Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Rational Egoism of Ensuring Someone’s Sleep

On Saturday morning, my once-a-week foster puppy, Gatsby, crawled into my bed, curled into a little ball and lay down to sleep, his eyes facing mine. And as we both started taking deep breaths with long pauses in between, occasionally letting out sleepy sighs, I noticed we took turns catching brief glimpses of each other’s sleeping faces: With one eye closed, the other one just a little open, first I, then he, peeked to see if the other breathing creature lying there had drifted off to sleep.

I remember that Futti, the cross-breed terrier we had while I was growing up, would do exactly the same thing. If we were lying on the sofa next to each other, and I opened my eyes to see if she had fallen asleep, only a second or two went by before I reversely caught her sneaking a peek at me. And then she wouldn’t close her eyes again until I pretended to close mine. None of us would move the slightest in fear of, it seemed, disturbing the comfort and bliss we were hoping to ensure the other.

I read Dave Eggers’ “How We Are Hungry” recently, and in the end of his short story “Quiet”, he writes: "Hours later, the cat was asleep, and Erin lay next to it, her eyes half-closed. There was purring. I felt content. Why does it give so much comfort to be responsible for someone’s sleep? We all – don’t we? – want creatures sleeping in our homes while we walk about, turning off lights.”

I honestly can’t remember if I read this before or after Gatsby curled into a ball in my bed and reminded me of watching my cross-breed terrier watch me watch her sleep. But it resonated with me regardless. What makes Eggers’ observation genuinely clever, I find, is the sensitivity towards the succession or flow of “being responsible for someone’s sleep”. The narrator is responsible for Erin’s sleep, who, in turn, is responsible for the cat’s. And the cat, in yet another turn, is purring.

After consulting Wikipedia I learned that the purring of domestic cats is a form of communication, signaling “all is well” or some such other positive feeling. In other words, the cat in the quote above isn’t really sleeping. It has merely adopted the form of a content creature, thus entering the continuous circle of ensuring the comfort of others and thereby one’s own. The cat feeds the narrator. It makes him feel comfortable by conveying it’s own comfort, and what’s more, it’s aware what it’s doing. The purring is intentional after all.

In my family, I find, one is always encouraged to fall asleep on the sofa, during the day or in the early evening while someone else is awake. The accepted logic being, I suppose, that it’s more comfortable to sleep while others are awake, watching over you. I have a clear memory of my grandmother tiptoeing around the house while my sister is taking an afternoon nap, and her speaking to me in a soft voice as if my sister’s sleep was the most sacred thing in the world.

These days, when I go home, I always find myself terribly jetlagged, drifting off to sleep in the early evening, on the couch, in front of the TV. And at some point a member of my family brings me a blanket and drapes me in it. And I’ve wondered from time to time, where that generosity, which I know so well and have witnessed so many times before, is coming from. Of course I realize it is done out of love. But I wonder if, ultimately, there’s also some sort of selfishness involved in both the manifestation and reception of that love. Because it satisfies some kind of hunger for some kind of feeling in both the giver and the recipient. Just like it seems to be the case for the three characters involved in Eggers' story.

I once had a professor who told me about a paper on love written by two sociologists, a married couple, the male party having left his then wife for the female party, who at the time was one of his students. While I don’t remember it in great detail, I do recall that their main argument is that, what we do, or put up with in the name of love is, essentially, based on rational, egoistic, reasoning. That even in acts characterized by utter altruism, carried out, for example, by someone who loves a person more than he/she loves herself, the motivating factor is, above all else, a feeling of well-being; That you recognize that the feeling you get from acting the way you do, far outweighs the feeling you would be left with if you hadn’t. Even the emotional is rational I guess you could say; and egoistic at that.

What I am getting at in my admittedly confusing and curly cue way is this: The end goal of covering me up on the sofa, turning off the lights, and people lowering their voices to a soft whisper, is not, per se, to ensure my sleep. The end goal is their own comfort ensured by ensuring me comfort. Manifesting love is an instrument for reaching a feeling of comfort yourself.

Reiterating Eggers’ question within the quote --"Why does it give so much comfort to be responsible for someone’s sleep? We all – don’t we? – want creatures sleeping in our homes while we walk about, turning off lights.” -- I really don’t know why it gives comfort, and I recognize that the notion of “responsibility” is complex, touching on highly charged notions of for example power and recognition. But one teeny tiny fraction of the explanation for why we all want it (supposing that we do in the first place) may be that it is, in some twisted way, easier or more pleasant to be responsible for someone’s sleep than it is not to be. The return-of-investment from loving, is so much greater than the return-of-investment from not loving.

Which brings me back to Gatsby and the two of us sneaking a peek at each other as opposed to dozing right off to sleep: It’s more comfortable to watch someone sleep than it is to sleep your self.

Sometimes at least.


Maj Beldring Henningsen said...

Sarah hvor har du fået de fantastiske billeder af den sovende hund der ligger på ryggen.
Den er jo for grinern.
Ikke at man ikke fandt dit blog indlæg ganske interessant, men hunden glemmer jeg ikke..

Henrik said...

Hej Sarah

Dejlig start, dejlige billeder, dejlig sprogbrug - følger dog ikke tanken om egoistisk omsorg.

Jeg ville gøre det samme, hvis jeg så dig døse i en sofa - uden af jeg den grund ville ændre min selvopfattelse til værende i grænselandet mellem pervers selvopofrelse og egoistisk godgerning.

Jeg låner dog kæresten bilen den dag vi skal ud til middag for at modstå offentlige følelesudbrud - ingen selvvelsignelse på den konto.

Jeg tror grundlæggende der er tale om kærlighed, omsorg og ansvar.

Er man heldig bliver omsorgen modtaget.

Med lidt held trives man selv.


Maria A. Walther said...

Helt fabtastiske Sarah, har endnu engang klasket mig hårdt på lårene af grin og med en følelse af ren vevære og afsavn til mine forældres lille hund Leo a.k.a Ole, når jeg er hjemme.
Ha det dejligt. Glæder mig til at se flere.