“It is difficult to tell a short-sighted man how to get somewhere. Because you cannot say to him: ‘Look at that church tower ten miles away and go in that direction.’” — Ludwig Wittgenstein
As an English professor, I find summer a difficult time. During the hustle and bustle of the school year, things are easier. I fall into a daily rhythm. Decisions are made for me, necessity reigns, and what needs to be done is done. But things are different in the summer. There are fewer immediate obligations and fewer day-to-day deadlines. During the school year there are classes to teach, meetings to attend, and students to meet. But in the summer, these daily obligations and responsibilities fall away. Don’t get me wrong. There is a great deal for me to do during the summer: there are syllabi to prepare, for example, and there is my own research that calls out to me in an accusing tone. It’s just the frenetic pace that’s missing. And for people like me, that frenetic pace is addictive.
As such, in the summer, I tend to manufacture busyness. I volunteer for unnecessary things (such as writing this blog post). I fill my schedule with readings, responsibilities, and duties. I try to row my way out of the doldrums, rather than letting the wind pick up naturally, in its own good time, to waft me away.
This particular summer, however, I’ve made an effort to resist this tendency and to set aside time for rest. I’m doing so, in part, because I’m starting to see the danger of unmitigated busyness. After all, as Francis Bacon writes, “to spend too much Time in Studies is Sloth.” In his explication of this passage, the great Dominican scholar A.G. Sertillanges notes,
it is sloth directly, in as much as it is incapacity to overcome a fixed habit, to put on the brake sometimes. It is sloth indirectly because to refuse to rest is implicitly to refuse an effort that rest would render possible, and that overwork will make problematical. But it is sloth in a more hidden fashion also. In fact, physiologically, rest is tremendous work. When mental activity is interrupted, the inner nature of the body enters on a process of restoration which should be thorough. What we call leisure is but a transformation of energy.
To reiterate, as an English professor, I have responsibilities during the summer. My work doesn’t cease. There are preparations and plans to be made. But there are also islands of rest, havens for the weary traveller, if I will only take advantage of them. What’s more, these havens help prepare me for the work at hand. In my own limited experience, rest gives both breadth and depth of vision, preventing a kind of intellectual short sightedness bordering on blindness. I can now see the church tower ten miles away, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, and move in that direction.