Why do we take vacations? We tell ourselves that we need to get away from the world — or at least our corner of it — to rest, reflect, and untangle the knots we have tied in our muscles and minds. But, when our vacation has ended, did we actually accomplish our goal?
When our children were little, most of the vacations that our family embarked upon seemed anything but relaxing. Many times, I was more exhausted when we returned than when we left.
It all started with the packing process. My wife must have earned several merit badges for preparedness. She always ensured that we had enough clothes, toiletries, snacks and supplies to weather an unexpected earthquake, global flood or toilet paper shortage. To be fair, she was not alone. I was guilty of taking several extra charging cables, a wireless router in case Wi-Fi was unavailable, and yes, I even brought a solar powered charger to ensure that we would be connected to the real world during our time away from the real world.
When we arrived at our vacation destination, there were timetables to keep, traffic to fight, family members to visit, excursions to coordinate, and fun to schedule. And once the long, exhausting journey home was over, there was unpacking to be done, back seats to be cleared of sticky debris (before it began to smell), piles of laundry and a mountain of email to triage.
Even when we tried to embrace simplicity and spend a week at a cabin in the woods, there was still work to do. Meals had to be prepared. But now, the microwave we had grown accustomed to was replaced by an oven built in the late 50’s. On the bright side, we had the opportunity to introduce our kids to Jiffy Pop popcorn.
The nearest store was over an hour away, so snacks and chocolate had to be carefully rationed in order to last for an entire week. Yet, because of its new value, it was fun using chocolate as currency for the board games we played at night.
One of the cabins we visited didn’t have a heating system, so we had to cut firewood and use an ol’ fashion potbelly stove. And now, we had an excuse to make s’mores! (Like anyone ever needs an excuse to make s’mores.)
Now that I think about it, our kids never complained about being bored on those excisions into the wilderness. Once their device screens went dark, they began to explore the natural world they had been dropped into. Instead of waiting to be entertained, they created adventures. Disney might have a Magic Kingdom, but in those remote cabins in the woods, we found a magic that was far more powerful and lasting.
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In 2014, researchers at the University of Virginia conducted a study in which they asked the participants to simply sit alone in a room for a few minutes with no access to cell phones, reading material or other distractions. Their only task was to remain seated and awake. For fifteen minutes, they would be completely alone with just their thoughts.
Inside the room, the researchers placed a device which could administer a harmless, but very uncomfortable electric shock. Before the experiment began, each participant agreed to experience one shock before the clock started so they knew what was at stake. After sampling the shock, the test group unanimously admitted that they would pay to prevent more shocks.
Here is where the study gets interesting. If at any time during their fifteen minutes of solitude they wanted to leave the room, all they had to do was push the button and give themselves a shock. One shock and the experiment was over.
The results were shocking…. (Sorry). One fourth of the women and two thirds of the men voluntarily chose to shock themselves rather than sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes. 15 minutes!
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Disengaging from the incessant tumult of our world is not easy or comfortable. But it is necessary. I have long rejected the assumption that vacation is all about relaxation. Instead, vacation provides an opportunity to truly rest. Too often, we negatively associate rest with inactivity. I don’t believe this is a fair correlation. True rest provides us with the freedom to stretch our horizons, explore our relationships with friends and family, discover something that is outside of our normal range of experiences, and perhaps, gain a renewed look at our life back home.
After creating the world in six days, God takes the seventh day in the newly minted universe to get a little rest. (See Genesis 2:2-3) God’s last acts in the creative process was to create a rest day. But if we define “rest” as simply the cessation of activity, then a rest day is not really part of the act of creating and there would be no need to mentioned it. Typically, when we tell a friend about a big accomplishment, we usually don’t say something like, “That term paper took me two weeks and 3 days of rest.”
But Scripture tells us that universe we occupy was not finished until God rested. The seventh day finishes the story.
I believe that the reason we find setting aside time for rest so difficult, is the same reason that those who participated in the experiment at the University of Virginia were willing to shock themselves rather than spend fifteen minutes alone with their thoughts. When we rest, we are forced to face the reality that our identity is based on far more than what we do. At the next dinner party or business meeting, take note of how you introduce yourself to a stranger. What do you say about yourself, other than your name?
True rest means taking time away to ask ourselves, “Who do I want to be?” I know, rest takes time and it might seem inefficient. Trust me, your to-do list is not going anywhere. In fact, we might be able to pare down the length of that to-do list, if we take time to honestly answer the question, “Who do I want to be?” We might find that some of the tasks that demand so much of our time and energy are actually working against our chosen identity. We can become so focused on checking-off boxes that we never take the time necessary to determine if they were worth being added to the list in the first place.
So the next time you are sitting around the campfire trying to carefully pull a warm, gooey marshmallow off a whittled stick and perfectly position it between two layers of dark chocolate and cinnamon graham crackers, create a moment of true rest for yourself, knowing that the One who created you set the example.