One night recently, while having a particularly bad instance of insomnia, a thought occurred to me which did not help towards my goal of attaining my much desired portion of sleep. And in the last couple of weeks or so this thought has stuck with me. And in my malicious sense of obligation to share my thoughts, perhaps I can keep you up at night, as well.
What if it were the case that you knew, or were at least convinced, that the next time you fell asleep you would die. And given this knowledge/belief, you set about thinking about the repercussions of this unfortunate reality.
How long would you stay awake?
Take a moment and consider that, if you like. I’ll wait.
How sure are you about your answer? How terrifying is this to you?
The more I reflected on it, my mind conjured Stephen King-esque kinds of horror. How long could you stay awake? And, perhaps more importantly, for how long would it be worth staying awake?
This is a topic I have dealt with before, and given my proclivities towards existential thought I will likely return to it again. And yet as I write, I wonder to what extent this thought might seem banal to you, or maybe you haven’t lived with this thought experiment playing in your head for some amount of days and haven’t been haunted by it. Or, perhaps, I’m abnormal in being agitated by such a consideration. Perhaps it’s worrying that such a thought not only occurred to me, but that I permitted its continued potency to give life to my awakened anxiety.
It is in my nature that when such chained (chained to me, it so very unhappily seems) specters accompany me through my days, the most effective way to exorcise them is to articulate their form through this very medium. I must write them out. I must explore them more thoroughly, and translate them from the ghastly concepts and shadowy feelings into more stark and shapely words. In so doing, they do not leave my mind, but they do stop screaming. Mostly.
What kinds of imagery do I create when I’m contemplating this ghastly daydream?
Picture yourself awakening on a sunny, warm morning. You feel well rested, you have at your disposal the entire world, potential actions both mundane and ecstatic, and you find yourself utterly convinced that this fresh consciousness is all that you are offered, and that even the briefest nap, the most miniscule of nodding off, will mean that there will be no more awakenings. There may be more mornings, but each successive morning you experience will become daily offerings of decreasing worth. How many mornings until you can no longer even dread the new light of fewer possibilities? How long until you can barely even form a cohesive sense of self, and to no longer even be capable of despair? As sleep deprivation consumes you, you will lose yourself into a zombie-like state of exhaustion as your body gives out on you.
You know that you cannot stay awake forever. But you also won’t merely go about your day and go down with the sun that very first night, content in the day you have lived, would you? You would at least fight through that one tired, sleepless night, and force upon yourself one more adrenaline-fueled day, and refuse to merely and resignedly snooze your way peacefully into that unknown and unknowable forever sleep, right? You would fight to stay awake, you heroic protagonist in this story, and battle against the weight of your eyelids and you would soldier on and stay alive until….
I’ve certainly had days where I literally got no sleep the night before. There’s a wooziness and the perception of a lack of being fully present which persists, but it can be done and has been done by many of us, sometimes frequently for some who choose professions which may require it from time to time. But eventually, you must sleep, because sleep deprivation will kill you, eventually.
And so we sleep, eventually. In my experience, there is a strange and somewhat ironic quality of being too tired to fall asleep which then overtakes you as, after such a day, you pull that cover over yourself to finally rest. You know you need the sleep, you are quite exhausted, but sometimes the brain has stimulated itself with its own compounds of sustained attention that they have almost forgotten how to slow down, to sleep, and to do its nightly maintenance. You know, the maintenance required in order to store memories for the potential of a new day.
But what if you push through that second night? Is that third day one where you can find joy, appreciation, or even all of yourself? What of a fourth day? How many days, assuming you can stay awake, until it’s no longer even you? And how obvious is this metaphor becoming?
