The world is too much with us; late and soon

By Daniel Gilbert

Editor’s note: This is an installment in a series of articles about a summer spent teaching English in the Peruvian village of Cochas.

One night last week, I could not fall asleep. Exhausted, I lay in bed trying not to think too much, but feeling my sleepiness slowly begin to depart in spite of my efforts. I made a concerted mental effort to think about nothing, but my conscious self gradually overtook the subconscious. “What questions should I ask in tomorrow’s interview?” “That’s a good idea for a feature story.” “Damn, I have an exam and a B.A. presentation on the same day next week!” I tossed and turned, and tried to get comfortable. By now my mind was active and my physical senses were engaged. The room felt too warm, the pillow too soft. I could not shut down. Finally I gave up all pretenses of sleepiness, and stared sullenly at the ceiling, lamenting how tired I would be the next day.

At some point during my high school years, I stumbled upon what I thought to be a profound truth: There aren’t enough hours in a day. What I meant was that between the constraints of classes and extracurriculars, I could never give anything the time it deserved. Sleep came to me before I could finish, and life seemed like one continual process of catching up.

Now, looking over my shoulder at my adolescent self, I realize that the “profound truth” I thought I had discovered is a simple falsehood. A day has exactly the right number of hours: 24. That is the time it takes the earth to complete one full revolution with respect to the sun, casting light and darkness over the various regions of the globe at regular intervals. The hours are correct; rather it is my schedule, and the thousand “things” I fill my life with, that is the trouble.

The serranos in Peru knew how many hours were in a day, and seemed content to live by the rising and setting of the sun. Although they did not have a single clock amongst them (I always found this to be curious), my host family knew instinctively when it was time to wake up, eat, and go to bed. From the moment I arrived, my sleeping schedule shifted drastically. I went to bed at 9 p.m., and woke up at 6 or 7 a.m. the following morning. I didn’t have to think about it, it was just what one did in the Sierra. The surprising thing to me was how well I slept. At the end of a day I was often tired, but rarely did I experience the level of exhaustion which is my status quo in the United States. My sleeping quarters were hardly the most comfortable: With the temperature dropping below freezing after sundown, I huddled under five heavy wool blankets to stay warm. The bed itself was rock hard and I might have used my sweatshirt for a pillow—except I was sleeping in it. My mind, however, was wondrously clear.

What was there to think about, after all? My activities were few and regular. I did not have the excitement of travel, or meeting new people, to stir my thoughts. Conversations with my family—who collectively owned one book, the Bible—were never what one could call “intellectual wrangles.” When I went to bed, I knew I would wake up the next morning, go to the store for bread, teach my classes at the colegio, and spend the rest of the day carving, tending to the cows, and running. There was not even the chance of receiving a telephone call that might alter my routine. I don’t remember if I would think of anything before drifting off to sleep, but I can’t recall a single sleepless night.

Now, back in my life as a college student, I am sleepless and restless, and I wonder if there is anything else for a college student to be. We are busy figuring out what we will be in a few years, or less, and as our career possibilities narrow, doors of opportunity are closing thick and fast around us. The pressure is perpetually on to find our niches early, so that we can achieve something notable before we become too old and feeble, or die. We suffer from a certain “time is ticking” mentality, in which we feel that we must continually advance, sprinting to the horizon as the sun sets forever and forever in front of us. Generations of talented humans have come before us, and if we are to eclipse their past achievements, we had better hurry.

But for three months, I conveniently forgot about all of this. I slept a few hours longer than I permit myself to sleep in the U.S. I read a total of three books, two of which were fiction. I cut cow feed, carved gourds, and concocted lesson plans for 150 students who by now probably have forgotten how to conjugate the verb “to be.” For the most part, however, I was there as an observer. I listened to my brothers tell me about how much they wanted to visit the United States. I dodged questions from the entire community about how to obtain a visa. I made thoughtful nods when people talked about change, which they did a lot. But mostly it was just talk. No one in the region had a bank account, and my impression is that few had any savings. I watched them work all day, day after day, to earn the money for whatever food they didn’t grow and the occasional medical expense. The rhythm of life was, as the serranos liked to say, “tranquilo.” But it was also depressing. Every new day we woke up to the same routine, with my friends and family no closer to realizing their dreams.

I fell in love with the Sierra, but perhaps as only a passerby can. I loved the pure air, the frosty mornings and starlit nights. I loved drifting off to sleep to the distant barking of dogs at night, and the soft evangelical chants that carried throughout the valley. Above all, I loved the simple people, poor but happy, and always full of laughter. And yet in my heart of hearts, I know that I can never belong to such a place. It is not mine. It seems vaguely sad to me that I would not trade the sleep I had there for my restless nights now. Nor would I trade the simplicity of Cochas for my life of excitement and mobility in a wealthy country. I’m afraid that when it comes down to it, I still believe that 24 hours is too short for a day.