The rise of radical rest

For a generation that’s overstimulated and exhausted, the most radical thing to do right now is nothing.

RIP hustle culture

The promise of America lies in the idea that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. In the 1930s, our grandparents had the American Dream; our parents had the allure of upward mobility. Now, one major economic recession, one pandemic, and one attempted far-right coup later, all we really want is a damn break. I’m not talking about squeezing in a 10-minute walk during lunch or popping on a face mask while watching TV after work. Given what we’re dealing with, mini acts of “self-care” simply won’t cut it. Today, rest is political, radical even — and it’s catching on in a big way.

On TikTok alone, the hashtags #DeepRest, #RadicalRest, and #RestIsRadical have more than 22 million views collectively — a testament to our shared desire to tune out before we burn out. Admittedly, it can be difficult to pin down a singular definition of “radical rest,” as it’s been dubbed. But at its core, most people touting radical rest agree it’s a response to the ongoing demands of capitalism in a world that’s falling apart, and to a system that repeatedly fails us. It’s an umbrella term that encapsulates our growing refusal to sell our souls in exchange for economic promises that aren’t actually promised. These conversations are constantly taking on new forms — most recently with the phrase “quiet quitting,” which seemingly originated with TikToker @zkchillin, and has been defined as the act of doing the bare minimum at work — but the goal is largely the same.

“Radical Rest is essential to healing, and the benefits will bring you more aligned with who and what you are all about,” Melissa Russell, a St. Louis-based licensed physical and massage therapist who incorporates radical rest in her practice, tells me. “On a primal level, you are helping your body feel safe.”

The new radical rest is less #SelfCare, more #QuietQuitting

Radical rest itself isn’t a new phrase; it seems to have first been coined by millennials during the Great Recession more than 10 years ago. At the time, its proponents encouraged disengaging from work by doing things like “turning off your blackberry” (LOL), napping, and taking cooking classes. The term was pretty ubiquitous on health blogs and Tumblr, though it seemed to wane in popularity in favor of the softer-sounding “self-care” — until 2020, when the pandemic and the exploding Black Lives Matter movement inspired fresh anger, pushing record numbers of us to protest and question our relationship to capitalism. Overstimulated and exhausted, we realized the most radical thing we could do as marginalized people was nothing.

All of a sudden, Radical Rest 2.0 was everywhere (and not just within social media chatter) — from books boasting its virtues to organizations and collectives offering mental health services and resources. This year, the Minnesota-based social justice nonprofit Headwaters Foundation for Justice chose radical rest as the theme for its annual calendar and invited artists of color to contribute pieces interpreting what the term means to them. “We hope this calendar serves as a reminder to pause, breathe deep, and tap into our collective resistance from another angle,” the website states. “Think beyond naps.”

The biggest difference between the post-2020 radical rest wave and the 2010s self-care hype is that the former is less apologetic than the latter, which posited rest as necessary for achieving optimal productivity. “Self-care” went hand-in-hand with hustle culture and #GirlBoss inspiration; it was still in service of capitalism more than anything. “When the exhaustion is this deep, when the stressors are ongoing, repeated, and chronic, sometimes the wisest thing to do is … nothing,” Oren Jay Sofer, an author and meditation teacher who incorporates radical rest into his work, wrote in a blog post last year about radical rest. The ethos of the new radical rest doesn’t just ask us to take breaks; it questions why we have such a strong impulse to achieve things in the first place. Think: less “yoga for the people” and more “fuck the system.”

Marginalized communities are central to today’s radical rest movement

In many ways, a new radical rest movement was the only logical outcome for younger millennials and Gen Zers, many of whom have been politically active for more than a decade and are tired of caring all the time. In part, that’s the consequence of growing up on the internet, with platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr serving as forums to constantly express our collective outrage about the world’s injustices. But even more so, it’s the fact that Gen Z — and, to an extent, millennials — have grown up in near-constant turmoil. “The urgency of BLM, racial injustice, [the] climate crisis, gun violence, [a] global pandemic, and toxic social media has created a culture of high stakes and high anxiety,” Valerie Brown, the co-director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership, tells me. “BIPOC in particular often live in a state of hypervigilance fueled by actual and vicarious trauma of daily microaggressions, implicit bias, and violence perpetrated against us.”

Indeed, these days, conversations about radical rest on platforms like TikTok center the exhaustion of Black and brown people in America, for whom resting has seldom felt like an option. Unlike “self-care,” which tends to focus on rest as that thing you do after you feel burnt out (and before you get back to the grind), radical rest positions it as an anti-capitalistic objective that will right generational wrongs.

