very very very very late. I do, at least. It’s 11:41 presently, and I’m still planning to finish this post, fire off some comments, do my sit-ups and read the new Adam Gopnik in this week’s New Yorker before I turn in. I don’t like going to bed so late, and I never plan to: my default daymap has me retiring about 11:00, so I can get up by 6:00 the next morning to do my three miles and read the scriptures before the children wake. This virtually never happens, though. It’s usually a lot closer to 1:00 by the time I get in bed, and I almost always awaken to my son’s cries at about 6:30, gritty-eyed and heavy-limbed and with no intention of taking on the treadmill anytime soon.
Staying up too late, in fact, is my most frequent violation of the constitution of self-imposed rules and standards that governs the traffic of my day-to-day life. The problem, in part, is that two nights out of four I go to bed alone, a business I loathe and assiduously procrastinate until fatigue insists. Mostly, though, the problem feeds on its own solution, like the snake on its tail: because I am by nature task-oriented, I put off sleep until I’ve checked off the articles of a well-lived day. Of course, putting off sleep itself constitutes a violation of those articles, and therein lies the rub (and rubbing of eyes). A law-abiding day, according to Rosalynde’s Fundamentals of Dailiness, consists of: an early rise for exercise and personal devotion, breakfast for the children and daily chores at the top of the morning, academic research and serious writing in the mid-morning, lunch and rotating weekly chores at mid-day, blogging and pleasure reading during early afternoon nap/quiet time, activities and outings with the children during late afternoon, dinner and family devotions and bed for the children, then nightly chores and situps, and finally serious reading or creative personal writing until bed. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Balanced and stimulating and productive, well-paced and well-rounded and well-planned… and almost impossible to carry off. I sleep too late, the children wake too early, they’re only out of the house two mornings a week anyway, somebody calls for a favor or a chat, I have to rearrange time-slots to get in treadmill time, there’s an Adam Gopnik and a Jonathan Franzen (sorry, Kingsley) in this week’s New Yorker. The possibilities for failure are, like the swine, legion.
But that I fail so frequently, that I stay up too late and sleep too late, that I neglect some social or spiritual or physical or intellectual component of the balanced life, and that I do so almost programatically, isn’t really the problem. The real problem is that balance, the method of a modern life lived with discipline and intention, is, well, moderate. A balanced life, with its regular engagement and careful apportioning and emotional hygiene, systematizes the categories of life and orders them temporally, and in doing so centers the gravity of one’s life in the habitual and the healthy. To be sure, the habitual and healthy is a nice place to be, and the rewards of moderation are real. But habit and health produce casual normalcy, a sort of larger formlessness subsuming the strictures of its smaller forms.
Balance is inimical to the excesses of creativity. The sacred, the sublime, the intuitive insight, the feverish breakthrough, the extremes of beauty and horror—these all require the interplay of excess and scarcity, and often the relinquishment of both habit and health, as well. Medieval nuns who achieved ecstatic personal spirituality most often did so through an ascetic regime of self-abnegation and mortification. Vincent Van Gogh and Christopher Marlowe produced their work not in spite of but because of their mental illness and excess. The great intellectual and social movements have at their inception, more often than not, the obsessive work of a single-minded founder. And in my own experience, periods of great creativity and productivity have coincided with jutting imbalance in my life: after my daughter was born, for example, my depression and anxiety brought, along with moments of panic and despair, an intensity of sensation and a drive to create that I’ve never enjoyed since; and during the final months of writing my dissertation I worked with a focus and absorption that precluded almost any extra-familial social interaction or diversion. (Both stages, coincidentally, involved semi-severe sleep deprivation.) My most vivid personal spiritual experiences have occurred during periods of extremity, as well. I wouldn’t want to live that way for long, but wow, what a spin while it lasted.
(It will be objected, perhaps, that I’m merely resurrecting romantic ideals of the artist-as-Byron, with his peacock’s excess and parade of lovers and flamboyant death. I’m not, though: I’m skeptical of the concept of genius as a transcendence of human spirit at the core of the romantic mythology. And stolid plodders can certainly produce good work, too: there’s Bach as well as Beethoven, after all. But the irregular swing of surfeit and deprivation that propels creative endeavor still seems to me hostile to the symmetry of balance. )
What balance and regularity and rationalized time-discipline is good for, of course, is industrial capitalism. The forward vector of modern time, shoving its long finger through alarm clocks and time-cards and work weeks, delivers a regime of time-thrift that teaches us to save and spend and budget our hours like so many pennies in a piggy bank: early to bed and early to rise, as we all know, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
But the programmatic recursions of the balanced life also tick off the occasions of collective and communal worship. Daily family devotions of prayer and scripture reading, weekly participation at church with its regular, recurrent occasions for testimony and fasting and ordinance, monthly attendance at the temple—these all require recursive temporal cycles that excite the spiritual life by elevating the merely habitual to the ritual. Communal worship generally lacks ecstatic surpluses, but it supplies the gentler compensations of liturgy, sociality, observance. It seems to me that the current ideal of Mormon life, with its weekly FHE and quarterly PPI and biannual conferences, fosters this sort of religious experience. This is not to say that personal spiritual experience is ignored: it isn’t, though it strikes me that the recommended technologies—habitual thirty-minute study sessions, scheduled personal prayer—may be unlikely to achieve that result. But the ideal Mormon life is a balanced one, early to bed and early to rise for church, deliberately distributing its wealth of hours and offices to succor the whole body of Christ. In a society whose public life is ever more impoverished of civic ritual and communal effort, this is a good thing.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to do my sit-ups.