Monday, January 29

A Philosophical Approach to Getting Out of Bed

The following is from Slow Down Now:
Americans are fantastically well educated. If they are not getting extra masters degrees at night, then they are taking classes on how to do something practical. Where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can find a class on time management, travel to foreign parts, or Tantric sex. The energy to do all this is only to be admired.

I’ve seen classes advertising how to massage your pet, operatic singing for the unmusical, and how to adjust an insurance claim. Although these might seem compelling, especially insurance adjusting, which promises hours of fun, I’ve never seen a class for someone like me. I need something basic. If we need to learn to dress for success, then surely we need some prerequisites.

I’m talking about how to get out of bed. Most of us manage to get out of bed, eventually. Employers expect as much. But while some people can rise in the morning with grace, facility, and aplomb, others get out of bed only after much effort. We in the latter group give birth to our daily consciousness only through gargantuan struggle. We may glimpse a waking state long enough to reach out and silence the alarm clock only to submerge again beneath a sea of dreams.

It’s not always easy to know if you’re awake: you could be dreaming. It may seem of no consequence that you find yourself on public transport nude, making a speech to a group of penguins, or flying above a giant teacup. Only on reflection do you realize that you only dreamt you were awake.

In the seventeenth century, the philosopher RenĂ© Descartes spent a lot of time mulling over the problem of whether he existed or not. He famously said, “I think therefore I am.” He thought he did exist. So he must have tackled the am-I-awake-or-not question.

If you are aware you are lying in bed, then the mind will eventually pose another profound question: “Should I get up?”

Great minds have thought deeply about this question. In 1650 Blaise Pascal turned away from his studies in mathematics to contemplate the “greatness and the misery of man.” He decided, ”Most of the evils of life arise from man’s being unable to sit still in a room.” It only follows then that lying in bed must be a virtue.

Marcel Proust stayed in bed for almost a decade due to real or imagined aliments. His bed became his workplace. You probably had to be ill in bed to read Marcel Proust’s one-and-a-quarter-million-word novel, In Search of Lost Time. But Proust was a genius because he knew how to slow down. He took seventeen pages to describe a man trying to get back to sleep in his bed.

The great bed of Ware, mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, was made to accommodate twelve people. Just to think about it makes the mind boggle. If you go to Rye House in Broxbourne, England, you can see it today. But imagine getting out of the middle of that bed on a full night. It would be worse than being strapped into the center seat on a crowded and turbulent flight after drinking too many cups of tea.

Of course, getting out of bed can be dangerous no matter what size bed you happen to be in. Augustus Caesar was superstitious about it. In ancient times, it was unlucky to set the left foot on the ground first. Even today, we ascribe grumpiness to getting out of bed on the wrong side. In ancient Rome, augury and omens were taken seriously. This sort of thing has gone out of fashion. But if you wake up to large black ravens sitting on your bedposts, or you see a plague of frogs out the window, I say, beware. Some days it is better not to get out of bed.

But virtuous as it may be to stay in bed, there are those who would argue to the contrary. If I were a Stoic, I would leap from my hard bed and run naked into a nearby mountain stream. I would be bursting with vigor and manliness. I would be valiant. I would be an example of moral rectitude. However, when I consider, from the warmth of my early-morning bed, I come to the conclusion that I may not really be a Stoic.

I find lying in bed is the most efficient place for some early-morning thinking. There is evidence to back this up. Scientists tell us that we achieve beneficial mental states between sleep and wakefulness. Sleeping longer can even make you more intelligent. In William Demnet’s book, The Promise of Sleep, he cites a study on students at Harvard. They were encouraged to sleep an extra hour-and-a-half. At first, they objected because of their busy course schedules. But they went along with the program. The result: grades went up. The bad news is that sleep debt lowers IQ points. I wish I had known that when I was at school. I would have stayed in bed even longer.

I did stay in bed quite a lot when I was an art student in England. I lived in a vast, cold 1850’s house. It had been made into flats in the 1930’s by sectioning off one floor from the next. I lived on the ground floor. The large rooms were originally the receptions rooms and library. There were gargoyles in the hallway. A massive curving stairway simply ended in the ceiling.

An elderly woman in another part of the country owned the house. I paid rent to an agent who never, in the eight years I lived there, came to visit, or repaired anything, or increased the rent.

The miniscule rent must have been fixed some twenty years previously. It was impossible to heat the cavernous rooms. I occasionally found wood to burn in the huge fireplaces. In winter, ice would form on the insides of the shuttered windows. Getting out of bed was a near impossibility. I would sleep under all the blankets and coats I owned. I even wore a hat. I remain eternally grateful to a few of my fellow female art students who generously helped me stay warm under such trying nighttime winter conditions.

Life has a habit of being more demanding. We have to go to work. It is at these times that we resort to the alarm clock. I know that using such a word is offensive, but I don’t know an appropriate euphemism. As everyone knows, alarm clocks were invented in the depths of Hell. We humans should be gently born into each new day; not confronted with shock, terror, loathing, and fear.

If you have an alarm clock, you can’t help but look at the beastly contraption. You make rules for yourself. You’ll stay in bed for just five more minutes. Then, in the spirit of heroic self-discipline, you tell yourself you’ll get up in just one more minute’s time. You count the seconds backwards, five, four, three, two, one. Now it’s when you get into fractions that it becomes tricky. You know you have the self-discipline to get up very soon, but you might as well stay in bed just a fraction longer, at least until you reach the limit of your ability to do mental division.

According to Zeno’s Paradox of the Arrow, you might never have to get out of bed. Two thousand, six hundred years ago, Zeno of Elea pointed out a few problems with the common notion of time and space. He argued that a moving arrow will never get to its target. We see that it does. That’s the paradox part. The theory goes something like this: the arrow must travel half the distance to its target, and then half of that again, and so on. So in his theory, the arrow never gets to its target, and you never get out of bed.

I admit that logic isn’t my strong suit, and in my opinion, it’s overrated. I tried this argument on an employer once. He was not the type to muse, to ruminate, and consider. But I thought I had made a convincing and erudite case. He thought I should find another job.

If only we had getting-out-of-bed classes so many problems would go away. We wouldn’t need to wake up bleary eyed and grumpy. We would rise with grace and finesse. We would see each morning as a new life. All would be sweetness and light. The air would be filled with birdsong. There would be benevolence in the hearts of us all.

Come on, this is California! Some university, surely, is offering a master’s degree in Gettingoutofbedology, isn’t it?

Copyright 2006 Christopher Richards via Slow Down Now