That’s certainly how Taylor Roar, a creator and mental health advocate, sees it. “I always thought learning about my lineage would inspire me into action,” she explained in a TikTok video, referencing her desire to learn more about the lineage of her mom, who is Black. But instead, she added, “The tale of my great grandmother inspired me to rest.” The caption of Roar’s post: “What if your rest was radical?”

Roar tells me she created the video after she discovered The Nap Ministry, an organization founded in 2016 that considers rest a form of resistance. Roar believes that because America was built on slavery, it will take an overwhelming amount of time and work to create any meaningful change. “I have to be okay with knowing it will not be done in my lifetime,” she tells me. At first, this may sound like resignation; in reality, it’s an acknowledgment of a truth that is actually pretty freeing.

Young activists of color are already burned out

Sokhna Sankhare, a New York-based event planner, personally experienced the burnout that comes from being pushed into political activism at a young age. Her advocacy work formally began after the 2018’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people were murdered by a former student. Galvanized by the government’s inaction following the tragedy, Sankhare, who was 17 years old at the time, joined the nationwide March for Our Lives movement and organized a walkout of her entire Indiana High School that year.

After that, people looked to Sankhare to organize more protests and, before she fully realized what was happening, she had become an activist. But as she grew older, Sankhare began to question whether activism was really the best path for her wellbeing. “I realized … that a lot of my identity, self-worth, and all my future plans had been absorbed by my activism,” she tells me.

Like many other outspoken teens of color, Sankhare was thrust into the role of activist before she could decide if that’s what she wanted for herself. Four years later, she feels burnt out and tells me she is currently on a break from activism for the foreseeable future. She’s also allowing herself to explore things she actually wants. “Radical rest is not apathy and it’s not quitting,” she says. “It’s a rebalancing of energy. A period of time in which you commit to filling your own cup before freely loaning your energy to others.”

Putting radical rest into practice

Sankhare's view on radical rest — that rest is an active choice and one we should prioritize — is consistent with that of experts. “Radical rest, to me, is prioritizing rest before your body demands it,” Russell says. “To put rest at the top of the to-do list.” But how exactly are we supposed to do that?

First, we must recognize that the way we function under capitalism simply isn’t sustainable; it requires us to be mentally and physically engaged in our work while ignoring some of our most basic needs, like rest. You can start practicing this ethos with small steps, like making a list of things that help you feel nourished and referencing that list throughout each week. That may include activities like connecting with nature or less intuitive things like learning about astrology — pretty much anything goes, as long as the intention isn’t to produce something tangible or of quality. Leaning on a hobby like cooking classes, for example, is a slippery slope. What starts as a theoretically “restful” activity can quickly turn into a singular mission to perfect beef dumplings. Trust me.

Not only does radical rest ask us to integrate rest into our everyday lives, but it also calls on us to view it holistically — which means understanding there’s more than one type of rest. It’s important to give your body a break, but as U.K.-based medical student and TikToker Jessica Katanga pointed out, there’s also sensory rest, spiritual rest, and creative rest, all of which deserve our time and attention.

Taylor expands on the message of her TikTok through her blog, where she also offers radical rest journal prompts. “I am taking notice of the way my mind works and what collective beliefs infiltrate [my own] beliefs about myself and my worth,” she says. “I am slowing down and taking my time in a society that says I am only what I can do for others.” Currently, her rest focuses on three areas: mindfulness, spirituality, and slow living, the latter of which “champions the idea that thoughtfully prioritizing meaningful daily activities promotes long-term fulfillment and prevents the harmful effects of instant gratification,” per her blog.

WE WERE ALL BROUGHT INTO THIS EARTH AGAINST OUR WILL, AND IT’S OKAY TO JUST VIBE.

Of course, we still live under capitalism, the rent ain’t getting cheaper, and actually having time to figure out what makes us feel rested — much less actually do those things — is a luxury. In that case, it might be worthwhile to make a “bare minimum” list, which follows the logic of the “quiet quitting” TikTok trend: Write down the things you absolutely must do in order to keep your job, and stop yourself from going beyond that list. In some instances, you might find it frees up more mental space to start thinking about what actually makes you feel good in life.

Sankhare tells me radical rest is also about changing our view of what we see as “legitimate” activism and work. If marching on the streets and calling government representatives makes you feel depleted or horrible about yourself, it’s inherently unsustainable. Your worth as a human isn’t contingent on whether you succeed at work, become famous, or change the world. We were all brought into this earth against our will, and it’s okay to just vibe. “When I consider myself, the people I care about, and the spaces that became important for me to be in, [I realized] they were closer to home than Capitol Hill,” Sankhare says. At the end of the day, she says, rest is “radical existence: finding and spreading joy, in spite of what the world tells us.”