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To Sleep Perchance to Make Out like a Rock Star

Friday, February 13, 2004

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Written by Marty Williams

I heard on CBC radio the other day that they’ve invented a pill that will eliminate the need to sleep. Well ain’t that grand news; ain’t that progress.
After all, with all the too much to do we have to do, it would be great to not waste all that time we spend sleeping.

Because we’re busy, oh boy, are we ever. We’re so busy we live in Busyworld, a place where we already don’t have time (so we are told; or so we seem to believe) to prepare fresh food, or get enough exercise, or think too much about the state of the world or the state of our soul.

The joke (haven’t we all seen this one on a sitcom?) is that even those folks who have taken steps to “live better” are so pressed by duties that they end up rushing home from work to nuke some packaged food (which, without a hint of the irony, often contains the word “healthy” on the label), wolf it down at the kitchen counter, and then dash out the door to drive (and curse) like a maniac in order to get across town in time for their “relaxation” class (cue the laugh-track).

“There are not enough hours in the day,” we say, “we’re busy, busy, busy.” And so it’s not surprising that the denizens of Busyworld would like to add sleep to the list of things we’re too busily important to do.

I admit that there may be some good uses for a sleep replacement pill. People who simply have to stay up –soldiers, students, rock stars and new parents for instance – will be able to keep going when every ounce of good sense tells them to grab forty winks. They will have more time to (following the above examples) shoot people, study, party, and burp the baby. And on those rare occasions when us regular folks spend all night working or playing or reading The Collected Works of Mavis Gallant, we won’t be dead on our feet the next day. We won’t feel tired at all: we will simply be tired. And not know it.

Popping a pill to replace sleep is like addressing hunger pangs with junk food: once you scarf it down you’re not hungry anymore, you’re just queasy and (in the long run) malnourished. Sleep doesn’t merely squash the feeling of being tired, it provides mental replenishment, is a detoxification (you can’t smoke, drink, or eat chips in your sleep), and is -- perhaps most importantly -- an entirely other state of being.

When we sleep we allow our minds to wander. We free ourselves from the perception of who we are and what we like, we set down the perimeter fence of our prejudices. Dreaming is the ultimate in thinking outside the box: it eliminates the notion of a box entirely. And what no pill can replace is the benefit that we get from not being us for a few hours a day. It allows us, as Shakespeare has it, “to steal a moment from [our] own company,” and I don’t know about all you good folks, but I for one really need and cherish the break.

Abolishing the “need” to sleep is like saying that you’ve abolished the “need” to walk in the park on a summer day, or eat ice cream, or make love. But in our dogmatic adherence to the “busy equals good” mantra, getting enough rest is one of the most heretical things one can confess to. We subscribe to an ethos where sleep and serenity are suspect. Saying you have time enough for healthy living is like confessing to malingering, to non-productivity, while walking around like a stressed out zombie is evidence of someone leading a full and exciting and (most importantly) productive life. Status in Busyworld is conferred on those who are permanently tired, on the folks who are frazzled by the demands of family and are straining under the yolk of work.

We are convinced that we live in a harried age, that things are getting faster and busier by the day, and so sleep becomes something for the weak, the lazy, for those who don’t have what it takes to make it. And in case you haven’t guessed, let me confess right now: I am one of those people.

The hell with heresy: I demand the right to sleep; I will not go without it; I love it, I practice it, I advocate on its behalf. I will even prescribe it to you, dear bleary-eyed reader. In my view, sleep is the most important yet least embraced spoke in the wellness wheel. You want to feel better? Get some rest.

Trust me on this. After all, I am a sleep artist, an expert, a pro. And though I may not be a poster-boy for nutrition, exercise, or moderate consumption of malt-based beverages, I do know a thing or three about sleep. I’d be happy to supply references on request.

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