Caroline Barnett

In her book "How to Do Nothing," Jenny Odell writes: “Nothing is harder than to do nothing,” and I feel that deep in my bones. 

Work responsibilities and commitments to family, friends, and other communities often leave little room for free time to do nothing. And even when we find ourselves with that elusive free time, it is quickly swallowed up by thoughts of how best to use it. 

Should I go for a run or make the phone call I’ve been putting off? Should I clean my house or get to that home project that’s been on my to-do list for some time? How should I optimize the time I have available to me? 

From external constraints on our time to an internal desire to ensure no minute is wasted, I agree with Odell, when life is moving at full speed, “nothing is harder than to do nothing.” 

But for those of us who find meaning in the words of the Bible, doing nothing is not just a nice opportunity for leisure, it is sacred. Sabbath, one of the ten commandments, is time set apart from the schedule of work for the explicit purpose of rest. It is not secondary to work, but a central part in how God calls humans to structure their time on earth. 

Sabbath gives shape to the rhythm of our lives, but of the ten commandments, the command to do nothing one day a week is the one I most easily break, and the one I feel least guilty ignoring. It is easy to follow the commandments that prohibit violence, but the command to take a break? Clearly, God has not seen my to-do list. 

This past year has been disappointing and challenging in a number of ways, but I have found an unexpected gift in the way the pandemic has forced me to do nothing. 

Whether I liked it or not, my mornings were slower, my weekends less busy, though that may have been different if I had children or was an essential worker. But at least for myself, my days took on a new rhythm, and it included many more pauses. 

But now, with the hope of new opportunities the vaccine provides, I can feel the rhythm picking up speed. I’m rejoicing for the many things that will change — most importantly, the decrease in hospitalizations and deaths — but I also mourn the return to busyness I already feel coming. I will miss how easy it was to practice sabbath: to do nothing because there wasn’t much I could do. 

As we transition into yet another new life rhythm, I hope to keep some of the pauses in my own life, even as I fill up my calendar. 

But beyond my own personal schedule, I hope that we can all use this moment to imagine a world where we are allowed to rest and practice sabbath, a world where it’s a little bit easier for everyone to do nothing. 

Caroline Barnett is the associate pastor and campus minister at First Presbyterian Church in Auburn.

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