Politics & Policy

Sleepless in Suburbia

The real priority test.

What do we care about? Really, deeply, care about? There are, of course, a great many things we are supposed to care about: the environment, the public schools, the war, the coming election, injustices in our society, and so on. There are talking heads on the TV every day of the week, and in the op-ed pages of our broadsheet newspapers too, assuring us earnestly that these are matters of the utmost gravity, matters that they care about, and we should too. I suppose we should, and I do not mean to be flippant about any of these large public topics. I try to think seriously about all of them, and I believe have written seriously about all of them at one time or another. I do care about them, in an occasional and abstract sort of way.

#ad#And yet, I don’t really care, in the sense of being kept awake at night. That, it seems to me, is the real test: What deprives us of sleep?

So what do I care about in this deep way? What deprives me of sleep? And what doesn’t? Time to make some lists.

First off, I am a world championship-class sleeper. My head touches the pillow, I’m gone. I do sometimes wake up half an hour before the alarm goes off, though, finding my brain working on something that is obviously giving me real concern. In extreme cases, I will occasionally wake up in the darkness of the night with a topic on my mind. Neither thing happens very often, though. I guess I am just an exceptionally placid (or, if you want to take the negative view of it, which of course I myself don’t, shallow) person. So I am working from a small data set here. For what it’s worth, here are things that keep me awake.

* * *

My kids. I am a pretty hands-off sort of parent. I don’t bother much with my kids, and leave them to their own devices most of the time, so long as I’m satisfied they’ve done their homework and music lessons. This is just a style of parenting–the one my own parents used, so that I suppose I either learned it or inherited it. When I was a kid, adults–at any rate, working-class English adults–just didn’t want you around them much. I think the sentence I most often heard from adults all through my childhood was: “Go out and play.” I adore my kids, though, and fret about them constantly. (As, I can now see, my own parents must have done with me.) Not in an obsessive, controlling way; just at a low but persistent level, that breaks through the surface now and then and robs me of sleep. It’s elemental parent-anxiety about their health and safety. I don’t worry over-much about their futures, since they both have enough sense, and America has enough opportunities, for them to make their way in the world somehow.

Work. No matter what the state of whatever project I am working on–currently the early, data-gathering stages of a nonfiction book–I am plagued by the feeling that I am behind. This is mostly justified, as I usually am behind, being a not-very-well-organized person. Any time I want to feel consumed with guilt, I look up the following prayer of Dr. Johnson’s (it is in Boswell’s Life under the year 1764):

I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my resolutions, for JESUS CHRIST’S sake. Amen.

Gotta get organized.

Past follies. Like you, and the person next to you, and everybody else, I have done a fair amount of seriously dumb, stupid, and embarrassing things in my life, some of which I feel ashamed of. It seems absurd to lose sleep over past follies, since there is nothing to be done about them, but I can wake in a cold sweat over some of this stuff.

Lefty friends. There are a number of people I am very fond of, who are Left. For reasons I don’t completely understand, this troubles me. I suppose it is the tension between liking them as people, and thinking their opinions are silly. Short of converting them to my point of view, or vice versa–neither of which, of course, ever happens–there is no way to resolve this tension in their presence, so I take it to bed with me and it pops out at 3 A.M. like a hernia.

Death. It sounds slightly ridiculous, and even a bit artificial perhaps, but I get the heeby-jeebies thinking about my own death. This is an eccentricity, though not a very uncommon one–I often meet people similarly afflicted. (Our patron poet is the late Philip Larkin.) In spite of a lifetime of Christian instruction, I have never fully convinced myself of the reality of the afterlife. What if it’s just UTTER BLACK EXTINCTION? I don’t actually think about this much in daylight, but sometimes I wake at night with it in my mind. Then it’s really hard to get back to sleep.

* * *

Now here are things that I do not lose sleep over.

* * *

Money. It is only with a considerable effort of concentration that I can think about money at all. It’s not that I am seriously irresponsible about money in any important way. I keep a decent bank balance, carry no debt, and have a respectable amount socked away in mutual funds. I just don’t find money interesting, and don’t care about it. If there’s something I want, I look to see if I can afford it. If I can, I buy it; if I can’t, I do without. What’s to worry about? My wife makes up for this money-blindness to some degree, watching the dollars and cents carefully, and chiding me when I spend on something really unnecessary. It’s true that I am comfortably well off, and therefore have no strong reason to worry about money; but I have been desperately broke in the past, and even then I didn’t lose sleep over it. I’m not sure how I feel about this character trait. I suppose it means I shall never be rich.

