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.