Pursuing the “un-rest cure”

By Marshall Scott

I have long been a fan of the short stories of H. H. Munro, better known by his pen name of Saki. He has a wry, not to say vicious sense of humor, and a healthy disrespect for convention. One of my favorites is “The Unrest-cure.” As the story begins, an unwitting man is complaining to a friend about the rut that his life has become. It is largely taken up with work, and his avocations are so commonplace and regular that even he has begun to see them as tedious. The friend suggests that, just as the harried might need a “rest-cure,” perhaps our subject needs an “unrest-cure.” This conversation, dull enough in its own right, much less in its subject, would have been little more than a casual complaint, had it not been overheard by a young man with means and a moderately cruel streak; and thus there begins a tale.

Perhaps I should have been more conscious of that story on my recent vacation. I like to sail. I’m not a great sailor. I do know in most instances what I need to do, and we enjoy modest sailing, without injury to self or boat (if not as often as I would like). So, I was commenting to my wife one morning at anchor about my realization that part of what I sought in my sailing vacation was challenge – or at least a challenge different from that in my regular vocation. In every significant sailing experience I’ve had something go wrong, and I’ve managed to cope with it. However, part of what made it worthwhile to me was that the coping was not just intellectual or emotional. It required something physical, both in the sense of my own efforts, and also in the sense that it involved some engineering and responding to the natural world. It took a combination of intellectual and physical effort, and managing in the face of forces I would work with but not control. So, I agreed with her when she said, “There’s a lot of challenge in your work.” “But,” I responded, “this is different.”

Now, let me say that my wife sought something different. She wanted peace and quiet, and to be closer to nature. She does enjoy sailing, but she enjoys more watching eagles fly over anchorages. We both got what we wanted. She got closer to nature. I got challenges. And before it was over, nature kicked my butt.

Still, I appreciate her question to me: “Why would you want that (sort of challenge) on vacation?” I know that some folks take on more. My risks are modest and measured; and yet they are significant enough for me. They are significant enough that I feel proud when I succeed – and that I feel embarrassed when I don’t. These kinds of things are my “unrest-cure.” So, why would I – why would anyone – choose an “unrest-cure?”

Some of it is ambition – good, old hubris. I have said that “in most instances I know what I need to do;” but, of course, soon enough that begins to feel like I’m in control. I may tell others that control is an illusion; but I’m really as hopeful of controlling my world as anybody else.

In a way, too, it seems quite counter to the Benedictine tradition that is important to me, and, really, fundamental to the Anglican tradition. Isn’t this pursuit of excitement in what we claim to be recreational counter to stability? Isn’t there something sort of, well, gyrovague about it?

Perhaps, though, we pursue such an “unrest-cure” for a better reason. Perhaps we realize that we don’t get recreation – literally, re-creation – without some disruption. We can’t prepare the ground for next year’s garden without uprooting this year’s tomatoes. We can’t prepare the field for next year’s harvest without plowing under this year’s stubble. If we want our schools and our hospitals to have up-to-date equipment and capacities, it’s not just cheaper and faster to tear down and build new; at some point it’s just not possible without tearing down and building new.

Our Hindu cousins are perhaps clearer about this. Shiva the Destroyer is also the one who prepares for new creation. But it is every bit as central to our Christian faith. If we’ve been paying attention, our Sunday lessons are reminding us of this. In these latter days of Pentecost, we traditionally hear more and more about “the Kingdom” and “the Day of the Lord.” That is so great a theme in the Common Lectionary that our Methodist siblings in their calendar identify a new season of “Kingdomtide.”

And though we long for the Kingdom, Scripture tells us again and again that the Kingdom comes in turmoil. The Kingdom offers great hope, but the Day of the Lord is no picnic. We will not gradually evolve our way into the Kingdom. No, God will bring it in the Day of the Lord, a day of darkness and not light, a day when two will be taken and one will be left. But, then, we of all people should be able to remember this; for we are those who know that unless a grain falls and is buried, there is no harvest. We are those who know that the only real way to resurrection is through the grave.

So, perhaps we can expect, and even seek some disruption in our pursuit of recreation (and, let’s be honest: just taking a family with two small children to see family can involve disruption and challenge enough!). Or, even if we don’t have that in mind, perhaps we might want to remember. There is some spiritual reflection to be found in recognizing the disruption and discomfort that comes as we seek recreation – literally, to be re-created. There is the opportunity to rediscover our limits, and to become aware again that, for all its promise, becoming renewed and restored also involves being disturbed, destabilized, and changed. And while there are differences of scale, that’s as true while we await the Kingdom as it will be when the Kingdom comes in fullness.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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