I SHOULD not be writing this article. I should be having a nap — because napping is holy work, according to Tricia Hersey, otherwise known as the “Nap Bishop”. For Hersey, whose father was a preacher and pastor in the Pentecostal Church, and the “Nap Ministry” that she has created, the enemy is a “grind culture” that requires us to always be on, constantly working ourselves to the bone, hooked to our screens, striving to achieve an ever-elusive peak productivity.
Hersey’s book Rest Is Resistance is not intended to be merely another self-help book. For her, “the idea of rest as resistance is a counter-narrative to the dominant story”: that we are what we do. It is “a battle cry, a guidebook, a map for a movement”. It is not just an idea or theory; not something that you can adopt without taking some active steps. “We must actively practice, engage, and push back against the dominant culture,” Hersey writes. “We must snatch and integrate rest in the quiet, loud, mundane, and full moments of our lives daily.”
Rest Is Resistance could not have come into my life at a worse — or perhaps better — time. I opened its pages during a week that was even busier than usual; one in which the to-do list was piled high at work and at home, and in which there seemed to be several deadlines, and writing and speaking engagements, all at once. A week in which the background hum of manageable pressure felt as if it would soon turn into a crescendo towards unmanageable chaos. A week in which our one-year-old decided that his sleep was not a priority, either.
And so it was that I found myself on a morning commuter train to work. I had already been up for three hours; waking at 5 a.m. to work, despite the baby’s having woken up needing to be soothed in the night, before the hurried and frenetic efforts of my husband and I to get ourselves ready and our children dressed, fed, and watered before dropping them off at school and nursery.
On the train, I had opened my laptop and continued working in an attempt to squeeze what I could into the “spare” moments before getting into the office for a day of back-to-back meetings. In the back of my mind, the quiet and yet insistent message of Rest Is Resistance had been trying to fight its way through the fog of stress and anxiety which took up all the space in my brain and made me feel constantly on edge. Constantly striving. Constantly failing.
The Nap Ministry’s message is clear: rest is resistance against a capitalist culture that sees individuals as valuable on the basis only of what they do and produce. The longer the hours you work, the more you churn out, the more you keep working, the more valuable you are to society. Overwork has become a virtue, the means by which we work out our salvation: the Protestant work ethic revisited in our generation.
Technological advances have made work more flexible — at least, for those of us who work in sectors where that is possible. Most of those considered key workers during the pandemic could not bring their work home with them. But I am among those who can catch up on current affairs while having a shower, have a quick call in the car at the school gates, sneak in an email or two on my phone while tucking my son in at bedtime. I can check my emails while I’m feeding my baby. Life in all its fullness.
“ORDAINING” herself the Nap Bishop alludes to the theological authority that weaves through the ministry. If you are looking for a deep and wordy theological exploration of rest and sabbath, you won’t find it here. Instead, Hersey’s ideas are aimed at weary people of all faiths and none who feel a stirring that grind culture is not how things were supposed to be. The theology is infused through the underlying idea that each of us is made in God’s image, valuable and worthy of dignity and rest.
While the message is ultimately for everyone, Hersey insists, there is a clear focus on black women as being her target audience. Her book is “centered in Black liberation, womanism, somatics and Afrofuturism . . . informed by her deep experience in theology, activism and performance art”.
Black women were once described as “the mule of the world” by Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God; and there exists in Western societies the trope of the “strong black woman”, who can withstand more pressure and pain and physical labour.
It is notable that within the $11-billion self-improvement industry in the United States, where Hersey is based, women make up the majority of buyers of self-help books, while black people in general have the highest percentage of buyers of self-help books, which makes black women a primary target for the industry. Perhaps they are overworking and seeking active ways to make life more manageable. Hersey counters these ideas and the pressures that go with them with womanist theology that reclaims black women’s identity as made in God’s image.
I NEVER stop. Anyone who knows me is aware of my silly schedule, my workaholic tendencies, and my inability to sit still. I’m always on. As with many women who have caring responsibilities at home, a second shift begins when I get back to the house after my paid work, because childcare is work, too. Perhaps because of the line of work I’m in — admittedly, I may use this as an excuse — I am always on my phone, staying connected to a 24-hour news-and-opinion cycle. The word that my husband and I often use to describe our very 21st-century life is “relentless”.
