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updated: 10/6/2012 3:43 PM

Learning to relax tougher than it seems

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"To be idle requires a strong sense of personal identity." -- Robert Louis Stevenson

Sit back, kick off your shoes, and take a deep breath. Spend an afternoon reading a novel. Go for a walk in the park.

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How does it feel? If you're like me, you probably feel a bit guilty. Let's talk about that.

In our culture, it's not OK to just relax. We pack our days from dawn until dusk (and beyond) with one task after another. We operate with a continually expanding and never-ending list of things we should get done, but never will. Most of us do this seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Oh, yes, then there are vacations. Think about how we take vacations. We rush to a campground where we live according to a schedule crammed full of things we should do to relax -- sightseeing, swimming, hiking, fishing, browsing, etc. ... Or we travel to a distant city or country and race from museum to restaurant to shop to nightspot.

It's not too surprising most of us come home from vacation more tired than when we left. Some rest!

We've talked before about whole person health. We've discussed how proper diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, interpersonal intimacy, mental stimulation, and spiritual awareness, for example, are all important to our overall health.

Relaxation is just as important. When we relax we recharge our batteries. We step back and are able to distinguish the forest from the trees. And our renewed energy and broader perspective help us to get the most out of what we do.

As with all our health needs, when we ignore our need to relax, when we burn our candle at both ends, we will sooner or later pay a price. We will burn ourselves out physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually.

We also lose sight of a good deal of what makes life worthwhile. We are so busy that the beauty in this world and in people gets lost in the rush. We perpetually feel as though we've missed something, because we have.

Ironically, despite our efforts, we also wind up sacrificing quality for quantity. We are often mediocre in what we do because we can't take the time, or don't have the energy, to do it well. We miss the satisfaction of a job well done.

All that seems so obvious that we've got to wonder why we so consistently ignore it. In his comment that opens this column, Robert Louis Stevenson offered us a valuable insight.

Relaxing, as we noted, goes against the grain. People might think we are lazy, unambitious, unproductive. And our "cultural imperative" toward hyperactivity is so ingrained that we often begin to doubt ourselves as well.

To say "no" to the pace that our culture encourages does, as Stevenson suggests, require a good deal of self confidence. We are suggesting that we know better. We are proposing that we deserve regular "timeouts." We are insisting our worth as persons is not simply a function of how much we do. That's not an easy stand to take.

There are no good reasons not to take time to relax. Quite the contrary, there are myriad excellent reasons why we should. So, of course, we are all going to start scheduling "timeouts" for ourselves on a daily basis.

Well, maybe that's a bit ambitious to start with. How about this: take 15 minutes tonight and just let yourself relax. Do it again tomorrow night. Then perhaps try a couple of "timeouts" per day. Add a weekend hour or two. See what happens. Relax -- give yourself permission.

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