We're hooked in, signed on, trading, buying, selling, dating, checking e-mail, and answering our cell phones around the clock. Take a nap and somebody just might take over your company, steal your girlfriend, or give your job to somebody else.
Which makes it all the more strange that Al Gore has just tapped Joe Lieberman--a guy who actually knows how to take a break--to share the Democratic ticket. The Connecticut senator and vice-presidential nominee is an Orthodox Jew who takes his Sabbaths seriously, and from Friday night until Saturday evening he makes a conscious effort to respect his tradition's emphasis on rest and sacred time. If there's urgent business on Capitol Hill, he'll show up, but on foot; if it's not pressing, he'll reschedule for another day.
Such practice may be unusual for a politician, but for an increasing number of Americans, it's not at all strange. Paul Underwood, a 33-year-old civil engineer from Los Angeles, realized last year that a day of rest was a central component of his spiritual life.
"I'm like a guy spinning plates, and you have to make sure they keep spinning," says Underwood, a Baptist with two jobs who is expecting his second child later this month. "I'm a dad, I'm a husband, a worker, I'm also on a ministry staff. There are some days when you don't get to sleep until midnight, and you get up at 5 a.m."
Inspired by recent books as well as some sermons at church, Underwood and his wife, Cate, made a deliberate move to fight what they call "the tyranny of the urgent." Last Sunday after church, instead of catching up on housework or paying bills, they put their toddler down for a nap and talked, read the paper, and watched a rented movie.
"God created us, and he knows we can't go full on seven days a week," Underwood says. "We need down time."
It's a trend that seems to be catching on. Talor Halevi, 46, a Jewish educator in Boulder, Colo., says he has noticed an increasing number in his community setting aside Shabbat to rest quietly with family. A father of four in a house with two working parents, four telephones, and five computers, Halevi finds in Shabbat a time for family meals, conversation, and outdoor recreation.
"It's like a day off from life," he says. "No checking e-mail, no checking messages. It's definitely helped my family structure that we have this one day, this one evening, where everybody is together."
While the notion of Sabbath rest is not found in Islam, more and more Muslims are finding time for Friday's communal midday prayers, observes Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli, spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey, a thriving mosque near Princeton. As many as 1,500 people break from work on Fridays to enter Chebli's mosque to pray quietly, reflect on a weekly sermon and worship as a community.
Dorothy Bass, a United Church of Christ minister and a professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, has raised the Sabbath's profile in Christian circles with her recent book, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (Jossey-Bass, 2000).
"There are so many technologies out there that try to tell us we can control time. If you get the right date book, get a Palm Pilot, then you can get time in control," Bass says. "We don't know how much time we have in life, and it's not in our control. There's a sense in which we have to acknowledge our own finitude if we are to live faithfully in time. It's a basic truth which all the religions know."
Her interest in Sabbath observance was sparked 15 years ago after realizing it was the Rodney Dangerfield of the Decalogue--the only one of 10 commandments that gets little or no respect.
"I was out to dinner with my husband and another couple, and we were whining about all the papers we were going to be grading together on Sunday, sort of whining, but also sort of boasting," Bass recalled. "It just sort of hit me that with any of the other commandments this group would not be sitting around whining, `Gee, I've got to commit adultery tomorrow.'"
Bass also emphasizes the social justice aspects of the Sabbath-- traditionally a day of rest for servants and work animals as well. "When the commandment is given in Deuteronomy (it says) you should seek Sabbath because God led you out of slavery," Bass says. "It also includes giving everyone in society some rest."
She urges church leaders not to conduct church business on Sunday, and follows the Jewish example of not carrying money, doing tax returns or shoppin g on the day of rest, "not so much as a way of protest, but as a way of forming myself away from consumer lifestyle which I find to be very distracting to spiritual life," Bass says.
Major denominations are also catching on. Pope John Paul II issued "Dies Domini" in 1998, urging Roman Catholics to reconnect to the Sabbath and limit recreational activities on Sundays. (Read a summary.)
In June, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved a report inviting its 3.6 million members to take the Sabbath more seriously. The paper, An Invitation to Sabbath: Rediscovering a Gift, includes a study guide that will be distributed to the more than 11,000 churches allied with the denomination.
"I think people really would like to keep a Sabbath, although they may not call it a Sabbath," said John Fisher of McLean, Va., a retired math teacher and management consultant who helped draft the document and belongs to a "Sabbath keepers" group at his church. "They would like to have some private time, some rest, and they're afraid to do it" because they fear losing productivity. "I think people are looking for permission to stop and think and reflect."
Fisher and his wife light a candle at sundown each Saturday to mark a period of reflection that ends Sunday evening, "just to remind us of God's presence and of peacefulness," he said. After a quiet dinner together, they go for a walk, do crossword puzzles, or read--mundane practices that Fisher says help rejuvenate him for the busy week ahead.
"We found the Jewish understanding of Sabbath greatly informed and enriched us," said the Rev. Steve Doughty of Kalamazoo, Mich., referring to a Jewish prayer highlighted in the Presbyterian report: "Days pass, years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles."
The writers of the report realized "just how incredibly driven everyone is," Doughty said. "Even with our so-called labor-saving devices, we are leading fractured lives, and the chance to enjoy goodness and beauty is slipping away from us."
Doughty, who observes his Sabbath on Saturday because Sunday is jammed with church activities, believes the report has struck a chord, and carries an important message for a culture obsessed with productivity and speed.
"We spend six days working and working hard, and that's good and we're trying to make things better," he said. "But on the seventh day we have a chance to see the goodness that already is."