When my children were younger I was woken up in the night regularly, so my usual mode of being was tired. I didn’t think about it too much. I coped with the day, I was irritable and exhausted, but there weren’t many options: if your 2 year old has to pee in the night, you have to get up and take him to the bathroom; that’s life. As I became more and more sleep deprived I lost my temper at every little thing, like a ticking time bomb. Or, depending on the day, a fountain of tears. It wasn’t much fun, and it took its toll on my body — although, at the time I was unaware that I was developing an autoimmune disease. But my kids are getting older, and recently I have been getting more sleep. In the 3 months since my son stopped nursing, I have even been sleeping through the nights undisturbed. Not that I really noticed this at the time; sleeping through felt so good and so natural that I wasn’t really aware that we had all been managing it for a month — until the Friday night when we didn’t.
We had gone away to my alma mater, Bowdoin College, for my 15th reunion weekend. Instead of sleeping through the night, my oldest got up to pee, and being in a strange place it took her 2 hours to fall back asleep. We were all sleeping in the same room, and, although I did try hard to get back to sleep myself, every time she shifted or wiggled I woke up again. Eventually we both fell asleep, but then she and her brother both got up for the day at 4:45am. Double whammy! Just what I didn’t need.
Although I had stuck to my 9:30pm bedtime the night before, I had not managed to get even 6 hours of sleep. And boy did I feel it. I was a wreck. I was crying over some little thing every hour. I felt miserable and wallowed in it. It was a rough morning. And it made me think, sleep is everything. Without sleep I fall apart.
By later in the afternoon we were all coping better, and I slipped away from my family to attend a panel talk on “The common good.” This concept was one that was introduced to me as an undergraduate and which is widely discussed by my college community. As I sat listening to fellow alumni discussing their ideas about and experiences of the common good, I was thinking of my own. In many ways, like many of the panelists, I think of the common good as a practical idea: how can I alter the physical environment for the benefit of all? I can pick up litter at the side of the road, or compost my food scraps. But the more I listened and thought about it, the more I realized that it doesn’t just have to be about making a change to the physical environment. In fact, I think that getting enough sleep could contribute to the common good.
On the face of it, my getting enough sleep at night hardly seems to be affecting the “good” of the world, but when looked at more deeply I think it very much affects how much “good” I can do for the world. Getting a good night’s sleep means that I can be a caring, compassionate parent, spouse, friend, and human being. I’m more likely to respond with a hug and a kind word when my child gets a minor scrape, as well as being more likely to hold the door open for a stranger or to great them with a cheerful “Hello, how are you?” It means traffic jams will not enrage me and I will drive calmly, helping to ensure the safety of my passengers and those in other cars. It means seeing myself and others in a positive light and having positive thoughts going through my head. In short, getting a good night’s sleep deeply affects the way I interact with myself, the world, and the people I meet in it; and how I contribute to the common good.
And this isn’t only true for me. A teacher who is getting enough sleep can respond calmly and rationally when kid A hits kid B for the 5th time in her kindergarten class that day. If a delivery driver has enough sleep, he is likely to brake sooner to avoid the child running after a ball. Sleep underpins the normal functioning of our bodies; to function well, we need enough sleep. As Chris Kresser pointed out in a video about self-care from the first week of my ADAPT Health Coach Training Course: in those what-to-do-in-an-emergency-videos on the airplane they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others because you can’t help anyone if you are passed out from a lack of oxygen. The same goes for sleep.
Thus, I think that in taking care of ourselves, by getting enough sleep every night, we are in fact ensuring our ability be better humans, and that will make more “good” for everyone.