There’s a pattern that goes like this: it’s late, given when we’ve got to wake in the morning, but instead of going to bed, we stay up. The next day, of course, we feel sluggish and weary and we promise ourselves an early night. Then it happens again: it’s already midnight and we’ve got a normal start the next day, but we don’t turn in. It’s not that we’re full of energy – we feel desperately tired – but we resist going to bed. And the following day it’s the same: we’re worn out, yet we don’t turn in until a very late hour. And it keeps on going forever.
At times during this cycle we feel deeply frustrated: we call ourselves idiots and worse: obviously, we need to get to bed early, yet we are too stupid, stubborn, and self-sabotaging to do so. And to our profound exhaustion we add the burden of self-disgust. But our anger at our own behaviour doesn’t lead us to change our habits. If our partner complains about our late hours, we dismiss it as nagging and it’s more irritating because we know they are right.
It’s one of the weirdest features of being human: a completely clear sense that how we’re behaving is bad and counter-productive doesn’t get us to stop.
Harsh criticism is the utterly entrenched human tactic for getting people to change just as self-condemnation is our instinctive strategy for self-improvement, yet it doesn’t work. It induces panic, shame and despair but doesn’t bring about the desired alteration.
A truly gentle and more productive approach begins with curiosity: it takes the difficult area of behaviour seriously and asks what it wants and what it is seeking. It seems foreign, and almost irresponsible, to ask the key question: what’s nice about staying up late? Why, positively, are we doing it? (We shy away from this because it seems awful to suggest that there could be anything interesting or good about an action that’s clearly messing up our lives.) So what might we be trying to achieve by staying up late?
For many years, through childhood, night-time seemed immensely exciting. It was secret, mysterious zone when from our dark room we might hear the grown-ups laughing around the dinner-party table, talking of things we weren’t supposed to know about, and catch, perhaps, the sweet scent of cigar smoke. If we were ever allowed to be up late it was for a very special occasion: a new year’s party at Granny’s house, when bearded great-uncles would slip us chocolates and we’d crowd into a bedroom with our cousins to watch a long film; or there was the thrilling time we had to take a late-night flight at the start of an overseas holiday and the world seemed enormous and filled with adventure.
Later, in adolescence and when we were students, the night became glamorous; it was, when poets found their inspiration, when parties became wild, when our friends became most expansive in their plans to reform the world and when we finally kissed our first love.
And even though such lovely associations may not be at the front of our minds, we continue to have a subterranean, but significant, sense that to go to bed early is to miss out on the joys of existence. Our late-night activities might be utterly prosaic but just by being awake into the early hours we’re participating in an ideal of what adult life is supposed to be like. And so, night after night, the bed is there, quietly waiting for us to draw back the sheet, turn out the light, lie down and close our eyes, but it’s half-past midnight or 2am and we’re still up.
We can look on ourselves with greater and legitimate tenderness. We’re not idiots because we stay up into the night; we’re in search of something important; the problem isn’t what we’re looking for but the fact that we can’t find it this way. The thrills that have implanted themselves in our memories were only by accident linked to being up late. The conviviality, the sense of discovery and adventure, the feeling of exploring big ideas and the experience of emotional intimacy have no intrinsic connection to the hours of darkness. The deeper engagement with a friend or a lover, the working though of a complex-idea, the determination to investigate a neglected area of our potential: these aren’t late-night speculations; they are the tasks of our day-time selves – requiring for their proper accomplishment, our poised and well-rested minds.
We will at last be able to let ourselves turn in early – and get the sleep we need – not when our irritation with ourselves reaches an unbearable peak and we renounce as hopeless our search for adult happiness and finally submit to the banality of an early bedtime, but when we relocate our longings and seek our pleasures where they can more realistically be found: in the bright, energetic hours of the new day.