The culture of overwork is not a new problem: American writers were describing rest as a “Forgotten Art” in 1876

Every now and then I come across some old essay that’s worth preserving and sharing. Recently I came across this 1876 piece by a Scottish-born American physician, Alexander J. C. Skene, called  “Rest: The Forgotten Art of Repose.” It appeared in the New York Times, and I’ve copied out some of the more interesting passages below.

For me, the essay is interesting as a data-point illustrating that the problem of overwork is hardly new: Skene is warning bout its dangers almost 150 years ago. It also illustrates that the idea that the best rest is active rather than passive also has a long history, even if it’s never been terribly popular or the conventional wisdom. And finally, it’s a well-written piece. Enjoy!

Alexander J. C. Skene, “Rest: The Forgotten Art of Repose,” New York Times (30 April 1876).

All kinds of schemes are on foot to facilitate labor; all kinds of expedients are tried to squeeze a little extra work out of the souls and bodies of our men and women. The whole talk is how to do more, and not a word is heard about taking rest, except an occasional wail which comes up from some broken-down mortal who has fallen out of the whirlwind of haste and ambitious excitement….

All these efforts to accomplish much in this short life and right and praiseworthy, and if men would keep within the limits of human endurance no fault need be found. Unfortunately, the tendency among enterprising folks is to neglect rest, that most important necessity to power and endurance. Rest, like food, being a necessity, so just in proportion as we deprive ourselves of that great restorative we curtail our working power….

The work which we do during the day with our heads and hands in what we get credit for; but when we rest and sleep there is as important work going on. That branch of labor performed when we rest is unseen, and for that matter unknown by the majority of us, and hence is often neglected….

If we rest well we can work well. It has been said that the rest of the laboring man is sweet, and we might add that the labor of the well-rested man is also sweet and pleasant.

We are so constituted that the normal, healthful exercise of all our faculties gives pleasure…. The law of harmony between work and rest, when fully obeyed, not only maintains strength, but develops it. If you exercise the muscles of the arms until they are tired and then thoroughly rest them, and again exercise rest, the arms grow stronger and bigger. So with the brain: it becomes stronger and firmed under well-regulated exercise and rest, but the moment that we overtax we weaken and destroy….

In addition to the good night’s sleep it is a good plan to take a very short nap in the middle of the day. it divides the working time, gives the nervous system a fresh hold on life, and enables us to more than make up the time so occupied. We should guard against too long a sleep at such times, for that will produce disagreeable relaxation….

The great principle which underlies daily rest is the relieving of one portion of the organization from duty while the others are at work. This we can do to a great extent. When the muscles are tired and worm from mechanical work, which requires but little attention of the brain, we can stop motion and set the brain at work. The laborer can read, think, and speak while his weary limbs are at rest. His brain need not be idle because the hammer or chisel as dropped from his weary hand. Think of the amount of splendid mental labor that Hugh Miller did when his hands were resting after his hard day’s work at hewing stone. Burns, too, wrote immortal songs while resting his limbs that were weary following the plow. On the other hand, a man an work with his hands when his head is tired….

There is another very important way of obtaining rest mentally, that is by changing from one occupation to another. The dexterous gold-grater when he finds one arm getting tired, takes the hammer in the other, and so may the man who hammers thoughts out of his brain exercise one set of mental faculties while the other are at rest. One may read until he is tired and then write; he may acquire knowledge until he is weary and then turn to teach others.

In order to be able to profit by these short periods of rest during our working hours, it is necessary that we early and thoroughly learn how to drop work completely when we are through with it. We are all liable, when we leave the studio, counting-room, or work-shop, to take our work with us and uselessly think about it. This is wrong, and cuts in upon our resting time. Whatever we have to do we should do it with our might, and when finished let it rest, so that we may do something else well.

In all departments of life the men wear best who lock the shop door when the day’s work is done, and do not enter it, either body or spirit, until the next morning….

More than brief periods of rest, day an night on the event day of the week, I would also advocate an annual vacation of a few weeks, less or more. All know the charm that a Summer vacation has for pent-up circumscribed city folk. That is the time that we make up in recreation what we lose in the turmoil of a year’s life in a city, where, with all the care that we can take, we are still liable to fall behind in our rest. There is no greater boon to humanity than this same vacation of properly spent….

