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Can you have too much sleep?

2011 August 5
by Paul Vallely

Can you have too much sleep? I’m sure there are medical researchers somewhere who will tell you the answer is Yes. But fat chance in the real world. I’ve been giving this some serious thought because I am just back from 10 days holiday in Italy and I am in that rare state of being all slept up.

It is easy to forget how pleasurable sleep can be. In normal life sleep, in our household at any rate, is just an exhausted punctuation as we stagger from one event-filled day to the next. It is only when we stop that we comprehend our sleep deficit. I once had to apologise to the Jesuit Fr Gerry Hughes, author of the wonderful God of Surprises, who ran Ignatian retreats for burned-out Justice & Peace workers, because I spent the first few days falling asleep before I could complete the spiritual exercises he set. Don’t worry, he said, everyone does that.

I have come home filled with a firm purpose of amendment about sleeping more which means doing less. Events have become the latterday equivalent of the facts which English empircals, most particularly the Victorians, collected as if they were so many butterfly specimens.  Twitter is the epitome of this urge to fill our lives with clutter.

Holidays are times which pull us up short with such insights. They are, as the columnist Lucy Kellaway put it in a copy of the Financial Times I picked up on the plane on the way home, also times when we reconnect with our families and with our souls. It was a little unnerving then, to read that she was recommending scrapping holidays entirely in favour of “worlidays” which allow work and holiday to combine. To define a worliday she gives the example of her recent stay in Cornwall where the typical morning was: wake up, do a few e-mails, walk by the sea, write an article sitting under a window with a view of a stream, then go outside to light the lunchtime barbecue. This kind of thing is catching on, says Ms Kellaway who is a bit of a management guru. That explains why you are less likely to get an “out-of-office” automatic e-mail response than a few years back. Something tapped into a BlackBerry from a Tuscan poolside is the business norm nowadays apparently.

I have deep misgivings about all this. She has a point when she says that the first few days of a holiday are spent with a head jammed full of stuff we didn’t do in the mad dash to get everything done at work before we left. But I’m not sure the answer is what she describes as the “groovy” work culture which allows you to take as many holidays as you want so long as you take your work with you.

The great thing about holidays is that they create a space in which there are no obstacles to fully opening your awareness once more to the world and to your loved ones. Having only half your mind on your spouse and children just imports the fractured consciousness of ordinary life.

A holiday is a time to be not to do. The ancient religion of sun-bathing understood this, in the days before skin cancer became such an issue. It doesn’t really matter what you do, so long as you exploit the opportunity of doing it together. Vegging out is just as important as rushing off to see the sights. Reading aloud together, in the shade of a scented olive tree or surrounded by purple bougainvillea, may be more so.

Those, like Lucy Kellaway, who have forgotten this probably just need a proper holiday. Either that or a good night’s sleep.

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