With Christmas day on the horizon, the greatest of festivals on what is now perhaps a calendar defined by conspicuous consumption, I wonder if you, like me, feel a certain sense of urgency pressing down on the already-long list of things-to-do enacted and ritualised in our daily lives. Of course, this urgency is part driven – not, incidentally, by any authentic sense of altruism in a world-view that espouses cost-benefit as a fundamental – by a desire to acknowledge, through the act of giving, our deep and necessary concern for one another. And I suspect that this panicked urgency is also part fostered by the anxiety that accompanies the need to choose from a vast and somewhat dizzying number of potential gifts on offer in our contemporary forums. As the old adage goes, ‘to everything there is a season.’ Fine. However, in these past few years I have become acutely aware of an ever-growing sense of urgency encroaching upon my daily life, my very existence, irrespective of proverbial advice, and its most noticeable impact has been felt in that one activity that offers respite from the demands of daily life, namely the rejuvenating stillness that is sleep. It appears to me that we have found ourselves in a state of constant activity, engaged in a somewhat Sisyphean pursuit of wiping clean the itinerary of things-to-do. It seems as if there is always more to do, more socialising, more upskilling, more consuming, more creating, and more recently and tellingly more mindfulness, a term that appears now to me to be a euphemism for the simple act of doing nothing or at least doing something with no great purpose.
The effect of this almost industrialised perpetuity of activity on the quality of our lives and in particular on the still-yet mysterious activity of sleep has not gone unnoticed. Indeed, this menacing threat to sleep is the point from which Jonathan Crary, professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University, departs in offering a critical account of the economic and social transformations wrought by late 20th and early 21st techno-global capitalism. In his thought-provoking work, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Crary argues that the current demands of late capitalism, the incessant bing of ever-smarter digital networks, the plethora of newer metrics for productivity, and the ever-widening forms of control and surveillance, dissolve away the divisions between night and day, between work and rest, and as such pose a very real threat to the activity of sleep. The threat to sleep, according to Crary, marks a “a generalised inscription of human life into duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning. It is a time that no longer passes, beyond clock time.” If, however, you find the Marxist rhetoric of Crary’s argument unconvincing you may be moved, at least, by the vast numbers evinced in prescriptions for sleeping pills in the US; 56 million in 2008 alone. And recent studies into the sleeping habits of pre-industrialised societies highlight the comparatively much lower rates of insomnia reported in pre-industrialised societies. More compelling yet, recent studies of the impact of electronic devices and our ever-increasing wired lives on the quality and quantity of sleep suggest a deleterious effect. Explanations abound of course, but a consensus seems to be emerging among sleep experts and health professionals that this effect is real, and it has led some researchers to call for guidelines on the use of smart technologies, most urgently amongst those groups where use is most prevalent, namely children and younger adults. Interestingly, Crary’s argument draws our attention to the smartphone to illustrate the apparent contradictory forces at work in our frantically productive lives; the smartphone, in its sheer ubiquity, has helped standardised everyday experience and yet at the same time its effect is to isolate us and make any kind of collective experience less and less likely. And what is the cost of this impoverishing of sleep? One need only consult the entry on sleep loss on any reputable medical organisation’s website to appreciate the worrying associations between diminished sleep and physical and mental health problems.
This brings me to the point of this article. As we scramble in these final few days to find a meaningful gift for our loved ones, I wish to make a suggestion. Perhaps this year we can give the gift of sleep. This might simply involve reminding ourselves and those we care for of the need to rest, to slow down, perhaps even to be present. Or we may even wish to take active resolution and commit to a new year of less urgency and of improved rest and sleep. Indeed, the psychologist Richard Wiseman has demonstrated a positive correlation between a good night’s sleep and goal achievement. In the terms of cost and benefit, this seems like a potentially rewarding investment. If such a gift appeals to you then it may also interest you that this Christmas Day the recently released eight-hour long composition entitled Sleep by British composer Max Richter will be broadcast in its entirety on RTE Lyric FM’s The Blue of the Night. This monumental piece, produced with the assistance of neuroscientist David Eagleman, consisting of gentle strings and peaceful piano is, according to Max Richter, a “personal lullaby for a frantic world. A manifesto for a slower pace of existence.” This seems to me like a gift worth sharing in.