On a clear summer night in August of 1863, a young presidential aid named John Hays fought the sleep that threatened to overtake him and accompanied President Abraham Lincoln on a late night stroll through Washington DC. Lincoln was a good strategist, a big picture thinker, and a convicted leader. But he wasn’t a very good sleeper.
Throughout his presidency many nights found him pacing his office or walking through the streets while the rest of the city slept, sometimes keeping his aids up late with him, regaling them with funny stories or reading to them from his favorite literary works.
This August night, the president led Hays to the Naval Observatory where the two looked up at the moon and the star Arcturus. Then, we know from the aid’s journal, Lincoln next led him back to the Soldier’s Home where the Lincolns lived for most of the Civil War and there began to read to him from Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III “until [Hays’s] heavy eye-lids caught [Lincoln’s] considerable notice, and he sent [Hays] to bed.”
Now I like Shakespeare and all, but I value my sleep, so that sounds a little cruel to me. Still I certainly can’t blame the president for his insomnia. History suggests that for a time he was treating tummy troubles with mercury-containing pills that would surely have made him edgy and robbed him of a good night’s sleep. And of course he did have a stressful job, during one of the most stressful times in his nation’s history.
He couldn’t exactly wake up Mrs. Lincoln for company either because (according to a Duke University study conducted not so long ago) women are at much greater risk of heart disease, depression, stroke, and probably just plain crabbiness when they don’t get enough sleep.
So this brings me to my last two weeks or so. I haven’t been getting enough sleep. I tend to fall asleep okay, but then wake up a few hours later, my mind alive with all kinds of jumbled thoughts about all the things I need to get done, how that’s going to be hard to do if I can’t get some more sleep, and now (thanks to the folks at Duke University) how I’m going to develop heart disease, depression, and probably have a stroke.
I shouldn’t complain. I’m really not affected by insomnia very often, and usually only for a few days when I am, but I always just kind of have to wait it out because it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why it strikes. I haven’t been ingesting any mercury as far as I know and I’m not facing any looming deadlines or major life changes. I’m just not sleeping well.
I could lay some of the blame on the appearance of the third season of Once Upon a Time on Netflix (because in theory I could go to bed at a decent hour and not binge watch this guilty pleasure, but of course that’s not what I’ve been doing). I could even attribute my troubles to watching the news as formerly primarily regional problems become increasingly threatening to the stability of the entire world.
And it could just be the dog’s fault. He tends to wake up in the middle of the night, too, and stretch and pace for a while, jingling the tags on his collar before settling back into his bed, leaving me wide awake with a million thoughts. Perhaps I should get up and take him for a midnight stroll.
Or maybe I just need to read him more Shakespeare.