In Praise of Sleep

“Sweet sleep! You come like pure good fortune, unasked for, most readily when not implored.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). Poets of all ages have sung the praise of sleep. Sleep puts us in a kind of limbo where without any agency of our consciousness, our minds process what we have experienced, order and react to it. Sleep is indispensable and precious. And yet for a long time I’ve had a feeling that in our modern culture sleep is not given the importance it deserves so that some people even consider it as wasted time. As though our lives only consisted of one single reality.

Today I would like to argue against this one-sided point of view. Statistically speaking, we spend from a third to a quarter of our lives in sleep. That’s how nature has ordered it. If you think that such time is “lost time”, you’re mistaken. In my opinion, it’s not a hallmark of a productive person to stay awake as long as possible and do without as much sleep as possible.


Sleep as a necessary evil

In a round of talks with young managers I once heard the CEO of a major corporation proudly proclaim that he only needed four hours sleep a night. The implicit message here was that firstly, he was so important and such a valuable asset that he worked twenty hours a day and had become accustomed to going without sleep; and secondly that if the young ambitious managers he was addressing wanted to get ahead and become just as important as he was, then they’d better kiss goodbye to a good night’s sleep, and be pretty quick about it!


Art and Sleep

In October of this year the Wurttemberg Art Association opened an exhibition in Stuttgart featuring the works of 40 artists on the theme of sleep. The exhibition bore the title “Sleeping with a Vengeance, Dreaming of a Life”, and its curator, Ruth Noack, points out that in our society sleep is accorded only the bare minimum of space.

I think it’s fantastic that for once we’re given an artistic perspective on this vital aspect of human life. People, after all, are more than just assets whose value is measured by their economic importance and usability. And sleep is certainly no necessary evil as it appears to be when reduced to a mere economic function.


It’s about rhythm and balance

All things that live must sleep. Every plant, every animal and every human being. It’s a law of nature. Many of them are nocturnal beings who sleep during the day. But they all have to sleep sometime. The health problems that arise from permanently changing shift work are just one indication of the heavy price to be paid when sleep is tailored to economic principles. Nor is it simply by chance that sleep deprevation is a particularly perfidious method of torture in the broad arsenal of human wickedness because its dramatic after-effects leave no discernable traces.

Our minds, our consciousness, our creativity and power of invention are all dependant on sleep – on the sorting and connecting of what we have experienced. And on the possibility of dreams. Rest is invaluable, no matter at what time of day or night it is taken. With artificial light and heated rooms, humanity can now remove itself from the seasons and the natural rhythm of day and night. Being able to turn night into day just when we want to gives us the basic freedom to live out our own individual rhythms – in so far as such freedom is compatible with the demands of our private and professional lives. If you work for an organisation where teamwork’s the order, you’ll have little choice but to be wide awake and active during the day and adapt your rhythm accordingly. And if you’re tending to a baby or have a small child to bring up, you’re going to have to forget a good night’s sleep for quite some time.

Living life at your own rhythm is a form of freedom

OUBEY much preferred to work at night, undisturbed by the bustle of the hectic outside world. Being able to find and live the rhythm that was best for him was a moment of his freedom but also a vital basis of his creativity. Many writers, painters and musicians are the same. The world of “normal” rhythms in which the majority of people find themselves – often against their will – is probably regarded with suspicion by people who have such lifestyles.

For me, however, accepting and respecting OUBEYs own rhythm was always quite self-evident – even though my own rhythm at that time was completely different due to the job I was doing. Likewise, I show equal respect to the work and life rhythms of every other human being.

And as strange as this might sound: sleep for me is an element and condition not only of refreshment but also of freedom, and even in a certain way of happiness.

So that’s why I say to you – Enjoy your sleep!

More Dagmar Woyde-Koehler