There is an immense comfort in being buried under a pile of work, completely smothered by a warm blanket of tasks to accomplish. Some latent desire for authoritarianism makes me want to point to my calendar and see it all spelled out- here’s sixteen hours of chores that people need from me. Things people need from me. I can derive a lot of value from that. More importantly, I can rest easy taking no responsibility for the rest of my day, since I’ve been given all this stuff to do.
An empty day, like a holiday or weekend, having no one telling me what to do, introduces the paradox of choice. Sure I have an immediate family with strong opinions of what I should do, but more often we all approach a Saturday morning with wide, blinking eyes peering back and forth at each other. Imagine prisoners cowering in the dark when suddenly the doors burst open and a blinding beam of light shines in before them. Is this freedom? Dare we step into it? What will we find on the other side?
And just like that we have been given complete responsibility for ourselves, at least for a few hours until we have to run by Costco or get to that seven-year-old’s birthday party. As the demands on our time disappear, we are left with the bittersweet balance of freedom and responsibility.
Naturally the next thought should be about death, how soon it is, how intangible and yet unavoidable. Any momentary feeling of freedom or choice should always be viewed in the context of our inevitable destruction. It’s a reminder that you’re free to choose, but not that free. There’s still plenty that happens outside of our control. And beyond that, death reminds us that even our freedom itself is always limited. One day it disappears. Your freedom is even more valuable, more intense, because it doesn’t last.
I imagine the pearly gates and St. Peter looking down on me from behind a podium of textured cloud. In this scenario St. Peter is primarily concerned with what I did with my free time, with the freedom granted me. And that’s the anxiety that I’m thinking about here, that even in a completely open day, I can’t shake the feeling that I need to accomplish something.
This idea reveals the value of a religious tradition like the Sabbath. The only way to conquer the anxiety of not being told what to do, is to have some ultimate authority, some deity on high, explicitly telling us to do nothing.