I am currently reading “Sophie’s World” by Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder. It’s supposed to be a mix of fiction and philosophy, but since the fiction part of the book is absolute garbage, I won’t bother telling you about it. The philosophy part, however, is brilliant. It goes through fundamental philosophers and schools of thought in simple yet incredibly insightful ways, so I stayed for that part.
The beginning of the book starts with, well, the beginning: Greek philosophers. One caught my attention, particularly one sentence that made me think about how essential and human rest is. Even when you set yourself out on mighty quests like finding the meaning of things, which is what philosophers do, rest is key to life. Follow me.
Empedocles, a Greek philosopher, like other philosophers before, looked at finding the answer to the question “how is everything made?” To us now it sounds basic, we have science to tell us that everything is made of water, air, earth, or fire.
In Ancient Greece, though, philosophers who got tired of the usual godly explanation for thunder asked deeper questions and were (supposedly) the first scientists of our world. Some of them insisted that water and air were present in everything, and the Greeks knew that fire was essential as well (the sun; both us and animals need heat to live). Other philosophers focused on the cycles of things, some insisting that everything flows (water has different stages); others that nothing changes (water is always water).
Then comes Empedocles.
He came to the conclusion that all four elements are present in everything; everything transforms and yet everything is the same. “Empedocles might have watched a piece of wood burning,” the author writes, insisting on how little he did to come to his conclusion. He was doing something entirely different than “proper” philosophy.
The same happened with Newton’s apple. The apple fell from the tree on his head. He was thinking, maybe daydreaming. He deducted the law of gravity without being bent over his notes and research.
If you think about it, so many people have experienced this on their quest to solutions to problems; mathematicians, of course, but you and me too. I had no intention to write anything today, and yet here I am, typing like a madwoman in a note on my phone trying to develop my newfound argument. I was simply, leisurely, reading a book.
Something interesting has been happening in the world over the past century; everyone seems to swear by science and science only. Rest is always something I’m thinking about, and it’s easy for us to resist it: who wants to rest when there is so much to do in our world, so much happening, new shows and new music and new everything at our fingertips, new places to go and new things to learn?
So here I am, trying to find the strongest words to explain that rest is fundamental not only to our well-being but also our productivity, realizing that I had to look no further than the world’s most well-known scientific discoveries of all time to make a point.
Sure, not everyone wants to be a well-known scientist; and so, maybe not everyone needs to rest as much as Newton or Empedocles did. Not everyone has a day-to-day job that requires them to solve complex problems like the law of gravity or the origin of life. Yet, all of us have hundreds of decisions to make every day, each solving tiny problems of daily life. What time should I set up my computer to be on time for my zoom meeting? When should I start making lunch to eat by 1pm? Should I start with this email or that email?
We also have bigger riddles to solve. Is now a good time to quit my job? Am I sure I can bring up xyz divisive conversation to the table right now? What is the best way to start this project? What school is best for my kid(s)?
Should I date this guy who doesn’t understand what feminism is about? Do I put my money in the bank that will give me the best interest or in one that isn’t going to invest it in fossil fuels? What does white privilege mean? Can I still fly if I know how polluting it is?
All of these concerns take up space in our minds; and our minds find the best solutions when they have exactly that: space. Space to ponder things, space to let the questions, problems, processes, and solutions, simply exist.
While the exact time to set up your computer to be on time for a zoom meeting might seem like a tiny decision with no impact on your life, it defines the relationship with the person or people on the other side of the screen. Like deciding when or how to quit your job, these decisions make up who you are and they matter.
Newton, Empedocles, and all the philosophers and scientists before and after them could have decided to dedicate night and day over their research. They didn’t even have social media giants fabricating addictions to trick them away from what they valued spending time over. Yet, they let their intuition guide them. They sat by trees, watched the fire burn. They let ideas, thoughts, questions, and solutions come to them through the wonderful medium that is called rest.