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Legacy Presentation: The Restfulness of the Rhythm of Life
From Wayne Oates' book, Your Right to Rest
Have you ever noticed that the busiest and most active organ in your body as far as physical exertion is concerned is your heart? It beats 70–75 times a minute, varying somewhat in older and very young persons. This amounts to about 36,000,000 beats a year! Yet you must realize that these beats are always happening on an exertion-rest rhythm. The rhythm of the heart is of greatest importance. The heart cycle of rhythm is timed from the end of one heart contraction to the end of the next contraction. The rhythm consists of an exertion and contraction, called the systole, and a period of rest, called the diastole. In other words, this fearfully and wonderfully made organ rests half the time in rhythm with its exertion phase of the other half of the time. This delicate balance is found in the healthy heart.
The work-rest rhythm of the heart is more than just an analogy, a metaphor, or a parable of the very nature of life itself: Concretely and actually it is a working example of the way life works, the way we were created. We can ignore and desecrate this basic rhythm of rest and work, and we will pay the price for it in disease, disorder, and misery. Or we can attune ourselves to the inherent rhythm of life and reap the benefits of having driven and maintained ourselves according to the design of the Creator and Ruler of life, the everlasting God. You can find the basic rhythm in your heart's faithful work and rest cycle. You can find it in the rhythm of sleep and waking, and in the cycle of events from birth to death. As you go beyond your own body and life history, you can find the rhythm of life in all creation. You can genuinely sing:
This is my Father's world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father's world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.
(Maltbie B. Babcock)
Letting Yourself Catch Up with Your Body
The story is told of a South American tribe that would be on a long march, day after day, when all of a sudden the people would stop, sit down to rest for a while, and then make camp for a couple of days before going farther. They said they were letting their selves catch up with their bodies. You have, most scientists believe, an intrinsic time clock of rhythms intrinsic in every cell. These rhythms persist under constant conditions. (Charles F. Stroebel, “Chronopsychophysiology,” in Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry/II, Vol. 1, p. 167.) The fact that commercial jet airliners can travel faster than sound does not change but only complicates the intrinsic time clocks you and I have in us. Jet lag exemplifies this. There is a four- to five-day period of fatigue and readjustment needed after a transcontinental or transoceanic flight through several time zones. You can anticipate this by artificially adapting to the time schedule of the place of your destination one week before your departure. Or you can plan stopovers along the way to let your internal rhythm catch up. Or, if your schedule will permit it, you can continue to eat, sleep, work, and play on the time clock of your home location all through a visit to another continent or to the other end of this one. The whole purpose of this adjustment of your rhythm is to be sure that in making critical decisions your judgment will not be impaired by your being out of synchrony within your internal circadian ("circa," around; "dies," day) 24-hour cycle.
Other examples of this rhythm of your being are at every hand. Rhythms underlie what is assumed to be in the range of the constant balance in people and the world. "In health, a human being has an appearance of stability that cloaks an inner symphony of biological rhythms—a spectrum ranging from microseconds for biochemical reactions, milliseconds for unit nerve activity, about a second for the heart rhythm, the 90-minute rapid eye movement cycle of dreaming (while asleep), the major 24-hour rest-activity cycle, the 27-day menstrual cycle, and, finally, the single life-span cycle" (ibid.). Your best opportunity for "laboratory" observation of these rhythms is when, twice a year, most of the nation shifts one hour from standard to daylight saving time. From highly technical studies of the brain, the skin, the urine, the blood, the plasma, and the body as a whole, reasonable conclusions have been drawn at such places as the University of Minnesota chronobiology laboratory. These studies show that our bodies vary cyclically and rhythmically in their ability to tolerate stress, to function at their best, and to detoxify and excrete poisons and drugs. These especially appear in our emotional responses. We can snap to attention fairly quickly at any moment night or day and converse intelligently, abstract, and reason. Yet at the same time, our moods and our capacity for empathy will not be so cooperative. They vary significantly and ritually over a 24-hour period.
An important part of your own serenity and peacefulness in living rests in your getting to know your particular rhythm of life. Are you an A.M. personality, rising early in the morning fully alert and with energy at its peak; and do you find that the hours between 3 P.M. and 6 P.M. are "down times" for you? Or, on the other hand, are you a P.M. personality, one who really does not get going until mid or late morning but becomes a dynamo of energy from 11 P.M. to 2 A.M.?
