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On Sleep

I ran across one of the most interesting and helpful articles of the year this weekend: “Cuckoo: Our body clocks have social jet lag. And it’s making most of us a little crazy.” It’s one of those articles that confirmed a lot of what I already understood, but gave my understanding more sustenance and clarity. The gist of the book review is, We’re all wired by nature differently, and social obligations throw our hard-wiring out of whack. The result is “social jet lag”: your body is out of whack with your natural cycle, resulting in sleep deprivation, and sleep deprivation “makes us sick, sad, and dumb.”

But in my experience, that’s what our culture encourages. I can’t tell you how many times men in my social circle refer to a guy (okay, me) as “a wuss” because he needs to go to bed early, or because he needs a nap. There’s something machismo about getting by with little sleep. It has never made sense to me. You might as well say there’s something machismo about striking yourself repeatedly in the scrotum, because that’s kinda how I feel after succumbing to social pressures to deprive myself of sleep. I remember one guy telling me that he’d never do another golf weekend with his friends because (rough quote), “We played 27 holes, drank until midnight, then got up at 6:00 a.m. to start all over. Three days in a row. It felt more like an endurance test than a relaxing weekend of golf. I’ll never do it again.”

Amen. Unfortunately, that kind of “manliness” seems engrained in our culture. And it’s not just contemporary middle-aged men who never matured past college. I remember reading a monk (probably of the Greek Orthodox tradition) who believed that two hours of sleep is enough for a monk, if he’s a fighter. Such endurance was also lauded by the Stoics (Seneca: “I do not allow time for sleep but yield to it when I must, and when my eyes are wearied with waking and ready to fall shut, I keep them at their task”). I remember reading about how T.E. Lawrence (I think it was TEL) once walked into a friend’s room at Oxford, announced that he hadn’t eaten or slept for 48 hours, then started firing a pistol randomly out the window. It was considered kinda cool, if unsettling. In today’s society, there are few things considered more infantile than a nap (or, using the preferred phrase of men reacting to their friend’s announcement that he’s going to lie down, “nappy wappy,” as in “Does hims need a nappy wappy?”).

I like sleep, and I like naps. But I’m also a firm believer in tradition. The tradition that says “sleeping is for wimps” is firmly ensconced in our culture, so I’m hesitant to write it off. Still, studies are showing that our modern attitude towards sleep ain’t healthy. Something has to give.

And it ain’t gonna be me.

I’m going to lie down.

One Response

  1. Dennis