Burnout Culture, 1800s Protestant Logic, and Rest

In the light of a recent NYT article titled ‘Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?’ and another viral Buzzfeed article about the burnout generation, I was reminded of a life-changing lecture by a professor in a class about immigration. (I promise this is incredibly relevant to burnout culture)

The professor was explaining the roots of America – the very first immigrants who were (mostly) white Protestant farmers. The first two identities are extremely important to note because ‘white’ and ‘Protestant’ are the foundations of America as we know it now. The professor chose to not hone in on the whiteness because that’s already pretty obvious, because the more insidious influence is the Protestant culture.

Check it out – Mexicans have been in America since the beginning of America. Also, please let me know which period was America’s greatest so we can use it as a reference for greatness.

Prior to Protestant culture, the dominant culture was Catholicism. Religion is an important note because amongst the many reasons of why the first wave of white immigrants decided to move away from Europe was: Protestants wanted to escape persecution from the Catholic church.

In Catholic churches, there is confession, where you could directly and immediately absolve your guilt and sin as soon as you say it out loud in a confession booth to the priest.

One of my fave Catholics is the Daredevil. The next is probably the current Pope.

There are no confession booths in Protestant culture because Protestants believe that as long as you believe and confess in your heart, Jesus has already forgiven your sins. (Amen)

However, we are human and humans love tangibility. Even though we know our sins are forgiven, it doesn’t necessarily mean we feel like they are. Since Protestant culture didn’t have a priest to confess to, the leaders of the Protestant churches found another way to tangibly yet imperfectly absolve the guilt of inadequacy and insufficiency: work.

(Real talk for a hot second: confession to a priest doesn’t 100% solve guilt either, only Jesus can completely take away your guilt and that’s between you and Jesus. No priests or toil necessary.)

Protestant Logic goes like this:

Since we were all created for a purpose, therefore we ought to fulfill that purpose in our calling.

Since we ought to spend the most time on what we were called to do, therefore work is the aspect of our life that we spend most of our time on as work is productive to society and family, and fulfilling to the soul. (Also, we need to work so we can have more farmed goods!)

Since we can’t earn our salvation and we’re spending so much time at work and not at church, therefore we ought to work our hardest to be the best representative of Christ as we are made in His image and God is not a slacker.
How most of us feel, like, every day, like, all the time.

Because even though most of us aren’t American, or Protestant, or American-Protestant, the culture that built ‘the American Dream’ created the toxic work culture of today. This logic has built the capitalist world as we know it(I told you this was relevant to burnout culture.)

I am not discrediting hard work; what I am challenging is working too hard. One of my supervisors constantly said ‘work smarter, not harder.’ And he’s completely right – we simply don’t do our best when we feel like death from the constant grind. The way we work till absolute exhaustion is more like dying than living, and I’d rather thrive than merely survive.

I believe the reason for the toil glamour of working harder and not smarter is best summed up in the NYT article:

‘Perhaps we’ve all gotten a little hungry for meaning. Participation in organized religion is falling, especially among American millennials… The concept of productivity has taken on an almost spiritual dimension.’

Erin Griffith for NYTimes

The same thing happened in the late 1800s when Protestant immigrants stopped going to Catholic churches: they used work to replace a void in their lives, we now also work to fill up a void in our lives.

Found at a WeWork water dispenser and carved into the infused fruits: 'Don't stop when you're tired. Stop when you are done.'

Work is not an ends to all means – it will give you a sense of purpose, but it shouldn’t be all that we are. 

So how do we stop worshipping our work? It’s not like we can just stop working, or work less. After all, money is a reality, and stopping a habit abruptly never worked. From experience, it is better to replace a habit with a better habit over a period of time.

The solution to the current toxic work culture is: rest.

Otters holding hands while sleeping/resting/napping.
Found in my fave children’s book ‘Stop Snoring, Bernard!’

Resting is not just vegging out on Netflix for a whole weekend in bed. There are days when that is necessary, but mostly you feel gross after not moving your whole body for 48 hours (I’ve tried, I know). Working drains you, so you need to replenish properly.

Resting is about restoration. Resting is about enjoying life and not worry about ‘being productive’ just for a moment. What restores YOUR soul?

@agathasorlet is one of my current fave artists. Check her out!

For some, rest includes prepping a homemade dinner for gamenight with a group of friends; for some, rest is sitting with a book and a warm cup of coffee for many silent hours; for some, rest is going for a hike in nature. Figure out what restores your soul and carve out the time to do it.

When you take a break, you are reminded that you are more than your work. You are reminded that you are not a productive robot, you are a whole human being.

Now if you’re reading this and you identify as a Christian, I’d encourage you to take it a step further – take a Sabbath. After all, ‘keeping the Sabbath holy’ is one of the OG Ten Commandments (don’t worry, I completely forgot that existed at some point in my life).

Keeping the Sabbath is not merely just resting, but to rest in the Lord by basking in His presence and goodness.

I knew these cute coffee pictures I take will come in handy someday. Taken at Patisserie Fouet in NYC.

Celebrating God’s blessings looks a little different from person to person. My personal favourite way of spending the Sabbath is doing fun things with people I love, because I’m an extrovert and people remind me of God’s goodness. But I also balance my extroversion with some introspection by journaling in a cafe for a few hours. I splurge on good coffee to remind myself that God is worth the indulgence, and He wants to know me better so I intentionally craft out time to be with Him and only Him. Sometimes my Sabbath is a whole day; sometimes it’s 2 hours in a middle of the week.

Daniel slept in a lion's den. Peter slept in prison. Jesus slept in a storm. No matter your circumstances, you can take a nap.
Never feel shame for needing a nap!

The Sabbath looks different for each Christian because God made you uniquely you, so take the time to figure out how He wants to spend time with you. If He has created you for unique purposes in work, He also has created you to rest in a way that is special to you because rest is incredibly special to Him.

The articles I referred to in the start of this blog never mentioned a solution to performative workaholism, but God does. And if the God that created this universe needed to rest after 6 days, so do we mere human beings, because we are not gods nor are we robots.

God did hard and good work during those 6 days, and so should we – we ought to work hard and do good. But here’s a reminder: it’s more than okay to rest. In fact, rest is the best (and that’s probably why the two words rhyme).


If you’d like to learn more about work/rest balance, check out John Mark Comer’s Garden City: Work, Rest, and the Art of Being Human
Let me know your thoughts on this blog in the comments section below!

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