There is something to be said for being completely exhausted. Two days ago, I had a morning that began with waking up at 5:30 AM in order to feed my three cats and change their litter trays, followed by doing some final packing for a trip to New York, followed by a commute, followed by a meeting with an important client at my Leeds office, followed by a train trip to London. All along the way, the flow of productive work did not abate. Questions were posed and answered, documents were written, edited and sent. Upon arrival in London, I dragged my heavy case down the winding passages of Kings Cross St. Pancras Tube station, took the Metropolitan Line, got off at Liverpool Street, negotiated frantic lunch hour crowds of nondescript office workers who all seemed to be stuffing ready made prawn sandwiches in their mouths while simultaneously talking on the phone, and then dropped my bag off at Left Luggage, only blanching slightly at the extortionate price. Then I took a train to Chelmsford, directed a cabbie with no sense of direction to my next client, and then had a lengthy and involved meeting which lasted 1 and 1/2 hours. Then I went back to London, retrieved my case from Left Luggage, again took the Tube, got off at Paddington and after standing all the way on a rush hour train, I arrived at long last in Oxford. The best part of my day may have been the slight thrill at discovering the West Oxford exit to the station. The golden early evening sunlight lit the way and I stepped out, hardly believing my luck at finding a place so relatively lacking in bustle and noise. Even the birds in a nearby tree were singing.
After a meal with my brother-in-law, I sat on a couch and answered some more work e-mails. However, my eyes grew heavy as the consequences of the day finally caught up to me. The sun was long gone. There were no cats needing attention; I had bidden my other half good night via Facebook. The world was letting me go, and I felt like I had permission to depart till the morning. I slowly climbed up the stairs: an unfolded futon and some cotton sheets awaited me in the spare room. With the help of these, I was soon gone. When I awoke the following day to gentle sunlight streaming through the window, there was a calm that came from having genuinely rested. It was all too soon shattered by another challenging morning, but nonetheless, there was a space, a pause, a sheltering from time, and in that tidy gap lay a capacity to heal.
This highlighted for me that sleep is something more rare than it should be. We all know that we should get more of it: the Mayo Clinic suggests that adults need at least seven hours a night. Motorway signs warn that tiredness can kill and we should take a break. But apart from when I’m on holiday or selected weekends, it’s rare that I get it. I’m not alone.
It is a function of our current economy, perhaps, that we must remain awake. Companies who downsize in staff don’t necessarily scale back in the work that needs doing. Instead more is demanded; people are expected to be flexible. After all, they should be grateful there is any work at all. I recall when I was a child: my father would get up at the break of dawn and only return quite late at night. His industriousness was considered extraordinary and it led to a brilliant career in his chosen profession. Nowadays, his commitment would be considered normal: I too go to the office early. Indeed if my workplace represents a balanced sample, the numbers of early arrivals are growing.
Is insomnia also a consequence of worry? My other half can’t sleep if she’s distressed: she stays up until the wee small hours, occupying herself with reading and playing with iPad apps with the television on in the background. As this all happens beside me, it can be challenging for me to get sleep. But my own workaday concerns propel me on, and I’ve had many days, too many, in which I’ve carried on only thanks to coffee and a sense of responsibility. Worry tells us that we should not sleep, cannot rest, lest something be missed: I can scare myself into almost permanent wakefulness if I so wish by thinking about the Greek elections on Sunday or contemplating who might be winning the American Presidential election. Perhaps all the turmoil of recent years has dented our capacity to really rest: we live in a time of so little certainty, and this keeps the wheels of thought in perpetual motion. The machine cannot slow, nor shut down, rather we must be on our guard against any and all dangers that come.
Maybe our insomnia is the result of us being so connected via our technology. The greater the number of the connections, the more we find it difficult to disengage. Unlike when my father began his career, my work doesn’t largely end when I leave the office. With my Blackberry, laptop and iPad, it stays with me as readily as it did as when I sat at my desk. Yes, our productivity has increased, but so has the pace of life. I found myself answering work emails all the way up to boarding the plane to New York: this is nothing extraordinary. But it also means I boarded the plane with more to consider. Sleep did arrive, and it helped drain out the hours of the flight like the water out of a bath, but this didn’t occur until after I mentally refreshed my task lists and was certain all was in hand.
Perhaps technology, worry and a bad economy are not the only factors deserving of blame; could insomnia also be a result of Thatcherism, i.e. ideology? She notoriously did not sleep much; she was up until the wee small hours on the night of the Brighton bomb. No dreams in her case were ripped asunder, she witnessed the entire incident. She brushed it off. This cold blooded wakefulness may have set an example or been a symptom: in either case her having set free the markets and ripped out the quiet certainties of life hitherto could have led to the expectation that we should be up and productive for longer.
Was there ever truly a gentler time? To be sure, there have always been insomniacs. But read over histories of previous eras and one wonders how drastically perceptions have changed. In 1780, Mozart wrote an aria, “Ruhe Sanft, mein holdes Leben”, for the otherwise obscure opera Zaide. In it, sleep is presented as something beautiful, romantic:
The lyrics read as follows:
Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben,
schlafe, bis dein Glück erwacht;
da, mein Bild will ich dir geben,
schau, wie freundlich es dir lacht.
Ihr süßen Träume, wiegt ihn ein,
und lasset sienen Wunsch am Ende
die wollustreiechen Gegenstände
zu reifer Wirklichkeit gedeihn.
Which translates as:
Gently rest, my dearest love,
sleep until your happiness awakes;
here, I will give you my portrait,
see how kindly it smiles at you.
You gentle dreams, rock him to sleep,
and may the imaginings
of his dreams of love
become at last reality.
Compare and contrast with with “Sleepyhead”, a tubthumper of a song, released in 2008 by Passion Pit. Its vision of sleep is hardly peaceful; as the lyrics state, “They crowd your bedroom like some thoughts wearing thin”.
There are consequences to our collective insomnia, and not just in direct costs to the NHS. We are seeing a decline in leadership accompany our diminishing ability to rest; while there is no direct correlation, it is suggestive. Leaders in both politics and industry nowadays appear to operate with narrowed time horizons, wisdom seems to matter less than swagger, and competence and insight are in short supply. Could this be partially due to an inability to disengage?
At the very least, we are losing something. We are in a period of strange priorities: for example, people serve the economy rather than the other way around. Similarly, we crowd out biology with Berocca and Starbucks to be awake in a manner that is unnatural. The results are easy to assess medically: we perform less well, our judgement is diminished, and our decisions end up being worse. This may explain why Big Brother is still on the air, some people respond to spam and David Cameron is presently prime minister. I would urge everyone, please do yourselves a favour. Rediscover the quiet pleasures of dusk, the ascent to the bedroom, the feel of cotton sheets on a cool late spring evening. Let escape come and dreams take flight. Go to sleep.