Sleep as counter-culture

Last night I slept very poorly. This on top of still getting over a cold, which is worse again today because of my short sleep. My undesirable circumstance reminded me of a Lauren Winner essay from January 2006 titled Sleep Therapy.

In my sleep-deprived stupor I re-read the essay and thought it worth posting on. It was written for Books & Culture and the Christian Vision Project and is a seemingly unusual topic for a theological think-tank. All geared up to write a piece on protesting the death penalty, Winner switched her topic at the last minute after pulling an all-nighter. It is a very appropriate topic for a website that bills itself as being a “counter-culture for the common good.”

The essay points out to us what should be obvious. When people get more sleep they’re more alert (duh), nicer, smarter, healthier and so on. She gives examples from studies. When children go in to school later in the morning, allowing for more sleep, they get better grades and fall asleep less in class. The day after the inane shift to Daylight Savings Time there is an obvious spike in automobile accidents, logically connected to the hour less sleep afforded people the night before. Sleep specialists posit that Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the Exxon Valdez all point back to sleepy workmen on the job.

Our culture values sacrifice. It values productivity over respite, whether that’s sleep, evenings with the family, relaxing weekends or vacations. Sacrifice is good, some of the time. Not all of the time. Work is good. Workaholism is not. We lack balance in America, a mantra I find myself repeating more and more often. Sleep isn’t something we can do without. We need it, and, frankly, who doesn’t want it as well?

Winner concludes by citing a number of Western poets who, in times past, understood the nature of sleep better than we appear to. One thing they point out is the relationship of sleep to that of death. Of course, Americans will find this morbid and ignore any kind of truth in it. “Is it any surprise that in a society where we try to deny our mortality in countless ways, we also deny our need to sleep?” Winner asks. She then quotes the French poet Charles Peguy:

    I don’t like the man who doesn’t sleep,
    says God.
    Sleep is the friend of man,
    Sleep is the friend of God.
    Sleep is perhaps the most beautiful thing
    I have created.
    And I myself rested on the seventh day . . .
    But they tell me that there are men
    Who work well and sleep badly.
    Who don’t sleep. What a lack of
    confidence in me.

In the last two or three years I’ve slept more on average than many years previous. I’ve learned that I am more productive, happier and mentally acute when I’m well-rested — and that I’m frustrated when I’m fatigued, instead of rested. A few years ago I would have just dealt with it, ground out the day. Less so in 2008 when I feel like I can help it. Obviously, extenuating circumstances creep into life with some regularity, disrupting even the most religiously restful. Young children, I’m told, are a prime example of this. Illness and travel aren’t entirely avoidable either. The neighbor’s cats fighting outside your window; drunk neighbors yelling at the top of their lungs at 2 a.m. etc etc. But we seem to be gluttons for punishment as we perpetuate a culture that begs us to work later, harder, on more weekends.

As for me, I’ll take a little more sleep over a longer day as often as possible.

Photo from Wikipedia by Bertil Videt.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

8 Responses to Sleep as counter-culture

  1. Wonderful post. Is there anything more delicious than the sensation of falling asleep, or of “surfacing” during the night and realizing that it’s not time to get up yet? And thanks for the Peguy quote. I didn’t know anybody still read him.

  2. Julie says:

    Thank you for the reminder after this weekend… Friday night I went to bed early, slept a good ten hours, and got up and had a great Saturday. Amazing what good rest can do for ya.

  3. Jim Janknegt says:

    I believe in a good nights sleep. I also believe in getting up at the same time every day. The hard part is getting to bed at the right time. Both my daughter and wife are hoot owls and love to stay up late and sleep in. I, on the other hand, like to go to bed early and get up early. I used to get up at 5:00 am but just couldn’t get to sleep early enough to get enough rest to function on. I was always feeling tired. So I now get up at 5:30. I have less quite time in the morning but the rest of my day goes better.

    America would be a better place if most of it’s citizens weren’t sleep deprived.

  4. Janr says:

    Blessed are the ones who can sleep. Cursed the one’s who can’t? Or maybe afflicted by a newly discovered pathological epidemic? Insomnia is everywhere and it is being ‘linked’ to the most vile consequences. liks, as we maybe need reminding, are not causal they are statistical correlations. Still, insomnia maybe a blessing – albeit:in much disguise. It is a symptom, a messenger of days misspent. Not morally but in terms of excess stress, excess anxiety and excess audio-visual overstimulation. A victim describes her ordeal in Gayle Greene: Insomniac. A colleague of yours, I believe (Pastoral Counselor) wrote a very remarkable book: I Want to Sleep-Unlearning Insomnia (Siegfried Haug) Talk about a paradigm shift: Stop fighting Insomnia – pursue sleep instead.

  5. pNielsen says:


    I’m likewise a fan of a consistent daily awakening hour. However, my body only likes to rise at or shortly after sunrise. I find it very difficult to get up when it’s dark, save for on a quiet morning during a good snow. Also, however, I find it very difficult to stay in bed long after it’s light out. Funny, though, how many jobs I’ve had that have required I be up before it’s light out.

  6. Heather says:

    Honestly, after I finished grad school, I started sleeping better than I ever have before. Most of my insomnia disappeared. Now I work from home and sleep late. I love it! And I’m just as productive–maybe more so.

  7. TobiasDavis says:

    However, “A little sleep, a little slumber, and poverty comes on you like a lion” is a reminder to not overdo the sleeping.

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