Do I Deserve A Sabbatical?
“Are you and Kevin still on your sabbatical?” a friend asked me at a first in-person gathering after many months of connecting over zoom.
“Yeeaah...," I replied with a tinge of embarrassment. "I’m still taking a break. Kevin’s starting a new job soon. I’m enjoying being a HDB tai-tai for now, and erm... doing different things!” I felt that I had to justify my non-working status. It was almost... criminal. During a time when most of the world was worried about a pandemic-related economic shake-up, here I was choosing to leave my iron-rice-bowl government job and taking my time to find another - I would not be surprised if this raised not-a-few eyebrows, and perhaps some envious sighs.
Technically, you need not quit your job, like my husband and I did, in order to go on a sabbatical. In fact, we would not have done so without my ever-financially prudent husband doing all the sums beforehand. Sabbatical leave is actually not all that unheard of. Some organisations provide this employee benefit for those who have worked for at least 5 years, to give them space to rejuvenate, pursue interests of travelling, study or even just rest. Sabbatical leave can range from between a period of 2 months to a year. Seemingly originating from the idea of a shmita or Sabbath year in the Bible, some individuals intentionally develop a practice of taking a paid or unpaid break from work once every 7 years.
My husband and I did make a calculated and intentional decision to quit our jobs at about the same time in Oct 2020. At the time we were discerning God’s direction together, it dawned on me that fortuitously, this sabbatical coincided with my 7th year of working since I returned in 2013 from a most refreshing time of studies in Vancouver. For me, quitting allowed me to take baby steps in the direction of a vocational change (a big topic for another post some time); for him, he needed to rest and recover from near work burn-out; and together, our marriage has also benefited from slowing down and enjoying some quality time together.
Luxury or Necessity?
Honestly for me, there was an initial struggle of transition from the busyness of back-to-back meetings to a physical and mental state of rest. It was challenging to be completely free from a fear of disappointing others during the process of bowing out.
“Sorry, don’t count me in that meeting.”
“I’ll give my inputs when I can.”
Not doing something, when I have the means to, can feel like I am letting the team down, especially if it means that someone else needs to ‘pick up the slack’ from my inaction. I was blessed to have very supportive colleagues who honoured my clearing of 2 months worth of accumulated leave.
Being on a break felt like an undeserved luxury, especially when I heard that my ex-colleagues were busier after my departure. But the initial guilt did not stop me from enjoying this new-found flexibility with time and freedom to do things without monetary value, like decorating the house and redesigning an old blog. During a conversation with a mentor, I realised that I needed to give myself the permission to not work (in the conventional sense) and to shed any remaining shackles of false guilt of irresponsibility.
Taking a break from work was just a different way of being responsible - to myself.
And an expression of obedience to God's leading, being attentive to the different season that I’m in.
Yet, not long after, both my husband and I began filling up our calendars. We had ceased from paid work, but we quickly found ourselves getting busy with unpaid activities of our own interests and passions. Without preset boundaries, events and meetings can easily dominate time, akin to gas filling whatever space it is given. Things came to a head when we noticed that we were not spending enough time with one another, let alone having enough rest time. I knew I had to be more intentional to keep pockets of down time in my calendar. I had to 'work' at resting.
How counterintuitive it is for us to learn to rest and be still, seeing that 'not working' does not automatically translate to resting. For some of us with a very strong work identity that is so deeply rooted in being ‘productive’ or ‘responsible’, that could drive us towards incessant activity and burn-out if not managed well. We feel a sense of achievement when we have met our own set goals and expectations; we equate being able to do something as being valuable and useful. We subconsciously pride ourselves as 'human doings' more than human beings.
We need an antidote called '(enforced) rest' .
But does a time of rest mean the total absence of activity? I think not. Restedness is not defined by what is absent, rather what is present - our driving motivations and the state of our heart in the midst of the activities. Are we striving? Driven by the anxiety that our inaction causes us to miss out on the next opportunity? Or are we in a place of purpose and freedom? Are we so at peace that we are able to lay down our activities as quickly as we have taken them up and vice versa, whichever way God calls us to?
After all, it has always been God’s intent for humankind to be engaged in productive work, right from the garden of Eden, in a right relationship with Him and one another. And it has also been God’s design to build in rhythms of rest, where we can periodically take stock of our lives and deal with any unhealthy stressors that threaten to throw our lives out of kilter. Little wonder for us as humans running ceaselessly on our hamster wheels, that it often takes a crisis like a mental or physical illness to force us to do so. What if we had a better way to make restedness a way of life in the midst of busyness?
During my early career years, I had seen taking leave as a means to get a quick reboot of energy, finally having permission to sleep in more, and even to recover from that virus that I had been staving off for awhile. I had never seen vacation leave as an essential lifeline, but more of a handy plaster if I ever needed it. And I wish I didn’t, if I had a choice. I was just too ‘responsible’ for work that was piling up.
Over time, I’ve begun to see the need for a more regular form of rhythm of rest and work, that is not only good for mental and physical health, but ultimately essential to keep my spiritual life in check and recalibrate where I’m headed to:
Daily rhythms of good quality sleep of at least 7 hours and quiet devotional prayer time with God
Weekly rhythms of sabbath rest with no work at all
Monthly (or so) rhythms of reflecting and journalling what God is teaching me
Yearly rhythms of taking stock of where I am on my birthday, or at the eve of a new year
Rest is an expression of humility and trust. That I am only human after all. And to let God be God. And the latest rhythm that I’m adding to the list above is a 7-year sabbatical to deepen my intimacy with Father God and my identity as His child.
In many ways, this sabbatical is a signpost for a new season of my life. 4 months into it, and it has given my husband and I time to work out emotional baggage that we carry from our families of origin, as well as past failures and disappointments at work. This strengthens our foundation as we recently celebrated our 3rd anniversary! God has also awakened old dreams and long-forgotten desires. The sabbatical affords me a season to feed my soul, to discover more of my identity and purpose in life, and to figure out the next steps for my vocation.
God has been very kind and gracious to lead me to this extended time of rest. It is ultimately not a question of who deserves a break after working so hard, or whether the timing of a break is compatible with the economic situation; it is a question of what our souls need at periodic times to be rested, nurtured and cared for. A sabbatical is truly a gift, indeed one that I need not be ashamed of the next time someone asks me about my work status.