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The small sleep

David Bouchier

Taking a nap is a furtive, almost immoral activity in our busy society. People say: “I’m just resting my eyes for a minute,” or “I’m just doing my relaxation exercise.” Conspicuous napping is only allowed on special occasions: sickness, summer vacations at the beach and the pagan celebrations surrounding the winter solstice.

There are solid, psychological, sociological and even environmental reasons for napping, which I shall now describe. Just try to stay awake for the next three minutes.

1. Naps are completely natural. Most animals drop off without apology whenever they feel so inclined. A recent research report claimed that penguins take thousands of short naps a day. Cats, who have the only truly rational lifestyle, sleep 18 or 20 hours every day. When they wake up, they eat, play, and go to sleep again. Compare this with the schedule of your average Wall Street banker, and you can see what I mean when I say (as I often do) that evolution has been moving us in the wrong direction.

2. Naps are psychological time out, a necessary break from the relentless assault of one thing after another. They divide the day into manageable parts, like the pauses between movements of a symphony. In civilized countries like Greece, you can enjoy the habit of going to bed after lunch, in the heat of the day, and being gently wakened with a cup of strong black coffee. The period before the nap is thus clearly distinguished from the period afterwards, each part devoted to different activities. The day seems much longer this way, and much richer.

3. After a few naps, we get over that neurotic feeling that we might be missing something. We won't miss anything, because there's nothing to miss. Between (say) 3 p.m. and 3.30 p.m. in a typical suburban home or office, absolutely nothing interesting is going to happen, guaranteed.

4. Naps give a pleasurable feeling of getting away with something. The general prejudice against napping as a form of "laziness" is the last remnant of the Protestant Ethic, reinforced by that old neo-puritan Benjamin Franklin, who had the peculiar notion that activity is always good and idleness is always bad. This leads me to my last point, saving the planet.

5. Naps protect the environment and the future of civilization. At a modest estimate, at least 75% of all human activity — from the highest levels of government bureaucracy down to the lowest suburbanite driving to the mall — is pointless, bad for the environment, bad for the person doing it, and bad for everybody else. We would all be much better off if we stopped doing whatever it is, and took a nap.

One of my teenage heroes was Ilya Oblomov, the hero of an obscure 19th-century Russian novel. Oblomov did nothing. He lounged almost perpetually in bed or on his couch. There was nothing wrong with him. This was simply his idea of a good time. I regarded Oblomov as a great genius and an example to the rest of humankind. I worked hard to emulate his lifestyle, and I think I'm getting there at last.

Above all, don't feel guilty about taking your nap. Old Ben Franklin is long gone. But, thank goodness, Oblomov lives!

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.