Striving in Our Sleep, or Resting to Work Better?

Talk about grist for the mill! Did you see Eve Fairbanks’ riff in this past […]

David Zahl / 3.24.14

Talk about grist for the mill! Did you see Eve Fairbanks’ riff in this past Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, “When Did Sleep Become So Nightmarish?” Amazing stuff. She takes her own struggle with insomnia, what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have declared a full-blown “public-health epidemic”, and uses it as an entry point to exploring the mentality surrounding sleep in this country–or at least the sleep industry, which has apparently become a $32billion/year endeavor. What she finds could not be more relevant to those interested in the relationship between productivity and identity (or ‘works righteousness’). It’s enough to, you know, wake a person up, ht BU:

4In the last year or two, an obsessive fixation on getting sleep — not just any sleep, but good sleep — has crept into our public consciousness. In the early 2000s, the small number of New York Times articles that referred to sleep mostly instructed new mothers on how to get their babies to nod off. Not so in 2013 and early ’14, when there were articles on how insomnia makes you fat, sleep seminars, exercising for better sleep, napping for success, sleep as depression cure and an array of new, supposedly soporific devices and products, including dozens of sleep-monitoring smartphone apps, alarm clocks that won’t wake you during REM stages, sleep-inducing chocolates, candles that crackle like fireplaces, technologically enhanced sleep masks that “switch off your mind,” fitness bracelets that give you a sleep score (“I really want to do well in terms of sleep, I want to maintain my streak!” one user wrote) and a $12,000 sleep-enhancing mattress containing soothing seaweed and coconut husks…

If this onslaught of coverage has an underlying ideology, it is this: First, that sleep is absolutely critical for high performance; and second, that you can improve your sleep — but only with intense effort.

“In a world of rising demand, rest should no longer be demonized but celebrated for its intimate connection to sustainable high performance,” [sleep and mindfulness guru Tony Schwartz] wrote in The Times last November. Full of excitement, I showed my boyfriend a Schwartz article titled, “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive.” I told him we could now take a vacation because Schwartz had shown that “for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their year-end performance ratings . . . improved by 8 percent.”

My boyfriend, a South African, was completely disgusted. “You Americans don’t know how to rest,” he said. “You rest only to work better.”

It’s true. And it underpins our current obsession with sleep: We want to sleep more now not because we value sleep more on its own terms, but because we are so fixated on productivity. In a fascinating short book “24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep,” which came out last June, the culture critic Jonathan Crary writes that capitalism continually corrodes the value of sleep, positing “continuous functioning” as the ideal and pushing us to pursue “mastery” over the need to stop and rest.

Instead of being a strange, wild, mysterious Land of Nod whose purpose we don’t fully understand, sleep has been colonized by our ambition, becoming just another zone of the day to be farmed for productivity, generating new components necessary for performance like serotonin and healthy glial cells. Crary suggests that we despise sleep because “the stunning, inconceivable reality is that nothing of value can be extracted from it…”

Wowza. Is it really possible that performance has taken its polar opposite captive? Are we that addicted to our self-justifcation (and that ingenius in our manipulations)? If Fairbanks is right and the only way we as a culture can wholeheartedly endorse sleep/rest (or play!)–i.e. the most effective way to sell it–is to make it constituent of work, handmaiden to productivity, etc, well, that is sad news indeed. Rest is no longer rest, just prelude to more work. There is no being, just doing doing doing. She says it better though:

There is another side to life. The side in which we don’t do, but just be. Sleep best represents this side of life. We cannot control our dreams; so often we appear in them other than we wish to be, or fear we are. It’s what I loved most about drifting in and out of sleep as a child: the sense that I was falling apart, my acting and willing self collapsing under a curious influx of thoughts and fantasies whose provenance I couldn’t figure out. By day, my life had to be purpose-driven; by night, it was reigned by mystery. The night life seemed all the more wondrous for its ungovernability…

The premise of all this research is that we all have greatness locked inside of us, and if only we could release our true potential, we could all be Richard Branson. In decades past, the secret was said to lie with those who worked harder. Now it’s with those who rest more effectively. But it’s all the same thing.

Amen. The same thing, indeed.

By way of postscript, for the religiously inclined, it’s hard not to see sleep as the final frontier of humility, an inconvenient yet trustworthy barometer of our inner life and therefore an affront to certain claims of self-improvement–for precisely the reasons that Fairbanks describes. You cannot control your dreams. They are immune to pretense and ‘Should’. None of us can dictate what goes on during those hours: the persisting resentments, the strange fantasies, the violent outbursts, etc. And if God is concerned with the heart, with what’s going on inside a person, well, you know where I’m going. You can almost imagine if Jesus were here today and presented with the modern version of the Rich Young Ruler, someone convinced that they’ve got it together in their spiritual-religious life, instead of asking him to liquidate his accounts, he could simply ask for a journal of his dreams (or prescription history).

Then again, maybe that’s just a religious form of instrumentalizing sleep, and we should just point to Matthew 11:28 and give everything else… a rest.