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The Problem With ‘You Can Sleep When You’re Dead’ Mindsets

A Black man lies on the couch asleep, a book resting on his chest.
Igor Vetushko
We all have a right to rest, and to take time when our bodies need to recover.

There are a lot of cultural forces that tell us to ‘go, go go’ — even when our minds and bodies are telling us to slow down. In many ways, heeding these messages can be an act of resistance.

Rest is more than just getting a good night’s sleep. It’s a practice of recharging mentally, emotionally and physically that helps us with our health and creativity. But in a culture that places high value on productivity — and shuns some bodies for their inability to do so — it can be hard to get adequate rest. Reframing our relationship to rest involves a consideration of work, social responsibilities, and structural forces that push productivity and bar rest from some bodies.

Host Anita Rao talks with clinical social worker and psychotherapist Gabrielle Zhuang-Estrin about the evolution of her relationship to rest, and how she helps clients with theirs. Rao also talks with Dom Chatterjee, a yoga and meditation teacher of South Asian descent and the community organizer behind Rest for Resistance, a platform for sharing art, writing and mental health resources for people of color.

Also joining the conversation are Fannie Sosa and Navild Acosta, the co-creators of the sculptural installation and project Black Power Naps, which aims to reclaim rest for people of color.


Gabrielle Zhuang-Estrin on her relationship with rest:

I found my way into the hustle through the experience of being a Chinese-American immigrant and a child of immigrants. … So, not really having any models growing up of rest, not seeing my mother or father resting. ... And, of course, it's not limited to immigrant groups. But it's one of the themes that I think really undergirds our culture: That unless we are hustling and being productive, we won't make it. We won't survive. And we certainly won't succeed.

Dom Chatterjee on finding moments of rest throughout the day:

I think about how to bring rest into any activity, so there's not this binary of laying down is restful, or going for a walk outside is restful, but working on a creative project can't be. … By inviting rest into any relationship I have with any aspect of my life, I'm able to potentially have a day that looks highly productive. Because of my own relationship to anxiety and myself, everything else can actually have these restful moments built in. And it might not be the entire time, but I really resist that compartmentalization in our contemporary culture.

Fannie Sosa on race- and class-based barriers to rest:

We live in a “noiseocracy” where only affluent people can afford more soothing sounds and silence. And folks that are actually situated in different positions of society live with very disruptive sounds. …This is one of the main reasons why when we talk about the “Sleep Gap,” we say that Black people on average sleep one hour less — it’s because of this noiseocracy. It’s because Black people often live in more “dangerous” neighborhoods with more police presence. The noise that comes with all of that, the lights that come with all of that — and it's just simply harder to achieve the same type of reparative and regenerative type of sleep that people in a more wealthy neighborhood would have.

Navild Acosta on how his work as an artist and activist is fueled by rest:

Reclaiming my time — and reclaiming rest and leisure and really quality time to myself — is something that is so important, and basically my life depends on it as a Black trans queer person. Ultimately, I'm on the frontlines of creating these kinds of movements, just by existing. … By existing and going towards things that I desire and want to see in the world. And so for me, taking rest for myself, and being able to craft that, is the basis from which I'm able to create this work. … It's what keeps my engine going and also reminds me of what my purpose is and what I'm here to do.

Please note: This episode originally aired December 3, 2021.

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Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
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