.