Examine the character of life which you lead daily, and then choose the opposite during vacation. if you have a sedentary life indoors, go out into the fields, ride, run, and climb as much as you can. If worn down by over physical exertion, then recline under the vine and fig tree. How unwise it is for the inhabitant of the crowded city to rush off in the Summer to some fashionable watering place where there is equally as much bustle and excitement. It is painful to see a Wall Street broker, saturated with stocks and stimulants until his nervous system is about to declare itself bankrupt, trying to find rest at Saratoga…. It is lamentable also to see the young salesman (who has escaped from the story where, for eleven months, he has been talking fastidious ladies and breathing second-hand air) spending his hard-earned money to get a chance to dine at a big table in a crowded room, lounging in a grand piano among gaudy dolls of the feminine gender, so so hat he hardlydare to sit down, and waiting at night in a musky, musty ball-room….

Many deprive themselves of rest and most of the comforts of life in the hope being able, by extreme efforts, to retire from business and then rest. A most stupid blunder for anyone to make. One might as well try to take food enough in one day to last a week…. No man should retire from business until he leaves the stage of this existence. As we journey through life we should live by the way. Better, far, as we rise in prosperity and years, to cut off, as far as possible, all that is disagreeable in business, and continue to labor in the sunshine until death “comes on, holy and calm as night.” The wise man retires from business at a reasonable time every night, while the unwise works day and night, and then retires a few days before he stops breathing, which he usually does before he gets through groaning and grumbling over the aches and pains of over-taxation.

We might dwell with some profit on the causes which drive us to deprive ourselves of rest. The present state of society is such as to render it impossible for some of us to do ourselves justice. Railroad cars are rushing past us on every side, and we must get out of the way or be crushed; the busy crowd keeps elbowing and pushing us hither and thither, so that we must either urn or be run over; we must catch the train or steam-boat, or be left behind. Unless we could reorganize the whole human family, we can hardly expect to take life perfectly easy. Still, while we suffer from our friends and neighbors, we are our own worst enemies. Ambition hurries us along, and tumbles us headlong into all kinds of unwarrantable undertakings, which deprive us of peace and rest, and needlessly, too, very often. It is praiseworthy to strain every nerve in our efforts to succeed, but it is folly to willfully strain a single muscle. In this new and rapidly growing country we are led into more temptations than those of older lands. Here all is changing; putting up and taking down, experimenting in the hope of settling comfortably in some corner of our own. We lack the settled, crystallized condition of society found in fatherlands, where there is so much quiet and repose. Every man, woman and child feels that money is the most important key to power and happiness, and that they must have….

All this inordinate desire for wealth among those in power compels the honest men to toil more than they ought in order to get bread. Many men have to work all day and part of the night to get the necessities of life, and so they are deprived of the time to rest and cultivate their higher faculties. The overindulgence of our desires— and not our highest desires either— leads us many a weary dance. We often forsake rest and recreation for phantoms which are “Like the snow falls on the river / A moment white— then gone forever.”

By learning to control ourselves, and by that I mean to exercise all our faculties in useful employment until fatigued, and then taking ample rest, we would have less time to indulge in foolish gratifications, and much less time to be miserable. We should reduce our wants, rather than overtax ourselves in order to indulge them…. On the morning after an evening’s pleasure, it is better to be able to wish we had indulged a little more than to regret that we indulged so much.

Let us see what are the practical results which spring from well-regulated rest. To be well rested simply means to be thoroughly prepared to do the work put before us with ease and comfort to ourselves. In fact, the best work is almost always performed easily; or as learned men state it, the greatest mental and physical power is manifested in repose…. In all the walks of life you will find that those who succeed best are those who work with the greatest ease and the most pleasure. They are those who take time to prepare for the duties which they have to perform.

We have all head of students being obliged to burn the midnight oil in order to master the tasks set before them, but I have observed, during a twenty years’ residence among college boys, that the best and most successful ones rarely lose a moment’s sleep for the sake of study…. In short, well-timed, carefully managed rest gives power, comfort, success and happiness.

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