Charlie WattsTricia Hersey, the “Nap Bishop”
That morning, as I sat on the train, my eyes burning with the tiredness of sleep deprivation, battling the familiar creeping sense of overwhelm, complete with to-do lists swirling around my head, I put Hersey’s words into practice. I closed my laptop, shut my eyes, and slept. Admittedly, it was only for the seven minutes that it takes to get from Waterloo Station to Charing Cross, but, in that small act, I felt refreshed, and I felt defiant. I had exhaled, making an active choice to stop. To be no one’s mule.
Taking a nap while everyone else hustles and bustles around you is an act of rebellion. In the Instagrammable world of wellness culture and productivity hacks, rest is something that you do to recharge so that you can go at it again: work hard; work out; manifest success; rest; repeat.
For Hersey, this is all wrong. For the Nap Ministry, the “focus is to lay down because it is our divine right to do so, not because it will prepare our bodies to be more productive”. Hersey adds: “The Rest Is Resistance framework also does not believe in the toxic idea that we are resting to recharge and rejuvenate so we can be prepared to give more output to capitalism. What we have internalised as productivity has been informed by a capitalist, ableist, patriarchal system.”
Hersey founded the Nap Ministry in the United States in 2016: an organisation that uses performance art and installations, and curates immersive workshops, naming sleep deprivation as a racial- and social-justice issue. The ministry is best known for hosting collective napping experiences, gathering people together to sleep in parks in Chicago, art galleries, living rooms, and yoga studios. It may all sound a bit niche, but the Nap Ministry has hundreds of thousands of people following its social-media channels.
Perhaps that is because the ministry has hit a nerve, captured a moment. Capitalism and a neoliberal culture that demands more of us at work, coupled with an always-on digital culture exacerbated by the pandemic, make this need to break free and present an alternative vision for human flourishing feel more urgent than ever.
Data from the Health and Safety Executive in the UK suggest that rates of work-related stress, depression, and anxiety had already been rising year on year before the pandemic, when home working cemented the dominant narrative that we should give all we can to our jobs, or calling. I have friends who have chosen not to conform to such busyness, either because they recognise the importance of rest for their own well-being, and adopt it as spiritual practice, or because they have been burned — or burnt out — before, and never want to return to that.
I, ON the other hand, have been busy since I was five years old. Our weeks were full of after-school activities; I had grand plans for myself from my early teens. At university, exam season meant bringing a duvet to the library and marking my desk there with pictures of my family, the message being that I would live there, studying and studying and reading and reading, downing coffees in an attempt to keep myself awake. Sleep was for the lazy and unambitious.
For black immigrant families, the direction was clear: excellence was the best deterrent to racism, I was told. We grew up hearing that black people had to work ten times as hard as white people to be seen as equal: productivity as a burden to prove our self-worth.
Hersey’s thesis centres on the idea of rest as resistance against the same capitalist and white-supremacist culture that exploited and violated black bodies for economic gain during the transatlantic slave trade. Rest is an active rebellion against the dark forces that dehumanise and attempt to control us, and that affect every area of our human selves: the spiritual, emotional, relational, and physical.
She writes: “Our everyday behaviours and false beliefs about productivity drive us into behaving in a robotic, machine-like way. The way we hold ourselves and others to the lie of urgency is white supremacy culture and we will never be able to rest or be liberated from oppression while we are honoring and aligning with it.”
Resting as resistance is not just for black people, Hersey says, but for all of us. We all need to push back against false ideas about who we are and how we are valued. It is a theology that puts forward an alternative vision for human flourishing — one that the world is crying out for. Over the past few weeks, I have found myself trying to slow down, feeling the pull to join the resistance.
The Nap Ministry’s philosophy is one that I’ll keep returning to, perhaps at those times when life feels most pressured. For Hersey, resting does not have to involve sleeping, but she presents a range of options for us to choose from, including: simply closing your eyes for ten minutes, daydreaming, taking a long shower in silence, a meditative walk in nature, playing a musical instrument, praying, or slow dancing alone in your kitchen.
It is not simply about rest, nor is it a one-time fix, but, instead, a holistic and redemptive act, framed by a gentle refusal: “This work is not simply a reminder to rest, but a full interruption and turning toward a rested future.”
For Hersey, “Grind culture is spiritual death. . . Rest is resurrection. A literal raising from the dead.”