Career. Oh boy: writing this out in words, I start to see why I never got anywhere much in life. You’ve heard about the Type A personality? I must be a Type Z. Not only do I not lose sleep over money, I am pathetically unambitious careerwise. While I can obsess mightily about a particular task, I have trouble seeing these tasks as part of my large life goals. I’m not even sure I have any large life goals. Well, if this insouciance keeps me down among the underachievers, at least it frees me from a lot of anxiety. I started writing for a living late in life, after doing a lot of other jobs. I therefore don’t have the slightly panicky commitment to my trade that I sometimes spot among other writers–folk that came out of journalism school, have never done anything else, and don’t, in their innermost hearts, feel they could do anything else. (Though in fact, of course, they could if they had to.) I am blithely confident that, if nobody wants to publish my stuff, I’ll get some other kind of work. At my age, this confidence may very well be misplaced; but I have it anyway, and never lose sleep worrying about career failure. I figure I can always get a job at Home Depot.

Enemies. If you set out your opinions for all to see, a lot of differently opinioned people will be offended. I don’t see any way to avoid this, other than by keeping your opinions to yourself, or pretending to have opinions other than the ones you actually have, and I don’t lose sleep over it.

Some of this offense is understandable. When I say that George W. Bush is a decent man doing his best for the country, naturally the Bush-haters will take umbrage. When I declare frankly that I am a homophobe, I am not immensely surprised to find that homosexuals are up in arms against me. When I scoff at “diversity,” of course people who make a living from this nonsense will be upset. When I say that the Arabs of the Middle East are in a state of barbarism, I suppose it’s understandable that a lot of people in Dearborn, Michigan take it personally, even though that isn’t how I meant it.

There is also an alarming number of people whose entire mission in life is to seek out things to take offense at. I recently wrote something to the effect that a side benefit of the Iraq war is the combat experience our troops are getting. I then said: “Soldiers want to fight, and soldiers like ours and Britain’s, who have recent experience of hard fighting, are keener, better motivated, swifter, calmer, and more skilled at their trade than armies that have spent 20 years doing training exercises and ‘peace-keeping’ missions.” This perfectly innocuous (it seems to me) comment drew a furious e-mail from some military guy who had been involved in “peace-keeping,” seen soldiers die in these operations, and demanded that I apologize to their shades. He was in a spitting rage. I think he actually challenged me to a duel. I told him where he could find his apology. (Clue: It’s in a dark, narrow place.)

None of that loses me sleep. The world is full of stupidity, and there is nothing you can do about it. Furthermore, our current culture encourages people to take mighty offense at the teeniest imagined slight. That’s their problem. I write as well as I can under the constraints I work with. If people misunderstand what I have said, it’s their fault, not mine. If they want to vent their spleen on me: Well, at least I’m used to it. Better they should vent it on me than on their wives and children, I guess. I’m performing a public service, see?

And as a matter of fact, in a remarkable proportion of cases, the frothing rage is only a transient emotion. If it catches me in a forbearing mood, I sometimes respond to it with the soft word that turneth away wrath, and the ferocious sputterer of the previous e-mail is transformed into a rather sheepish debating opponent. I can’t be bothered to do this often, but it works better than 50 percent of the time. We don’t necessarily end up buddies, but at least my opponent drops his potty talk and starts to sound like a human being.

The presidential election. I hope George W. Bush wins, but I don’t lose sleep over it. John Kerry is a very unattractive person, and a Kerry/Edwards presidency would fortify all sorts of negative trends in the national life. Still, as the authors of The Right Nation say, even a Kerry presidency–even a Hillary Clinton presidency!–would still be well to the right of any government in any European country, or Canada. Conservative forces in this country are strong because in important ways this is a fundamentally conservative nation. The prospect of a Kerry presidency doesn’t rise to the sleep-annihilating level. I mean, what’s he going to do? Create humongous new entitlement programs? Turn a blind eye to mass unskilled illegal immigration? Kiss up to the Chicoms? Sit and watch while Iran and North Korea build up their nuke inventories? Uh-huh.

Terrorism. It’s a nuisance, and we are right to go out seeking and killing these vermin, but they are not going to bring down our civilization. As William J. Bernstein says in his book The Birth of Plenty: “On an average day between September 1939 and August 1945, approximately 25,000 people met violent deaths. That comes to one September 11 every three hours, twenty-four hours a day, for six years.” In saying this, I don’t mean to diminish the deaths of September 11. Probably the terrorists will pull off something similar again one day. It’s not impossible that they might take out a city or two with nuclear weapons from Pakistan, Iran, or North Korea. I don’t mean to diminish those possible deaths, either–one of them might be mine (see above for how I feel about that). But none of that would be the end of the United States; and as an upside, if it’s not too ugly a thing to say, such incidents might cause us to get real at last and deal with these savage despotisms in the way they deserve.

The Iraq war. It’ll be O.K. We’ve made our main point: Unlike the U.N. or those sophisticated Europeans, if you vex us sufficiently, we’ll do something to you. There is nothing the hoodlums of Fallujah and Najaf can do that will expunge that lesson. It was a lesson well taught. Thank you, Mr. President.

The state of the world at large. The world at large is going to the dogs. It always has been, though, and the human race always muddles through somehow. No point losing sleep over it.

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