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Calm • Serenity

Preparing for a Decent Night of Sleep

Given how much we value nights of good sleep, it is striking how seldom we ever make shrewd or thorough plans to heighten our chances of having one.

What tends to wake us up are thoughts that we haven’t had the courage or energy to confront in the day we left behind. We are woken up by the twitching of anxieties we didn’t properly attend to while we still had the strength: we wake up because, in a narcotic haze, a part of us is continuing to worry about the meeting we have to attend in the morning or to turn over a tense stand off we had with our partner in the early evening. 

The problem is that when these challenges arise at 3 a.m., we must meet them in our most naked, psychologically unsteady state – when we have no counterarguments against the most minor of obstacles, when we can hardly remember our names, let alone why a disagreement shouldn’t be a catastrophe or why our present loneliness might not be the end. We are robbed by the night of every possible tool to put out the fires of the mind.

Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799

The way out of our conflagrations is never to allow ourselves to slip into sleep before we have first successfully audited everything that might assault us in the darkness. We must, before we lose consciousness, while we still have our wits, make a complete and systematic survey of our situation, covering the following topics:

— Our family

— Our work

— Our relationship

— Our health

— Our money

— Our friends

— The day before

— The day ahead

We should open every cupboard door and shine a bright inquisitive light inside it. We should interrogate every one of our anxieties in turn with three basic enquiries:

— What is the worry?

— How can it be dealt with?

— What calming, steadying thing can we need to say to ourselves now?

We may think we have nothing whatsoever to counter our panic, but we are forgetting the good parent inside all our minds who is waiting to be summoned and offered a chance to calm the agitated and folly-ridden child within.

What exactly do we have to do in the morning? What made us sad over dinner? Why are we upset about what D. said? What’s the worst that can happen with the kerfuffle in the office? There are no magical solutions, but there are always perspective-restoring, endurable ones. An attitude of stoic pessimism is central in those final minutes on the shoreline of consciousness. Perhaps we will have to break up, maybe we will be fired, perhaps the diagnosis will be bad. But it can be OK. We’ll cope because we always do. We are built to withstand suffering; we have been designed to take the most horrific facts in our stride. The very worst that can happen to us is death – and humanity has been handling that particular absurdity tolerably well since the start. 

We have to bore our anxieties into submission. We must dialogue with each of them until they lie down like an exhausted doberman who can bark no more. We must give them the attention they crave so that they won’t need to come crying for our notice when we are intensely busy doing nothing.

After fifteen minutes or so of this silent survey, having stared down the worst, we can more confidently afford to step into our tiny craft, untie the moorings and head out for a few hours of spectral sailing under the dome of night. We won’t have to risk so many encounters with leviathans or sea monsters when we have departed without too much unfinished business on the shore.

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