Talking Myself to Sleep at Night; or, In Which Marx Proves the Unexpected Cure for Insomnia

I have developed a severe case of insomnia. Every night I lie awake for hours at a time, staring at the shadowed ceiling, consumed by guilt for things I have not done, and consumed most of all by guilt at lying in a bed in Princeton. Daily I wonder why I’m here, why I let my privilege take me here, why most of all I am not doing more for the sick and the starving and the needy. I wonder why, now that I’m here, I’m not training to be a doctor or a human rights lawyer. I wonder why I’m not training to go to Washington. I bang my fists against the mattress and I curse myself and I loathe myself for caring more about and gaining more pleasure from reading Oscar Wilde than from trying, against all odds, to fix the things which appear on the front page of the newspaper of record of a country sliding inexorably into insanity.

But the thing is that I, too, will go insane if I try to contain a whole country in my head at once. I know my mind well. I know how tenuous health and sanity are. I know because I have spent nights staring at the ceiling and days in a haze of depression and anger.

I got a paper back the other day, the last paper I wrote for my political theory class, about Marx’s theory of alienation. I had never read Marx before taking this class, a distribution requirement I complained about all semester. But, well, then I read Marx, and about how much better our lives would be if we labored in accordance with our inclinations, if we could be farmers in the morning and fishers in the afternoon and critical critics in the evenings. I read about how we would have a relationship with the product of our labor—we would love what we do and do it for its own sake!—and I wish so desperately to any god or none that this were more than an unrealizable utopia.

But to fall asleep at night, to stop the tossing and turning and fists slamming down on mattress, I tell myself that utopia is realizable. I tell myself that utopia is a windmill worth tilting at. And I tell myself that even I—beneficiary of privilege though I may be—have the right to be a critical critic in the evening if it’s the labor most fulfilling to me. I tell myself what good is brought to the world by reading history. I tell myself what good is brought to the world by teaching history. I throw myself into my work and I try not to think too hard about what lies outside, always looming and threatening to send me another sleepless night.

Tonight the outside got in. Tonight I threw myself out of my bed to read the New York Times and sob. But tomorrow morning, however much sleep I’ve had, I’m going to get up and teach and learn. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe we can’t build the world we wish to have until we take on the one we’ve got. But hey. It’s how I get to sleep. It’s how I wake up. It’s how I get on with another day as a critical critic.

From each according to her ability to each according to her needs.

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