It goes without saying, we all know Oxford is a restless city. Oxford students are competitive and driven by nature, and it’s to our credit, but a lot of the time it’s also our curse. Even still, how did we let this parallel universe convince us that taking a day off is an impossibility? More concerningly perhaps, what kind of balance and relationship to work is this teaching us? And even if we were to learn and recognise the need for balance, is there even room or relevance for it in the non-stop pace of workloads and social stresses? For the pursuit of success, genius and passion, we might well be heading into a revolving door of burnout and striving for something that doesn’t seem to deliver.
We point the finger at tutors, the ‘institution’ and impossible workloads, and quite evidently there are issues with the pressures at hand. Ultimately, something is going wrong with the student culture in Oxford in our approach to rest. Blatantly, the epidemic of sleeplessness is a surface issue, but it penetrates much deeper into emotional and social fatigue too. We struggle to invest in the relationships and hobbies which provide that needed sense of equilibrium. If we were to keep to 8 hours of sleep a night, would that really be enough? The hurrying of Oxford can harm our physical well-being, but there are underlying issues too with how we perceive ourselves and others. The problem is also with us. Instead of championing each other, taking care of ourselves and looking after our physical and mental health, we often see each other as competitors and machines. We have to change the atmosphere and the conversation, and I know those are big tasks that we won’t fix in an instant. But I think we all know we can’t keep this up much longer, I certainly can’t. It starts with us delighting in our need for rest and delighting to see others resting and working in harmony.
It took me a good while to realise this, and much longer to start putting it into practice, but now I take a full 24 hours off work every Sunday. I try not to even do ‘life admin’, whatever Oxford students mean when we talk about that vague thing. I often go for a run in the afternoon, have a long cheeky nap and maybe sit crocheting with a cup of tea. That all sounds pretty idyllic, but the reality is that often I am so exhausted I spiral and end up getting upset about I’m not even sure what. Taking a day off doesn’t and won’t dissolve the stresses and burdens of Oxford life, but it definitely is the breather I need to keep plodding on through term. Maybe it will look different for each of us, we all need very different things and have very different capacities. But I think no matter what regular practices and rituals of rest translate to in the actions of our day-to-day, having non-negotiable time to unwind must be a necessity, not a luxury.
When friends ask what I did with my weekend or my Sunday and I tell them I rested and did not do a whole lot, generally they’re shocked and confused. There’s this disconnect between the head knowledge that we’re all only humans and the reality of how we treat ourselves and others as if limits on our capacities are degradations of our worth. We’re used to the idea of procrastination, my readings for this week’s essay will tell you that, but the idea of intentional rest is this forbidden fruit that always hovers, delectable, yet totally out of reach.
I don’t think it has to be that way though. Rest is what I crave, what you crave and definitely what this city craves. Instead of becoming complicit and complacent in these cycles of stress and inhuman expectations, we need to summon the courage to say no and rejoice in our limitations. Our minds tire, our bodies need sleep, and our souls need comfort. It’s not selfish and it’s not lazy, it’s brave and mature. Cease striving, and let’s work towards reclaiming rest.