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Calm • Serenity

Controlling Insomnia – and Life – Through Pessimism


Insomnia has a good claim to being counted among the most excruciating tortures that can ever befall us, blighting us with suffocating headaches, irritability, low level depression and an overall grisly sense that our lives are passing us by in a blur of weariness and confusion. No wonder if we sometimes get furious at all those well-meaning recommendations that get sent our way: the sentimental hogwash about lavender-scented candles, no phones after seven, chamomile tea, and meditations in the lotus position. We might fantasise about falling into some pretty heated arguments with the wellness industry, lying awake at 3am, with only the moon and a hooting owl out in the garden for company.

Maria Yakunchikova, Mont Blanc at Night, c. 1890s

Given the pain, it might sound odd – perhaps perverse – to approach our situation from a very different angle and suggest that if we ever want to master our situation, we may have to make a truly uncommon and surprising move. We need to stop tossing and turning in bed, switch the light on, sit up straight and accept boldly that we will never, ever sleep again. Definitely not tonight; probably not tomorrow night either; nor the night after that. We should stare at our situation with heroic courage and defiant ferocity and accept that we have clearly been condemned by some malevolent wizard to a life of more or less continual insomnia. The coming day is going to be ruined for certain, we’ll be exhausted right the way to evening, we’ll trample through our commitments like zombies and our brains will never recover clarity. This is our lot and we have to accept it on the chin – the way we might a death sentence.

Then, once the full resonance of our appalling state has been absorbed, something even stranger might just, just unfold: we may well – after a time – fall asleep.

A major part of what aggravates sleeplessness is a desperate roiling sense that we should be asleep – and yet are not. Not only are we not sleeping, we’re engaged in a battle with the idea that we resolutely should be, which contributes crucially to our awakened state. We need to broker peace through pessimism. Naturally, we wanted to sleep. Of course, a good night is one of life’s great blessings. But it appears that this isn’t our life, and never will be, a thought as sombre as it is – in its quiet way – relaxing and rather narcotic…

Pessimists appreciate that so much of what gets in the way of our goals is an anxiety about reaching them. It’s our worry that we’re going to be constipated that creates the anxiety that keeps us so. Or the worry that we’ll fail an exam or might mess up a speech or a date that ushers in the tension that ensures we will. But once we can concede that our digestion is truly messed up and that we’re definitely going to flunk the date, the certificate and the speech, we gain access to a lightness of spirit than contributes vitally to success. Wanting something too hard may be the chief enemy of getting it; we may have to embrace failure in order to have any chance of winning.

An important part of relaxing ourselves before any trial must therefore be to imagine how bearable defeat could be. We could cope with never finding a partner, with always feeling bloated, with never impressing our colleagues or forever being weary. It’s the wrong sort of hope that complicates our future; and the right sort of darkness that can liberate us. 

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