Your answers to the above questions will give many basic clues as to which shift you work on, which time of day you do your crucial decision-making, and when during the 24-hour cycle you are more likely to rest, sleep, "goof off," have a party, etc. Also, the rhythm of your day has to be timed to relate well to the rhythms of those with whom you live. Husbands and wives have a major discipline, especially early in their marriage, in synchronizing their best times with each other and providing solitude for each other in the recuperative times of their lives. When this is ignored and romantic love is falsely taken to mean being with each other at all times and places, real marital trouble is in the making. A specific example is in the rhythm of the sexual life of a couple. We live on a continuum between great spontaneity, on the one hand, and great indifference, on the other. A couple can consciously tune their lives to their mutual times of spontaneity and indifference, using the first for sexual enjoyment, play, and laughter, and the second for separate activity, rest, solitude, and contemplation. Unsatisfactory impasses can occur through self-centeredness and neglect of the building of a mutual rhythm. In these cases, the partners go their own ways and develop parallel lives, each rarely entering the other's world. Isolation sets in and the contractual elements of being legally married begin to feel like shackles from which to be liberated.
The Rest Cycle Within the Wakeful Day
In the early 1950s, Patricia Carrington, Harmon Ephron, and others did research that points "to the existence of roughly 80 to 110 minutes during a waking day when persons are in a reverie, a daydream. These moments do not come all at the same time but alternate with periods of outwardly directed thinking of a more practical and logical nature." (Patricia Carrington, Freedom in Meditation, p. 139). Clinical observation demonstrates this. Notice yourself in the middle of your duties at work when you catch yourself staring at the wall or out a window. Note the times during a meeting when you are definitely "out of it." Although the state of consciousness may seem to be boredom, it is not; you may be quite engrossed in what is going on. On the contrary, your whole being of itself cuts out to rest a bit. Notice also the skill of accomplished public speakers who use silences, humorous stories, tender and emotional stories, and other strategies to "rest" their audiences. Also remember how the dentist uses a rhythm of rest and work in repairing your teeth! Watch yourself when you are driving your car, too, when you suddenly jerk to the realization that in your abstraction you have already gone past your destination!
These "rests along the way" are there in the flowing process of your being. Why not take advantage of them, use them as times of meditation, imagination, contemplation, and prayer? Bring them into your deliberate way of life. Rely upon the rhythm of the wisdom of your body to enable you to be renewed through these times of reverie. I myself am committed to exercising my inalienable right to spend some time each day simply "staring at the wall" or focusing my meditation on a small wooden cross, at the Star of David on my wall, or at one of the several art pieces my students and patients have given me.
In the early years of my ministry, I worked alongside a much older and more experienced pastor. He seemed never to hurry and seemed to enjoy and savor his work. He noted that I did not function this way. He said to me: "You must learn to sit easy in the saddle; the Christian ministry is a long journey!" I have taken him at his word, and having now become as old as he was then, I can arm his wisdom from years of practice. The rhythms of the resting cycles in a day's waking activity are put there, it seems to me, by the all-wise Creator for the constant renewal of our being, for he intends that the journey of life be much longer, healthful, and filled with joy than our 100-yard-dash mentalities will ever permit.
Savoring Each Stage of Your Life Cycle
Your whole life has a predictable rhythm in its seasons. The psalmist comments on the shortness and fragility of our lives, even if we live our threescore and ten, or fourscore, years to the end. Then he prays: "So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Ps. 90:12).
That heart of wisdom embraces an awareness that in the order of creation, God "has made everything beautiful in its time"; also he has put eternity in our minds; but even so we "cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end" (Eccl. 3:11). Such knowledge is too awesome for us; it is high, we cannot attain to it (Ps. 139:6). Yet the seasons of our own lives we can know. We can attune ourselves to their rhythm as surely as we adjust to the seasons of the year—winter, spring, summer, and fall. In this attunement is our rest and our ecstasy in savoring each era of our existence, that of our family around us, and that of the circle of our friends and the larger community. Festival and fasting, rejoicing and mourning, greeting and farewell, arriving and departing, become the pulsating rhythm of emotion at the stages along life's way, at the passages from one era of the life cycle to the other, from birth to death.
