Stress, rest and resistance

Teenage Student Studying Hard

Its exam season once again. And this week there was yet another report outlining something of the immense pressure our young people are under and the effects it is having on them. The Millenium Cohort Study (MCS) revealed sharp increases in the girls being admitted to hospital due to incidents of self-harm including cutting, poisoning and hanging. An unbelievable 24% of 14 yr old girls were found to be depressed. Almost a quarter of teenagers at this key point in their adolescence are suffering from depression! What a horrific and saddening statistic.

Girls certainly seem to be fairing worse than boys on most indicators. Whilst 9% of 14 yr old boys are depressed looks mild when laid against the statistic for girls. It is still 1 in every 11 boys – which is pretty extraordinary.

The report cites possible causes;  bullying, cyber-bullying, social media, academic pressures, though does not come to any firm conclusions. It does however note that girls from poor backgrounds and girls who are academically gifted seem to be fairing worst of all. Commenting on the report one clinical psychologist pointed to the pressure children are under to succeed at school and that the competition for university places and employment is a significant source of stress.

As parents this whole topic can be a major source of stress and anxiety too! What can we do as parents to help navigate our children through what appears to be a pressure cooker atmosphere of academic and social stresses. One that seems to start earlier and earlier.  The ubiquity of the mobile phone, cheap data, almost universal wifi, and apps as addictive as any number of illegal substances, means that all but the most ruthless of parents is watching their teenage children living within the constant world of constant social scrutiny and distraction. Every year at exam time there are lovely words of wisdom from successful people who once flunked their exams – but there does not seem to be anything like concerted effort to reduce the academic pressure prevalent in so many schools.

I wonder though if there is something we can offer our children. It is an ancient practice, drawn from a foundational assumption about the world we live. It sounds like religious ritual, but it is fundamentally a humane practice for health and well-being. Might we offer our children the gift of Sabbath.

Sabbath originates from the Judeo-Christian creation story. It is a practice that responds to a belief in a God who worked for 6 days and rested for 1. It enshrines an essential human rhythm, alongside other natural rhythms of times and seasons, that says that a good balance for life and happiness is a rhythm of work and rest in roughly this proportion.

We do not live in a world remotely attuned to that rhythm. And it is wearingly all of us. And making our children sick. We live in a world driven by an assumption of scarcity and competition. We live in a coercive environment that demands more but never satisfies. ‘A society of 24/7 multitasking in order to achieve, accomplish, perform, possess’ (Walter Brueggemann)

TimeSabbath is the antidote of resistance to this pernicious culture. Rest is a brave practice that expresses a refusal to comply with that environment. It is to refuse to be made a commodity, or a thing, by a rampant utilitarian society. It is to practice the art of rediscovering that we are not a ‘what’ (the sum of our achievements or our potential to the economy) but a ‘who’ (a mysterious and beautiful blend of heritage, story, character, relationships and giftings).

You don’t have to be religious to practice Sabbath. Rest humanises us whatever our beliefs or background. It may well point us beyond ourselves to something of the deeper truth of our origins and that of the world around us – but that is another topic.

If we value our sanity, our humanity and that of our children we will do well to practice Sabbath. What might it look like? Very simple. A regular and consistent rhythm of deliberate rest from the pressures and coercion of the distracting and greedy society around us. It will not, and for many cannot, look like a Sunday of rest every week. We must take the principle and apply its values and its ethos. For my wife and I it is a deliberate 24-hour period from the beginning of Friday evening to the end of Saturday where we slow, silence our phones, and seek to be attentive to one another. We spend the morning reading the papers and have brunch. In the afternoon we may go for a walk or see friends. We will make more of an effort in making dinner in the evening and take out time over it.

That is our current rhythm. It has been renewing for us. But not only does it renew us each week, it somehow affects our attitude and approach to the rest of the week. ‘Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms’ (Walter Brueggemann). Practising Sabbath begins to shape our whole attitude to time and activity. By sanctifying one period of a week for rest, we resist the tendency to see all time and activity as commodity.

Our children are now at an age that we have not imposed out rhythm of Sabbath on them, rather we have modeled it to them. I guess it is for every family to negotiate how Sabbath might be expressed. First and foremost Sabbath is a gift from the treasury of Biblical spirituality, something from that deep seam of wisdom for life, that we can model ourselves and offer as a gift to others.

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