by Chris Kuo
Being a Duke student is often synonymous with being perpetually tired and relentlessly busy. For many Blue Devils, each day is a blur of caffeine-sustained activities: classes, lunch dates, job interviews, club meetings. We strive for perfect grades, a vibrant social circle, and a healthy lifestyle—a Sisyphean task in which rest and relaxation often become casualties. As one writer put it in The Chronicle, “Sleep is for the dead, and we need to party and write papers.”
We like to project perfection, but many of us are tired, anxious, and burnt out. We need a different pace of life, an antidote to our addiction to success. We need the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is a weekly day of rest. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God rests on the seventh day of creation after spending six days forming light and dark, earth and sky, Adam and Eve. Later, God commands the Jewish nation to consecrate every seventh day of the week. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, the Jewish people would set aside their work and dedicate time to rest.
Practicing the Sabbath—carving out 24 hours to rest and do no work—would transform our lives as Duke students, providing a better rhythm of work and rest and helping us rediscover who we are and why we are here.
I recognize many Duke students don’t believe in God or aren’t religious. Why should an irreligious student care about the Sabbath?
The necessity of the Sabbath arises from who we are as fragile human beings, says Luke Powery, dean of the Chapel. It’s a reality Duke students like to dodge: the University instills in us a sense of limitlessness. We are young, bright, brimming with possibility. Who’s to say we can’t join another club, or skip out on another hour of sleep?
The Sabbath is born from our finitude. When we take a day away from work, we acknowledge that we are limited beings, people with boundaries and fuses and pressing needs for rest and renewal.
“We might be beautiful creatures, but there’s frailty,” Powery says.
The Sabbath also helps us escape our addiction to achievement. “Work is our drug, our numbing agent, escape hatch, and anesthetizing behavior,” writes award-winning Christian author A. J. Swoboda in Subversive Sabbath. This addiction grows as success becomes the basis of our self-worth. We begin to define ourselves—and those around us—by our accomplishments.
“The main obstacle to taking a break is it can actually threaten your self-worth. ‘Am I ‘less than’ for not doing something in this given moment?’” says Matt Mahla, campus minister for Duke’s Reformed University Fellowship.
This foundation for self-worth—work, achievement, and success—is a rickety one. As Marva Dawn explains in Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, there will always be someone more accomplished than we are, which leaves us perpetually trying to escape the feeling of being second-rate.
Practicing the Sabbath can heal this warped vision of ourselves and others. By resting for 24 hours each week, we affirm that our worth isn’t ultimately defined by our spot on the Dean’s List or our acceptance to McKinsey. Sabbath is a chance to discover who we are beneath our accomplishments.
Now, Duke students being Duke students, we’re unlikely to give up our overweening ambition altogether. And success, ambition, and a strong work ethic aren’t inherently bad. But when we sacrifice rest, we run the risk of plowing through life without taking time to contemplate and live out our ultimate aims. Taking a day for rest provides space to reflect more deeply on why we work. In this sense, Sabbath isn’t just a break from everyday life; it is the very thing that gives our work meaning and purpose. “It is not an interlude,” Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote in The Sabbath, “but the climax of living.”
But how does one carve out 24 hours for rest in a typical week at Duke?
The Sabbath is a discipline, one that requires reimagining the six other days in the week. Practicing the Sabbath often means paring down one’s schedule and saying “no” to other time commitments. Instead of “time-stretching,” as Judith Shulevitz describes in The Sabbath World—where we ask how many activities we can cram into a week—we practice letting go, knowing we are making room for a different kind of time: what Heschel calls “a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”
Sabbath, after all, is not merely about us. In a now-famous study, researchers found that seminary students would hurry past an ostensibly injured victim when they were told by the experimenters that they had to be somewhere and were going to be late—even when they had just read the parable of the Good Samaritan.
“Ethics become a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases,” the experimenters wrote. By slowing us down and freeing us from the unending cycle of achievement, the Sabbath empowers us to focus on others, to serve and sacrifice, to contribute to something beyond ourselves. The Sabbath frees us to care.