The upsides of insomnia, part 2

© Paul Woodmansey/Rex
© Paul Woodmansey/Rex

8.42am: not a good time for asking the big why questions

Insomnia leaves us horribly exhausted, but there are a few benefits to sleepless nights, which we might focus on to alleviate the sheer panic that a failure to sleep can cause.

It’s easy to forget how little strategic thinking ever gets done in the day. Judging by the ideas generated there, our beds have more of a right to be called our offices than our offices. Insomnia is the revenge of the many big thoughts one hasn’t had time to nurture in the daylight hours.

During the day, there are a thousand immediate issues to be sorted out. Our minds are dominated by what one could call lower-order questions: what’s the fastest way to get to the meeting in the city centre? How can I get the phone number of the restaurant to book a table for Thursday? What do I say to win the argument with my partner?


At the start of his ‘Ethics’, Aristotle points out that most of what we do is for the sake of something else. Someone makes a harness – to take his favourite example – so that a horse can be controlled.  That means the cavalry can be more effective. So the general can win the battle. So the statesman can win the war. So the good society can be safe. Therefore, the lower-order activity, like making the harness, can ideally be understood as serving, at a distance, a higher-order concern – like maintaining a good society.

Philosophy, according to Aristotle, should be focused on the higher-order questions. It doesn’t focus on HOW to do things, so much as on WHY they might be worth doing.

In the rush of the day, there is no time for the higher-order questions: why do I waste my time with superficial social encounters? Why do I read the newspaper? Why was I so irrationally irritated with the person I profess to love?

At night, however, the ranking of first and second order questions is reversed. In the dark, one may investigate the meaning of work, the needs behind friendship, the mechanics of love. The topics are far from academic. We become philosophers when we chase the practical issues upstream.


The posture is misleading: we’re far more likely to get thinking when lying down in the dark

It’s very often ambitions that keep us awake. What am I really trying to do? What’s my life for? We sense and are tormented by our possibilities: how does one make more money, how can one be more effective, how can one make a difference…

These questions are terrifying because, at first, there tends to be no plan of action, simply an ambition waiting to be knocked down by the scepticism and mockery of others. To be turning over such issues and yet be a mere beginner feels like the ultimate arrogance. That is why one needs the protection of the night. Night offers us safety from the scepticism of sensible others. Like childhood, it allows us time to get ourselves together without needing to be always sure or impressive.

The architect Le Corbusier’s first sketch of an apartment building for a Parisian street, completed – like a lot of his work – late at night, in bed

In the middle of the night, you don’t have to make your case to a hostile audience. You can run with an idea that, to others, right now, would look feeble.


An early draft of Ulysses; James Joyce kept getting it wrong. But he kept going – almost always late at night

One of the most poignant things about artists is their endless capacity for sticking with quite bad, early versions of ideas. The finished, printed pages of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses give no hint of the process by which they were produced. But the manuscript drafts do. We can see the crossed out sentences and paragraphs, the words that had to be shunted about, the passages that just didn’t work.

Being an artist always involves taking risks with serious imperfection; it means forgiving oneself for the horrors of the first, second and third drafts. In this particular sense, all of us should be artists: not of novels or buildings but of projects in our own lives. We need to keep faith with our goals without choking with disgust at our clumsy early manoeuvres.

What is true of art is true of life more generally. To successfully pull off a new business or an office reorganisation has much in common with the production of a novel or an apartment building. Lying in bed, as a delivery lorry trundles along a distant dual carriageway or a car door slams eerily somewhere along the street, we have to risk thinking through the first very, very imperfect version of a large plan.


The German writer and philosopher Friedrich Schiller believed in ‘withdrawing the watchers from the gate’. To be more creative, he suggested that we need to let our stranger, slightly crazy ideas get a hearing. We must not reject too soon. Later comes the business of selecting, ordering and polishing. But creativity involves being unusually willing to entertain the ridiculous and the fragmentary.

We want to arrive, eventually, at a feasible, defensible strategy. But we all have to start with thoughts that look extremely unimpressive and possibly absurd. Night is a friend to the slow process of maturation that every ambitious project demands: it provides us with the cover to grow into our more complete selves.