“The whole world is moving / And I’m standing still,” I hummed to the song “The World Spins Madly On” by The Weepies as I lay sickly on my bed, resonating with the lyrics a bit more than I would expect.
For that whole week, I was experiencing headaches, runny nose, and fatigue; yet I told myself that I was only being dramatic. Imagine trying to lie to your own body. My body was demanding for rest and I was forcing myself to work. Only when I became so sick that I couldn’t leave my bed did I take the time to reflect and ask: Why was it so hard for me to accept the fact that I’m sick? Why was I so insistent on doing the same amount of work my healthy classmates are doing? What is with the shame around not doing work and resting?
The answers to these questions revolutionized my thinking. Our campus, our culture and our world too often associate a lack of productivity as an indicator of laziness, and I want to advocate for a radical idea — resting is a form of resistance.
To understand the concept of rest as a tool for social change, we have to contextualize the different cultures that we’re embedded in, first on campus and then in the broader world.
The context of Stanford and the duck syndrome
The image of a duck calmly gliding across the water while frantically paddling its legs to keep up is a phenomenon known to most Stanford students. With the backdrop of the Californian sun and sandstone buildings, every single student you come across looks glowing and thriving. When I was sick, I felt this uncomfortable feeling in my stomach because everyone was moving forward while I was standing in place. Despite having a fever, I went to one of my classes and talked to my classmates, pretending as if everything was normal because of the fear of not doing enough. Even though I felt like I was the only one who was struggling, I’m sure I wasn’t the only duck.
Time here doesn’t function as actual time but instead functions as a series of deadlines. Thursday isn’t Thursday but when a problem set is due. Even though time is actually moving, I feel static because I’m not working. My productivity measures my worth. Yet this belief isn’t my own individual mindset or is it exclusive to our campus: we as a society are all accomplice in ‘hustle culture’ and toxic productivity.
White supremacy and the capitalistic mindset
Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry, traces America’s obsession with productivity to its history of white supremacy. The Transatlantic Slave Trade’s timeline from the 16th to 19th century observes millions of black people being enslaved, dehumanized and abused for their labor. Their bodies bore the most difficult and brutal work and the economic wealth accumulated through slavery was the foundation of American capitalism. “American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism,” write the historians Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman.
The wave of immigrants to the US during the colonial era also built upon the backbone of the economy, as data published in the National Library of Medicine support. When Chinese immigrants first came to San Francisco in the 1850s due to political and economic tension in China, they largely contributed to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad through back-breaking labor. The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University noted that white workers were unwilling to participate in such hazardous work so the demographic population for this work was 90% Chinese as the demand for labor increased.
“Chinese received 30-50 percent lower wages than whites for the same job and they had to pay for their own food stuffs,” Chang says. “They also had the most difficult and dangerous work, including tunneling and the use of explosives. There is also evidence they faced physical abuse from some supervisors. They protested these and the long hours and they used their collective strength to challenge the company.”
The symbol of workers’ strikes — refusing to work to rebel against the system — reverberates throughout history in other countries as well. The first recorded labor strike happened in ancient Egypt when tomb-builders protested late payment in 1159 BC. In 1856, stonemasons in Melbourne walked off their jobs to demand for reduced working hours. By taking strike action, they successfully negotiated the eight-hour day as the general industry standard in not just Australia, but also in other countries.
Demanding for rest when the system is expecting you to work has become a symbol of resistance among marginalized communities around the world. While Hersey’s work directly challenges the relationship between black people and the work that they have been forced to do in America, grind culture exists in many other parts of the world and her philosophy on capitalism is more universal.
“[There’s this] grind culture, which I say is white supremacy and capitalism, kind of blended together. It’s the thing that started when our ancestors were on plantations—the culture of seeing human beings as machines. The word ‘grind’ — when you think about gears and grinding on a machine — it sees our bodies and who we are as just being machines for production,” said Tricia Hersey in an interview with Prism Reports.
If we are to learn anything from Hersey’s insight, it’s that the process of unlearning rest as a luxury and instead reconceptualizing rest as a necessity requires collective work.
Radical nourishment is an idea of resting with intentionality. Czarina Jimenez reframes the practice of “self-care” by proposing community-oriented activities that pointedly oppose cultural norms like perfectionism or productivity. Practices of rest can take different forms such as co-creating arts, connecting to nature, listening to one’s bodies through meditation, and gardening. In addition, The Nap Ministry affirms the idea of rest as rebellion through collective napping experiences by converting public spaces such as parks, museums and art galleries into sacred and safe spaces. The notion of “napping” symbolizes a larger concept of getting the rest that our bodies desperately need.
Taking care of your body through rest should be examined beyond the lens of mainstream wellness and self care. It is mentally and physically exhausting to fight off the system that prioritizes products instead of humanity. “To keep fighting to dismantle systems that don’t care about us, we must take care of our vessel,” wrote Mikeusha Vaughn. Tricia Hersey’s work calls for a new wave of individual and collective activism: we should rest in order to contribute to this political and social justice movement that disrupts different systems of oppression. Only by resting can we gather more strength to advocate for a more equitable and humane system.