American society extols the virtues of being busy. Busyness has now become a status symbol, to the extent that people grant higher status to those who use items such as bluetooth headsets (linked to multitasking) instead of headphones (associated with leisure).1 Whereas certain cultures and historical eras valued leisure time as a signal of wealth and status, American culture has swung to emphasize constant busyness. A market that values people with a high productivity demands they work constantly. Therefore, those who work constantly are perceived to be valuable, and Americans often brag about how busy they are to enhance their status.2 This ethos has been so imbibed by our society that a study conducted in 2016 found that around 35% of Americans do not even achieve the minimum recommended amount of sleep (at least seven hours).3 Furthermore, 60% of Americans said in a 2018 study that they sometimes feel too busy to enjoy life.4
These trends are hardly new. Henry David Thoreau keenly diagnosed the same issue in the mid-nineteenth century, saying, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”5 He believed that people had become so caught up with the daily cares of life that they had missed the essence of life. In reaction to society’s tide, he chose to separate himself from conventional society and build a home in the woods by Walden Pond. Thoreau wrote that, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”6 While his culture was saying that life was found in busyness, Thoreau chose to live a life of simplicity in pursuit of a more deliberate, meaningful life. He believed that retreat offered the opportunity to reflect, to rest, and to learn contentment in a way that the hurried pace of life often passes by. (As a caveat, Thoreau’s isolation is often mythologized and exaggerated.7 He was not far removed from society and often entertained visitors, but his insights into the importance of retreat nonetheless hold value for our society today and contain surprising parallels with Biblical passages.)
For Thoreau, the primary reason to live in the woods was to live “deliberately.” He said that, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”8 This image of extracting maximum satisfaction out of life at first seems like a declaration of intent to do as many things as possible. The modern eye would take such a statement as an invitation to fill life to the brim with activities in an attempt to find the ones that offer value. However, Thoreau intended quite the opposite; he sought to strip away every activity that could be extraneous and to leave only the essential facts of life. He recognized that life is not found in the outward trappings of busyness, but in the profundity of simple moments. Furthermore, Thoreau recognized that society often has a stultifying effect on individual thought. In a protracted example, he considered the concept of clothing, pointing out that “there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.”9 Thoreau argued that people value what is respected by society far more than what is intrinsically respectable. Retreat allows one to cast a critical eye on the values of society.
Another critical consequence of retreat is the benefit of rest. Thoreau asked, “Why should we live with such hurry and such waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.”10 Constantly acquiring more things and taking on more responsibilities does not fill the human soul; deep down, every human hungers for an experience of the sublime. Constant busyness dulls this hunger, leading to starvation of true meaning. On the other hand, stopping and resting whets the appetite for deeply-lived life, it provides the space to understand what to pursue. Retreat thus offers the chance to clear one’s mind of the expectations of society and consider the meaningful. Such an effort is a fundamentally vague endeavor; prescribing a definitive conclusion to a period of retreat ruins the value of the journey. There are many conclusions one can reach through such a period on introspection, both right and wrong. However, the process of stepping back, clearing one’s mind of pre-existing expectations, questioning and considering the “essential facts of life” offers refreshment in an increasingly busy world. While constant communication and pressure to be productive ensnares us in a world of busyness, retreat beckons.
These ideas, however, are hardly unique to Thoreau. The Bible both encourages intentional retreat and offers some guidance about how to go about it. Patterns of rest are woven into the very fabric of nature, as God rested on the seventh day after taking six days to create the earth in the Genesis creation narrative. Thus, God calls the seventh day a day “of solemn rest, a holy convocation.”11 By setting one day apart each week, God calls Christians to step back from the slog of constant work to refocus their attention on the eternal. Retreat here goes hand in hand with spiritual activity and meditation, in a similar way to how Thoreau’s experiment allowed him to reflect on society and search for true meaning in life. Elsewhere, the Bible talks about rest as a gift from God: it says that, “he gives to his beloved sleep” instead of “eating the bread of anxious toil.”12 Both Thoreau and the Bible recognize that this bread of anxious toil is not ultimately filling. While busyness and productivity are necessary at some points, they quickly become empty when they are not counterpoised with periods of intentional rest.
- Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Paharia, and Anat Keinan, “Research: Why Americans Are So Impressed by Busyness,” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School Publishing, December 15, 2016.
- Joe Pinsker, “‘Ugh, I’m So Busy’: A Status Symbol for Our Time,” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, March 1, 2017.
- “Sleep and Sleep Disorders: Data Statistics,” Center for Disease Control, last reviewed May 2 , 2017.
- Patrick van Kessel, “How Americans feel about the satisfactions and stresses of modern life,” Pew Research Center, February 5, 2020.
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden Pond, (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854), 5
- Thoreau 47
- Erin Blakemore, “The Myth of Henry David Thoreau’s Isolation,” JSTOR Daily, ITHAKA, October 8, 2015.
- Thoreau 47
- Thoreau 12
- Thoreau 48
- Leviticus 23:3 ESV
- Psalm 127:2 ESV