Our unexpected sabbatical

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Have you ever taken a sabbatical? Not many Americans do. Mostly they're reserved for clergy and academics. A temporary break, a respite, a time out from the preoccupations of your occupation. A chance to unwind and recharge. Most of us could use a sabbatical, but not many have that luxury.

Until now.

We think of sabbaticals as a "luxury," but they're really a necessity. Vacations are mini-sabbaticals. We don't think of those as luxuries. Weekends were originally considered unnecessary niceties — by exploitative bosses — before the labor movement tamed capitalism a bit. Retirement is a permanent sabbatical, made possible by taming capitalism even more. We call it Social Security. Most Americans work for decades before getting their sabbatical. The lucky ones are healthy enough to enjoy it.

Unemployment is also a sabbatical of sorts, though not the one we had in mind. 

"Sabbatical" derives from the Hebrew word "shabbat" (or the Yiddish version, "shabbos"), Judaism's great contribution to Western culture, courtesy of the creation myth in the Bible. After inventing the universe in six days, God takes a "day" off. Even the Supreme Being needs a rest. Inspired by that example, imbedded in every weekend is shabbat, a day of rest, which Christianity adopted and called "sabbath." 

Until recently, the Christian sabbath was pretty much limited to an hour or so in church and going out to eat or having a nice dinner at home with family. Among secularists, it might involve a leisurely morning at a café or lounging in the living room reading the newspaper. How do you do sabbath, if you do?

For observant Jews, being "at rest" is strictly defined. In Israel, I recall a hotel elevator specially designed for shabbat. It was programmed to stop at every floor so you didn't have to push buttons (which is considered "work").

The pandemic has given all of us something we didn't ask for: an involuntary sabbatical, more restful for some than others. A lot of people are working from home. A lot of people are out of work. A lot of people are sick or dying. A lot are at-risk for domestic violence or abuse as they shelter-in-place. Parents of younger kids are with them all … the … time. 

We have been forced to alter our hyperactive, hyper-scheduled, going-out-on-the-town, First-World lifestyles. Whether the current situation reduces stress or increases it, we're driving less with fewer distractions and spending more time at home or in the neighborhood. We're seeing a side of life that has always been there but which we didn't focus on because of the role responsibilities we've shouldered.

Some might be reluctant to admit there is an upside to all this because a) there's also a huge downside to it, and b) we didn't ask for this. But there is an upside nonetheless, just as there is an upside to holidays and weekends and sabbaths and sabbaticals and retirement.

We need rest after creating our universes and we have been given that opportunity — countrywide, worldwide — for the first time. 

Many are eager to "open up" again, and some are even jumping the gun. They argue we need to — but I suspect it's also because they want to. Americans are a restless people.

But before we return to the treadmill of our previous existence (if it's still there for us), here is some gathered wisdom to reflect on during the rest of your involuntary sabbatical:


*Eight things that will destroy us (attributed to Mahatma Gandhi):

Politics without principle

Pleasure without conscience

Wealth without work

Knowledge without character

Business without morality

Science without humanity

Worship without sacrifice

Discipleship without compassion

(And I would add one more for our gun-toting, arsenal-hoarding, can't-wait-for-the-revolution friends who are protesting stay-at-home orders): 

Rights without responsibility

*From the "fence of quotes" along the Lake Geneva hiking trail:

"When one door closes, another opens, but we often look so long and so regrettably upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us." (Attributed to Alexander Graham Bell)

"Everyone should carefully observe which way his heart draws him and then choose that way with all his strength." (Hasidic proverb)

"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face." (Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt)

*From the pen of writer Parker Palmer:

"Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline."

"The question at the heart of every religious and secular search for meaning and purpose: How can I connect with something larger than my own ego?"

*From AARP magazine:

"You have to be willing to let go of the life you planned in order to make room for the life you're meant to live." (Maria Shriver)

*And from others:

"A different world cannot be built by indifferent people." (Attributed to playwright Henrik Ibsen)

"We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." (Attributed to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis)

"Don't forget the bridge that brought you across." (Beatrice Little, who cleaned our house once a week for decades and then became my parents' caregiver)

"God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh." (Attributed to Voltaire)

 "The doors of hell are locked from the inside." (Attributed to Kurt Vonnegut)

"It's better to be a pilot light than a firecracker." (Rep. John Lewis)

"You can't write your story based on what you get. It's about what you go after." (Martha Swisher)

*From Albert Schweitzer's "Memories of Childhood and Youth":

"At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think, with deep gratitude, of those who have lighted the flame within us."

*From mindfulness teacher and writer Jack Kornfield:

"From moments of stillness, the most skillful way to love and serve becomes clear. By stopping to listen, we connect with one another, and true community is born." 

Whatever form your sabbatical is taking, may it prove an unexpectedly rich and rewarding experience. 

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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