In the seventeenth century, the philosopher René Descartes spent a lot of time mulling over the problem of whether he existed or not. “I think therefore I am,” he wrote. So he thought he did exist. At some point he must have tackled the am-I-awake-or-not question. If you are aware you are lying in bed, then the mind will eventually pose another profound question: “Should I get up?”
Great minds have thought deeply about this question. In 1650 Blaise Pascal gave up mathematics to contemplate the “greatness and the misery of man.” As he put it, “Most of the evils of life arise from man’s being unable to sit still in a room.” If this is true, it only follows that lying in bed must be a virtue.
Marcel Proust stayed in bed for almost a decade due to real or imagined aliments. His bed became his workplace. You probably had to be ill in bed to read Marcel Proust’s one-and-a-quarter-million-word novel, In Search of Lost Time. But Proust was a genius because he knew how to slow down. He took seventeen pages to describe a man trying to get back to sleep in his bed. Could the problem have been the uncomfortableness of his bed?
The great bed of Ware, mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, was made to accommodate twelve people. Just to think about it makes the mind boggle. If you go to Rye House in Broxbourne, England, you can see it today. But imagine getting out of the middle of that bed on a full night. It would be worse than being strapped into the center seat on a crowded and turbulent flight after drinking too many cups of tea.
Of course, getting out of bed can be dangerous no matter what size bed you happen to be in. Augustus Caesar was superstitious about it. In ancient times, it was unlucky to set the left foot on the ground first. Even today, we ascribe grumpiness to getting out of bed on the wrong side. In ancient Rome, augury and omens were taken seriously. This sort of thing has gone out of fashion. But if you wake up to large black ravens sitting on your bedposts, or you see a plague of frogs out the window, beware. Some days it is better not to get out of bed.
But virtuous as it may be to stay in bed, there are those who would argue to the contrary. If I were a Stoic, I would leap from my hard bed and run naked into a nearby mountain stream. I would be bursting with vigor and manliness. I would be valiant. I would be an example of moral rectitude. However, when I consider, from the warmth of my early-morning bed, I come to the conclusion that I may not really be a Stoic.
I find lying in bed is the most efficient place for some early-morning thinking. There is evidence to back this up. Scientists tell us that we achieve beneficial mental states between sleep and wakefulness. Sleeping longer can even make you more intelligent.
In William Dement’s book, The Promise of Sleep, he cites a study on students at Harvard. They were encouraged to sleep an extra hour-and-a-half. At first, they objected because of their busy course schedules. But they went along with the program. The result: grades went up. The bad news is that sleep debt lowers IQ points. So staying in bed may lead to a heightened state of functionality and wellbeing. However, the world makes its demands on us.
We have to go to work. We resort to the alarm clock. I know that using such a word is offensive, but I don’t know an appropriate euphemism. As everyone knows, alarm clocks were invented in the depths of Hell. We humans should be gently born into each new day; not confronted with shock, terror, loathing, and fear.
If you have an alarm clock, you can’t help but look at the beastly contraption. You make rules for yourself. You’ll stay in bed for just five more minutes. Then, in the spirit of heroic self-discipline, you tell yourself you’ll get up in just one more minute’s time. You count the seconds backwards, five, four, three, two, one. Now, it’s when you get into fractions that it becomes tricky. You know you have the self-discipline to get up very soon, but you might as well stay in bed just a fraction longer, at least until you reach the limit of your ability to do mental division.
According to Zeno’s Paradox of the Arrow, you might never have to get out of bed. Two thousand, six hundred years ago, Zeno of Elea pointed out a few problems with the common notion of time and space. He argued that a moving arrow will never get to its target. We see that it does. That’s the paradox part. The theory goes something like this: the arrow must travel half the distance to its target, and then half of that again, and so on. So in his theory, the arrow never gets to its target, and you never get out of bed. You probably need a class on this to really understand it. The Institute’s course on gettingoutofbedology is full at this time.