Letters from Esther #48: "Why is it so hard to take a break?"


Shall We Begin?

“Leisure, freedom, exemption, free from duty, immunity earned by service.”

These are the words associated with “vacation” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Vacation allows us to “be empty, at leisure, to leave, abandon.” From the Latin word “vacare,” it means “to be unoccupied.”

I am rarely unoccupied. I actually find it a very difficult state to achieve. 

I’m an associative thinker, which means I usually have several lines of thought going at once. I’m a psychotherapist with an active practice, which means I have constant responsibility to my patients regarding the most personal dimensions of their lives. I’m a wife and a mother and, I’ll admit it, a worrier on both of these fronts, particularly as my husband heals from a recent major surgery. I have a small business which, likewise, requires a great deal of attention and care, especially as we grow. And I have my community: all of you. 

So when I set out to take a “real vacation” this summer, I made an intention to reconnect with my sense of play. I planned to write about it in this very letter to you, after all, “play” is one of my favorite topics. Play is the infinite testing ground for creativity. It allows us to safely take risks, learn new skills, and connect with ourselves and others. But, at this moment, I’m not feeling connected to the topic. And I feel a bit guilty for that lack of connection.

My vacation took me on a boat through the Greek islands with a few close friends. We played. But I found myself plagued by a sense of distance, not the kind that comes with traveling far from home, but the kind in which you feel distant from yourself. Even though my surroundings had changed, I was still occupied by work and home. 

Moreover, there was a crisis unfolding before us: Greece was—and continues to be—experiencing what has become an all too common tragedy across the globe. It’s on fire. Through binoculars, I could see it off in the distance. Slightly closer, a vessel of migrants seeking safety was being towed to shore. 

No matter where you go, vacation always comes with a choice: do you want to stay connected to the world and its realities or do you want to disconnect and simply be present where you are? When the place you’ve gone to vacation is in crisis, however, those two options merge and a new choice must be made. Do I try to help? Do I pack up and go home? Home, I soon found out, was also choking—on the haze drifting south from the Canadian wildfires. 

The boat became a liminal space, a vessel between burning continents. My mind was in between states, too. I’d be lounging carefree and suddenly a jolt of worry would envelop me. We were told there wasn’t much we could do to help, just to try to relax. But I didn’t know how. 

In my American life, I often find myself having to justify taking vacation, especially when it’s longer than a week. In my European life, it’s a sin to work during the entire month of August. When I booked this trip, I said to myself, “come on, Perel. Even God rested on the seventh day, no justification needed.” But how can one rest at a time like this? 

Movement has always helped me calm down. I decided to swim to shore with a friend. The water was rough but, focused on my breath, my mind finally went to rest. As we approached the sand, I could see locals all along the beach, playing underneath an orange sky. There were picnics of watermelon and feta, sun shades covering napping babies, children playing with balls. It wasn’t apathy for the fires. It was survival—which brings me back to the topic I’ve been avoiding: play. 

When crisis is all around us, rest and play can feel self-indulgent, but both are essential ingredients of our life force, what I call “Eroticism.” It may sound trivial or even offensive in this context, but please bear with me as I work through this thought: I believe that staying connected to that life force prepares us to handle the very things we need a break from—whether it’s the crises of home or work or our planet—so we can come back to these fights replenished and a little stronger. I stayed on that beach for as long as I could before heading back to the boat. 

Let’s Turn the Lens on You 

  • How do you unwind? 
  • What has your culture taught you about taking a break? Is it judged or encouraged?
  • Do breaks carry intrinsic value to you or are they seen as a gap between two tasks? 
  • Do you prefer to vacation solo, with friends or family, or with a group of strangers? 
  • What is the best vacation you’ve ever taken and why? 
  • What have you learned about yourself from taking breaks? 
  • What is the next vacation you’d love to take? 

More From Esther

“Am I being gaslit by my partner?” / a recent article

Last month, we relaunched “Where Should We Begin?” as “always on” with the Vox Media Podcast Network. That means more episodes, more relational journeys to listen in on, and bonus content for those who subscribe for a small monthly fee—including conversations with luminaries from the arts, entertainment, psychotherapy, and beyond. Read on for the behind-the-scenes story of the new episode “Am I being gaslit by my partner?”

Eroticism in Hard Times / a newsletter

Eroticism is what makes life itself worth living. When times are good, Eroticism is what converts the mundane into magic. When times are tough, Eroticism is what inspires us to survive—and even to thrive—despite all odds. It is why we make art and music and go into nature when we are in pain.

The Importance of Play / an article

Just like sex, playing as adults is about pleasure, connection, creativity, fantasy—all the juicy parts of life we savor. Play is the pleasure of being inventive, mischievous, imaginative, and trying something new. Why do we play? Because it helps us grow—and because it’s fun. 

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