Yet for the average American, moving from one stage of life to another is something to be either ignored and denied, hurried through, or anticipated with fear and dread. Hence, we exaggerate into physical symptoms and inappropriate behavior the natural anxiety of growth from one stage of life to another. It is hard for us to put away childish things, quit looking back with nostalgia, and take the leap of faith into the newness of life.
On the contrary, let me suggest that a way of durable rest and renewal of life for you and me is to commit ourselves to savoring each era of our life cycle. Live life to the hilt in each stage along life's way. This savoring of life Walt Whitman called "wondering." To wonder is to be filled with awe at both what can and what cannot be known:
I do not think seventy years is the time of a man or woman,
Nor that seventy millions of years is the time of a
man or woman,
Nor that years will ever stop the existence of me
or any one else.
Is it wonderful that I should be immortal? as every
one is immortal,
I know it is wonderful . . . but my eyesight is
equally wonderful . . . and how I was conceived in
my mother's womb is equally wonderful,
And how I was not palpable once but am
now . . . and was born on the last day of May
1819 . . . and passed from a babe in the creeping
trance of three summers and three winters to
articulate and walk . . . are all equally wonderful.
And that I grew six feet high. . . and that I have
become a man thirty-six years old in 1855 . . . and that
I am here anyhow--are all equally wonderful;
And that my soul embraces you this hour, and we
affect each other without ever seeing each other,
and never perhaps to see each other, is every
bit as wonderful.
(“Who Learns My Lesson Complete?” from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition, ed. By Malcolm Cowley, pp. 140–141; Viking Press, 1959)
Evelyn Duvall has described stages in family development and has given the approximate number of years we spend in each era. She has determined statistically that the average American couple will spend two years before they have children, twenty years rearing, educating, and setting free their children, and then have twenty-five to thirty years of life before one or the other spouse dies. (Evelyn Millis Duvall, Marriage and Family Development, 5th ed., p. 148; J.B. Lippincott Co., 1977.)
The crucial point of this discussion of the life cycle is that much of our restlessness and fatigue arises from our ignorance or unawareness of the normative rhythm for a healthy and productive person. This in turn prompts us to try to rush through life rather than to pause, to savor, and to wonder with awe at the strengths for living each era that life has for us. In other words, we destroy the rhythm of the life cycle with inordinate haste, false ambition, and lack of discipline. We fear that life is passing us by when in fact we are passing life by in our pell-mell rush. For example, I am in the era of later maturity and I am often tempted to neglect the chances to be a good grandparent. Yet to intensify my attention, wonder, and savoring of the revelations of my grandchildren makes the past seem to be worth all the effort and the future to be intensely intriguing as I watch the growth of my grandchildren today.
A young couple—as a further example—may not have children yet. They may want to enjoy the awe, wonder, and savoring that comes from getting to know each other more profoundly, from taking advantage of their freedom to travel, and from forming lasting friendships with other couples their age. Little do they realize that they are preparing themselves to be the best of friends and comrades in the later stage of the contracted family, the "empty nest" stage, when all the children are grown and out of the home. When people attend closely to the issues of the intense present, the past and future take care of themselves.
Paul Tillich puts it this way: "Every moment of time reaches into the eternal. It is the eternal that stops the flux of time for us. It is the 'eternal now' which provides for us a temporal ‘now.' ... People who are never aware of this dimension lose the possibility of resting in the present. As the letter of Hebrews puts it, they never enter into the divine rest. ... The eternal rest ... stops the flux of time and gives us the blessing of the present." (Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now, p. 131; Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963. Italics added.) The Moffatt translation of Deut. 29:29 says it best: "The hidden issues of the future are with the Eternal our God, but the unfolded issues of the day are with us and our children for all time."
The complete book, Your Right to Rest, is available in the Center for Oates Studies under Wayne Oates Books.
Dr. Wayne Oates was a pioneer in the fields of pastoral care and psychology of religion. He spent most of his career teaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and part of his career teaching at the University of Louisville Medical School. During his lifetime he published 58 books and hundreds of articles.
Copyright © 2002, Wayne E. Oates Institute. All rights reserved.