Go Get Some Sleep

Are you among the many reading this who are already wiped out, even though the day has hardly begun?

Yesterday a friend commented that she came home from work, sat down on the couch for a few minutes while waiting for dinner, and promptly fell asleep.  Another friend told me that he had left work at the normal time, but fell asleep on the train home; he woke up two stops past his normal station and had to double back.  These are not elderly retirees, but young professionals, who just happen to be completely exhausted.

Studies show that most of us are not getting enough sleep, and we’re paying for it.  In a new study published this week in the peer medical journal The Lancet’s specialty publication on diabetes and endocrinology, a lack of sleep was found to be a major contributor to conditions such as obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and even premature death.  Not only are these things bad if you happen to develop them – premature death is particularly unpleasant – but they can also lead to relationship problems with family and friends, not to mention greater economic costs for society as a whole.

I can vouch for the fact that I’m not getting nearly enough sleep, myself.  I dropped by a local parish church late yesterday afternoon for a Holy Hour, with the sun still up and a bracing breeze outside to keep me awake and shivering on the way over.  If it hadn’t been for the copy of Magnificat magazine I brought with me to stop and read from time to time, I would have fallen asleep.  The relative silence inside the church, punctured only by the occasional hiss of steam passing through the ancient cast-iron radiators, had an unbelievably soporific effect.

The problem is, we’ve created a society where rest and quiet are generally frowned upon, because taking the time to have such things takes away from our appearing to be busy: and if we’re not busy, then the world concludes that we must not be that important.  Work takes up so much of our lives, that important tasks such as eating get relegated to “wolfing down” something unhealthy on the way to or from the office.  In fact, we’re often proud of the fact that our diets are terrible, or that we forget to eat (I’m guilty of that one), because it shows that we’re so busy, we just can’t be bothered to do something as mundane as eating.

Similarly, when we’re not at work we surround ourselves with invasive stimuli, to the point where we don’t even realize that everywhere we go, there is constant noise in both audio and visual form.  Announcements and advertisements are practically screamed at us from the moment we switch on the morning news to check the weather and traffic, to the time when we finally crawl, exhausted, into bed at night.  No wonder we’re all so tired.

Back when I was a growing lad in my teens, on weekends my parents would have a hard time getting me out of bed at all.  I could sleep ten, twelve, even fourteen hours at a time, and nothing would wake me.  Someone, I don’t recall who, once said I would sleep through the Second Coming.  Along similar lines, I always sympathized with paintings of the Resurrection where the Roman soldiers were depicted as being asleep at their posts.  It was unbelievably hard to get up and go serve as an altar boy some Sunday mornings, when I was so groggy I could barely stand.

As I’ve grown older, I find that I can’t sleep anywhere near that many consecutive hours anymore.  I still sleep very soundly, for the most part; once I’m out, I’m out.  However, six hours is about all my body seems willing to let me have. Sometimes I get seven hours, if it’s been a particularly grueling day.

While studies such as this new Lancet report suggest that there is no perfect number of sleep hours applicable to everyone, part of the problem in figuring out how many we do need is the fact that we have become addicted to not sleeping.  In order to determine some sort of baseline number of sleep hours, from before you started depending on substances like caffeine to function, you would not only have to step away from coffee, but also from activities like constantly typing away on your phone while waiting for something else to happen, or watching a “House of Cards” marathon.  And who among us is really willing to do that?

I doubt that any of us particularly relishes the idea of developing disease as a result of not sleeping enough, since the risk factor seems so easily avoidable.  Breaking the addiction to constant stimuli however, is going to take more than just wishful thinking. Admittedly, there’s not much that we can do about work, apart from trying to seek out moments of quiet in the day when we can, and making time for a proper lunch hour whenever possible. With respect to our non-work lives however, there are many things we can do.

The choices we make to entertain and inform us, we forget, are optional, not required.  There is nothing that says we *must* watch some program, or read articles on some website – not even this one, although I am grateful that you do so.  But we can take simple steps like turning off the computer an hour before bed, or not having any unnecessary lights shining in the house in the evening, to take back a certain amount of our lives from the control of the work grind and the power grid. We need to do so not only in order to have better health for ourselves, but more importantly in order for us to have better relationships with both the people we care about, and those around us.

Philosopher Josef Pieper’s well-kn0wn book “Leisure, the Basis of Culture”, explains how Western civilization would not have been possible, if our ancestors had simply worked and entertained themselves all day without making good use of their leisure time.  I would go further and point out, that without the restorative benefits of sleep, we run the risk of becoming not only increasingly unhealthy in mind and body, but raising generations of chemically and technologically addicted children.  Let’s all step away from that, and just go get some sleep.

Detail of "The San Francesco al Prato  Resurrection" by Pietro Perugino (c. 1499-1500) Vatican Museums, Rome

Detail of “The San Francesco al Prato Resurrection” by Pietro Perugino (c. 1499-1500)
Vatican Museums, Rome

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12 thoughts on “Go Get Some Sleep

  1. Pingback: Why We Should All Sleep More | In Da Campo

  2. “The problem is, we’ve created a society where rest and quiet are generally frowned upon, because taking the time to have such things takes away from our appearing to be busy: and if we’re not busy, then the world concludes that we must not be that important. ”

    This, in a nutshell. Taking time for yourself, to rest and heal and self-care, is seen as lazy and selfish when you could be doing something ‘more productive’. It’s a damaging idea, and one that values a kind of visible ‘usefulness’ over inherent self worth.

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  3. I’ve been trying this week specifically, to turn off external stimuli an hour earlier than usual. I sit and read a book (nod to a previous post of yours). I find that I am so inundated by the noise of the day, that not even this extra hour works – yet. I think if I do this for more than just these few days and make it a pattern, my body (and mind which seems to be more of the problem!) will learn that it’s time to wind down.

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  4. “The problem is, we’ve created a society where rest and quiet are generally frowned upon, because taking the time to have such things takes away from our appearing to be busy: and if we’re not busy, then the world concludes that we must not be that important.”

    Many people (including myself) seem to know this. If only more would help support this idea so that we could all have better quality down time!

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  5. This is my third occasion in recent days to be reminded of the experience described by Patrick Leigh Fermor in “A Time To Keep Silence.” He was astounded by the effect of staying in a monastery on his sleep habits. Forgive the long citation, but I think it is apropos:

    “The most remarkable preliminary symptoms were the variations of my need of sleep. After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day, I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the hours I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug. For two days, meals and the offices in the church — Mass, Vespers and Compline — were almost my only lucid moments. Then began an extraordinary transformation: this extreme lassitude dwindled to nothing; night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness. The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movements and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity.”

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    • I can certainly appreciate the quote, however lengthy. It reminds me of a Christmas I spent in a snow-covered little town in the Austrian Alps, where everything was so quiet and still, with barely any traffic or noise of any kind at night, and there was so little to do, that one crawled under the duvet and slept the soundest, heaviest sleep of one’s life. Thanks very dropping by and reading, and for sharing this!

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