Would that history heed the time-honored advice: ‘Why don’t you sleep on it’

Jan 17, 2021 | 6 comments

History clearly documents that hysterical diatribe and Frankenstein mobs hoisting flag-draped pitchforks are not essential elements for improving society. It does, however, recount the litany of tragedies triggered by frenzied scrum intent on violent change. Consider Germany in 1938, when decisions made on Kristallnacht led to the bestial horrors that set the course of modern history. Consider Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and Argentina, circa 1976.

History reveals another story, as well. There was a time when a single factor, one with astonishing simplicity, held sway.

For centuries people practiced “first sleep” and “second sleep”. It was accepted that between the first bout of slumber and the next there would lie an hour or more of “quiet wakefulness” sometimes known as a “watch” — we understand it today as referring to a period of meditation, prayer, and writing.

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In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr isolated a group of people in darkness for 14 hours every day for a month, approximating the night hours of Nazi-era Berlin, Germany, from mid-December through mid-January, when city lights had been turned off. By the third week, the subjects had settled into a predictable sleeping pattern. They slept for four hours, or so, and then woke for one or two hours. They meditated, read, or cared for themselves in some other way before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper drawn from 16 years of research that revealed a wealth of evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct portions. Ekrish’s book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published in 2005, chronicles more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern — in diaries, court records, medical books, and literature — from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.

His research confirms that for hundreds of years society reserved an hour or so every night for “quiet wakefulness” because it had been proven to be instrumental in fostering mental health and a clearer understanding of community. It served as the foundation for dreams, provided signposts leading towards resolution, and allowed folks time to give pause and live in the moment. The heap of rash decisions and knee-jerk reactions that crashed into their day was given time to smooth, occasionally revealing consequences not considered in the heat of the moment. The practice of reserving time each evening for meditation and reflection was central to their understanding of how best to build a healthy and prosperous world.

As I watched the crowd of amped-up folks ricochet through Washington, D.C. the other day I had to ask,

“Are you sure that raiding the Capitol Building of the United States of America like costumed banshees and hoisting pitchforks while wailing for ‘frontier justice’ is both inventive and a good idea? Do you think crashing windows and killing a policeman will convince folks that your solution trumps the peaceful transfer of power and the responsibilities of maintaining a free and open system of governance? Have you considered the implications of your actions?” I imagine many of them did not.

I recall the sage advice I received as a young boy from a passing stranger who overheard my negotiating the price of a used bicycle I dearly craved.

“Hey, kid! Why don’t you sleep on it?”

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