How Do You Sleep?

How Do You Sleep?


Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.

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“Even a soul submerged in sleep

is hard at work and helps

make something of the world.”


According to the most recent data, around 8.7 million species of animals exist on Earth. Do you know what every single one of them has in common, invertebrates and vertebrates alike? As far as scientists have been able to determine, they all need rest in some form. And that includes you.


Sleep is so critical that most animals suffer psychosis and eventually death without it—humans among them. Despite our obsession with making the most out of our lives, we spend almost a third of them sleeping. Not only do we spend so much of our lives doing it, but we risk them in the process; we are at our most vulnerable while asleep. If rest is so imperative to life on Earth, then why don’t we value it more? Why have we built a system that is directly at odds with it?


In the last week, exhaustion is a word that has come up repeatedly among colleagues and comrades. In fact, Monday’s edition of The Frontline will hear from a number of climate activists on how they make space for rest in their lives. In my case, this heaviness came on as a surprise; we just won a battle we’ve been fighting for four years, shouldn’t we feel lighter now?


That’s the thing, though: we have been fighting this battle for four years. How could we not expect ourselves to be exhausted at the end of it? It’s not that the lightness isn’t there—I saw it first hand on the streets of Brooklyn last weekend, as the city collectively exhaled. But we also know that this was a battle, and that what we are fighting is a war (on many, interrelated fronts). As I touched on last week, that’s why we must examine how we are making space for rest in activism—embodying sustainability, and not just fighting for it.


We also have to recognize that this battle was fought in the midst of a pandemic that has upended life as we know it. And as much as it has added to the exhaustion, that fact might also be why that battle was able to be won. After all, it’s no coincidence that a global uprising occurred only when the nine-to-five grind was ground to a halt. Which brings me back to my earlier point: if rest is so essential to existence, why have we built a system that’s so exhaustive of both people and the planet? Because capitalism isn’t meant to benefit everyone. And those who do benefit from capitalism protect it by keeping the rest of us too tired to do anything about it.


Like many things, this year has forced us to re-examine our relationship to productivity. The Nap Ministry, an organization that examines the intersection of liberation and rest, puts it best: “Rest is a form of resistance because it disrupts and pushes back against capitalism and white supremacy.” This is also deeply intertwined with re-naturalization, or re-aligning ourselves with the rhythms of this world. As the days grow darker and winter nears, so does the season of hibernation, and the time to conserve our energy. Besides, we know that a new day is dawning—if that isn’t a reason for a good night’s sleep, I don’t know what is.


I’ll leave you with this to consider: as certain as scientists are that we need rest, they are still trying to understand why. Like gravity or like life itself, our need to rest is an unmovable, unknowable force. We do know that every time we close our eyes, it might be for the last time—and yet we do it anyway. To rest is the ultimate act of surrender. Not to our enemies or even ourselves, but to the greater unknown. To lay down our lives in service of life. Isn’t that what we’re here for anyway?

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