In the strange no man's land between sleep and wakefulness, I sat on the plane. I had only gotten four hours of sleep the night before, but, unusually for me, sleep would not come now. I turned on my laptop, felt tired, turned it off again, but still couldn’t sleep.
And as my mind eventually turned to introspection on my situation, a meandering thought drifted towards a strange meeting I had last week.
It was an office visit, with a casual work friend at another company. I hadn’t seen him in perhaps a year or so. When I got to the door, he seemed scattered and disheveled. He was dressed in an unusually casual manner – an oversized army jacket that didn’t fit properly, and a black t-shirt advertising some business or other. The man who had escorted me there commented that it looked like my friend had just woken up. “I had, actually”, my friend replied. When our escort left, my friend still seemed out of sorts, fiddling with his phone, rubbing his eyes, looking in odd directions.
I expected him to regain his composure and for us to talk business, but he still seemed distracted after a minute or two. His conversation had odd extended pauses, halting as if he were constantly losing his train of thought in mid-sentence, and he didn't make much eye contact.
At some point, he said ‘I actually have an alarm that requires me to answer arithmetic puzzles before it turns off’. He showed it to me. I cheerfully made conversation by asking him if he used the snooze button, and he said he did. ‘I found that I actually had a lot of success by giving it up altogether’, I continued. ‘Once you get into the habit of always getting up immediately at the first alarm, it becomes almost a Pavlovian response, no matter how tired you are.’
As if my words only partially registered, he rambled about how a friend of his had an alarm clock that would walk around when it went off, and you had to get up to switch it off. ‘The effect’, he said, ‘was that he just got really adept at picking up objects and throwing them at the alarm.’ The motion he made while he did this was to dramatically pick up his keys and turn towards the wall, pretending to throw them. It was the only display of alertness the whole time, and jarring in contrast to the general struggle and sluggishness he had displayed otherwise.
By this point, the conversation had started to go on past the point where we would have been expecting to move on to substantive matters, but instead we had been on a single topic of smalltalk the whole time, which had started to feel like it had lingered too long. ‘I really wanted to come in and meet you, even though I was really tired. I’ve only gotten about 12 hours of sleep this week.’
It was Thursday.
And suddenly, the penny dropped. He was suffering from crippling insomnia.
I felt absurd, wishing to take back my self-satisfied stories about the benefits of willpower in avoiding the snooze button. My friend was drowning, for lack of sleep. He talked about it so much, for the reason that old war memoirs talk about food much more than fighting – because they were starving and wretched, and it was the only pleasure they sought in life. At a certain point of hunger, getting food becomes all consuming, and mere prospect of getting a bullet at some stage in the future becomes much more distant.
Embarrassed at myself, I heard him talk more. ‘Things got a bit worse when my wife got a job in a distant town, which means she has to get up at around 6. I’ll try to get up to give her a kiss before she goes, and…’
I don’t actually remember the way that sentence drifted off, but I was struck with an immense sadness. Suddenly the enormity of the problem became apparent. I could see him, struggling to maintain a functioning relationship with his wife in his zombie-like state, and tenderly giving up precious minutes of rest to show her affection. His work must surely be suffering too. We were halfway through our meeting time and hadn’t even begun to talk business. I cannot imagine that things got better without me there.
At last, as he started to slowly become more coherent, the conversation finally turned more towards our main productive endeavors, and he seemed to slowly approach proper functioning. When we first walked in, it was as if he were literally drunk. By this point, he seemed to be merely tipsy, slowly sobering up.
I found my eye drawn towards the odd shape of his car keys. The top of the remote was all covered with a strange uneven rubbery plastic substance, leaving only a small hole for the button. As events started to make sense, I wondered if he had dropped them a lot in his haze.
As I write these words, I wonder if he himself was the “friend” in the story with the walking alarm. The keys were quite possibly broken from being thrown in exactly the manner that he pretended. He had developed a Pavlovian response, alright. It was a visceral rage at whatever was denying him the thing his body wanted most in the world.
I wanted to say something about his plight, but as is the introvert’s curse when dealing with unfamiliar situations, the words didn’t come. His life looked like it was falling apart from tiredness, and to comment on it, even if wholeheartedly sympathetically, would risk emphasizing just how obvious that was. The only consolation was that he was probably so distracted that this might not register. I was struck by a very strange urge to give him a hug, not because it would have made things better, but out of a primal desire to offer some sort of comfort, even if wholly ineffectual, even if wholly inappropriate.
As I write these words, I can think of what I should have said. “I’m sorry to hear you’re not sleeping well, mate. I really appreciate you coming in just to see me today, given it seems tough right now.” The sympathy of the staircase, so to speak.
Sometimes, the cross that the unafflicted must bear is seeing the pain of those whose welfare one desires, knowing there’s nothing one can do.
Sometimes, even the standard consolations for this don’t work. There is no one to get angry at. There is no constructive solution you can offer. There is no hope of even finding a remotely satisfying explanation for why things are the way they are.
And in this suffering, one can only console oneself with the fact that one’s own reflected misery is a tiny problem to bear by comparison, and one should strive for compassion for others in this unsatisfactory world.
Existence is suffering, as the sage put it.
Ponder this, and wisely reflect.