An enthusiastic admirer once rushed up to the Renaissance artist Michelangelo. What was his secret? How did he sculpt The David, the epic 17-foot statue of the biblical king and hero that now stands in the Accademia Gallery in Florence? Michelangelo’s answer was simple and profound: He looked at the unformed block of marble and “chipped away all that wasn’t David.” His indeed was the work of negation—the art of No. And through this Michelangelo found the deeper beauty, the more profound yes. That’s why on this December 31, I’m pondering my “No” Year’s Resolution.
This New Year’s Eve I’m looking to Scripture and science to tell me where my life is a block of unformed marble that needs some chipping away.
It all begins for us with the power of no in God’s gift of Sabbath—whether that’s for a day or something much shorter. In these times, Scripture tells us that God gives us a new vision and energy: “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isa 30:15, NRSV).
Honestly, the brain science behind this is easy to grasp. When we take breaks and reduce stress, we think better. Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School suggests that this comes from the release of nitric oxide that fires up feel-good neurotransmitters and slows down stress hormones. “It’s a matter of learning to shift our internal biology at will so that we increase production of nitric oxide and the neurotransmitters associated with well-being and increased creativity” (Bronwyn Fryer, Harvard Business Review).
The chemical formula for nitric oxide, by the way, is NO. When we’re stressed, let go and say NO.
- Read more about Herbert Benson’s “Relaxation Response.”
- Harvard Business Review describes “The Upside of Downtime.”
- Here’s another article asking if you are working too hard.
- U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine on why we need breaks from work.
- A succinct and thoughtful article on Andrew Newberg’s research.
- Try here if you want to delve into the peer-reviewed (read: academic) work on nitric oxide and relaxation.
- To find out the spirituality of breaks—i.e., Sabbath—check out the classic from the Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel.
- Drew considered Sabbath and science back in August.
- Some of this piece is excerpted from my book, Say Yes to No.
Listening for What 2020 Holds for Us
Let me be clear: this article isn’t about becoming such a specialist in the taking breaks that we become “Dr. No.” But I will say that, before we breath in new insights, the place to start is in breathing out and making space.
As I mentioned above, the neuroscience tells us that in addition to rest, prayer, and especially meditative prayer, can bring about reduction of bad stress. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg led a study of Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns and found that meditation and prayer increases levels of dopamine, which, among other things, enhances concentration and focus.
Be still and be quiet. The Oxford literary professor and Christian spiritual writer, C. S. Lewis wrote that every morning “all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. The first job each morning consists in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.”
Next week, I’ll look more deeply at the Yes on the other side of No. Still, even in these breaks, there’s something that speaks of God’s unmerited favor of the grace that surrounds us… and frankly that favor is all too often drowned out by our living in the modern marketplace and even in our faith communities . As Jesus said (and Eugene Peterson paraphrased in The Message): “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matt 11:28-30).
“The unforced rhythms of grace.” The No before the Yes. That’s my hope for a successful 2020. Resolving to find strategic Nos is a good way to start a new decade.
Happy New Year!