The Glory of a Summer Sleep

By MICHAEL McGIRR

 
 
Credit Kevin Lucbert

Summer is the silent season, when vacations offer virtually the only chance for legions of beleaguered workers to escape their responsibilities. A wanton slumber on a hot afternoon offers the luxurious expanse of wasted time. The world can keep turning without us for a while.
 
The word “holiday” owes its origin to religious observance, to a “holy day.” It brings with it the sense that encounters with the sacred reduce us to inactivity. The word “vacation” does something of the same job. It means emptiness or vacancy, an idea that many people find so frightening that their vacation schedules seem more exhausting than their actual work. But these people will miss out on the deeper engagement with oneself that a vacation can allow, away from the props of status and career.
 
Thinkers throughout history can be paired on the basis of their ideas around sleep, silence and vacation. The hero of “The Odyssey” returns to Ithaca after 20 restless years to find his bed. He won’t tell his story until he has paid off his debt to sleep. The hero of “The Aeneid,” on the other hand, having made a long speech, gets out of the bed he shares with Dido to go and found the Eternal City. As he sets sail from Carthage, Dido burns the bed.
 
Here, in a nutshell, is the difference between the mysticism of ancient Greek philosophy and the pragmatism of Roman. One moves into silence and rest; the other is driven out of bed to get things done.
Or consider the two great vacation stories of the 18th century: “Robinson Crusoe” and “Gulliver’s Travels.” Crusoe is an embodiment of the Protestant work ethic, a one-man civilization. For him, sleep is mainly about marking the time between days. Gulliver, on the other hand, lands in Lilliput and surrenders himself to the best sleep of his life. When he wakes, he is 12 times the size of everybody else. Crusoe’s sleep is part of the order of the world; Gulliver’s is a doorway to another world.         
There is a central cultural contrast here: Do you take sleep, or do you let sleep take you?
 
I have been a teacher since Plato founded the academy. With each passing year, I observe in a number of my teenage students higher levels of both anxiety and exhaustion, two burdens that are closely related. Both feed off the fiction that these young people have never done enough or been good enough. Silence and sleep are the two places in which students can put down these burdens. But these are skills that have to be learned. The senior counselor at our school says that poor sleep is his No. 1 predictor of poor mental health.
 
Every summer we take a group of incoming student leaders away for a few days. As part of the experience, we rise at 5 a.m. to visit a Cistercian monastery where a group of monks live in almost complete silence, pursuing a lifestyle that has not changed much since the 11th century.

Young people find this commitment utterly confronting. It is far more outrageous to them than any possible expression of sexuality.
 
A friend of mine, Brother Bernie, is the prior of the abbey we visit. He has lived there for 40 years and is one of the sanest people I know. I tell my students that Bernie is one of the few friends with whom I have never argued. That is because he so seldom speaks. He describes the monastery as a “fridge magnet,” something that reminds the rest of the world that it doesn’t have as much to say as it thinks it might. Bernie believes that God doesn’t use many words either. His life involves listening to deep silence. The students are gobsmacked. So am I.
 
Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad were all deep listeners. Whether you think they were listening to God depends on many things, not least whether you are prepared to take a leap of faith. But you can’t read their stories without noticing the ways in which they were all reduced to a creative silence in which their egos shrunk and their minds opened. It is no coincidence that many sacred texts reserve a special place for sleep. Mystical experience is supposed to bring into our conscious waking lives some of the most important things we do unconsciously while we are asleep.
 
Sleep is the most generative part of our day because it is when our ego gets out of the way. I am fascinated by sleep perhaps because I have so often struggled to achieve it — both as a sufferer of severe sleep apnea and, more happily, as the father of twins. I have learned that when you cannot sleep, the discipline of silence can serve as a substitute, a kind of waking sleep allowing us to let go and live in the present. This does not mean it is passive or vacant. It means we surrender control and begin to listen.
 
There are worse things to do than nothing.
 
 

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