As the diminishing returns of the quality of your being conscious shamble on, as the lucidity of your striving to remain both awake and alive fades, the inevitable apotheosis towards Somnus, and to the oblivion which he rules, becomes immanent. Our power to fight against the inevitable is one that will be met by personalities which differ; there will be people who will struggle towards the fraying of their mind and memory, and who will have already gone into that dark night even as their eyes are still open and their mouth contests to form words which are barely contrasted from the blackness of deep meditation and the oblivion they refuse to submit to. And there will be those who, as the first sleepiness confronts them, will look into the eye of someone they love and smile in the contentedness of having had the time to love, to appreciate, and to have lived.
And when I meditate on this, feeling both the sadness and the desperation contained within, one concept keeps raising its head, and it becomes increasingly clear that this struggle is not one about the inevitability of sleep or death, but one of control. The question at the heart of this meditation is one of whether we can accept the reality that our power, our freedom, our determined obstinate force of will is ultimately impotent. In the end, the lesson may be that control is an illusion.
I was talking with some people the other night about free will, and a friend of mine said that if you’re riding a roller-coaster, you don’t get to choose where the car goes but you can wave your arms around. This, for him, was his free will. His level of control is, admittedly, limited but godammit he can wave his arms around, and so he is free.
This is unsatisfying to me. Not in the sense that I want to do more than wave or flap my arms around (perhaps in an attempt to fly), but in the sense that I don’t think that this freedom is the kind that I would want. I’m also not convinced that whether I wave my arms, and how hard I wave them, was ever my power to begin with. But I’m allowing the analogy to pull me too far from the track, and I’m getting away from my point….
How much can I do during my last days, my final awakened session, until I’m no longer me? How much control do I have upon first waking up versus day four or five? And if the quantity of control is definable in the beginning, on that sunny morning, and it approaches zero as the days go on, at what point does our control become an illusion? And what determines our varying personalities which lead to our differing responses to this circumstance? Why does one fight sleep for days while another accepts the inevitable and lays down at the end of a day or two? And, perhaps most interestingly, which of those two has or requires a greater level of control?
Because if it’s granted that both a person who fights through sleepiness for several days and the person who quietly and contentedly accepts the inevitable with greater clarity sooner are in control, is there any sense that one of them is more in control? Did they choose which path they would inevitably take? Compare a person who actively fights, stoically standing their ground against sleep, to one who graciously, and perhaps even epicureanly, accepts that the fight is one that cannot be won; which one is in more control?
This, to me, is a mind fuck. And I see people of varying personalities, all with their relative certainties and different levels of open-mindedness, all also with differing levels of perceived control. And while I understand the distinction between the level of mental control I have each morning I wake up as compared with the state of mind I might have if I stayed awake for 4 days, I’m more interested in the fact that the person who chooses to go to sleep that very night, knowing that they will not wake up, is perhaps just as in control as the person who eventually dies of sleep deprivation. The amount of control, of will, it would take to persevere towards a zombie-like death and the strength of will to calmly, happily, resign to sleep as soon as exhaustion presents itself are both types of control. But the question is whether they are varying types of strengths, or whether instead point to the illusory nature of control altogether.
It seems to me that the illusion of control is among the wiliest of devils. Because if it is an illusion, it is one that is literally the substance of awareness. It coexists with thought, intention, and decision. And as we wave our arms, joyous that we have this freedom, that roller-coaster continues to approach the end of its journey, and we have to ponder whether we ever actually chose to even be on this ride. None of use chose to be born. None us us choose to become exhausted. Continuing to wave our arms, perhaps to keep ourselves awake, isn’t the control I was looking for.
As your days progress, and as you eventually tire, are you what you choose? When will you realize that the decisions you make, whether for success, hedonism, interpersonal connection, or mere continued existence, are of similar potency as those who choose another path? And maybe the perception of control you have is real. But I’m not so sure that you would have, could have, done otherwise.
And then, for me at least, the distinction between my choices now and the inevitability of sleep and death collapse into each other, and I feel most free when I give up that sense of control. But that, too, feels like a choice. When will I finally realize that I’m not really in control?
When does sleep become the warm, cuddly, cold comfort which we all will eventually embrace?