Chesterton’s Bed

Confession:  I have guilt issues.  I seem to be saddled with a constant companion on my shoulder that whispers incessantly, “get this done….don’t forget that…don’t be so lazy…don’t do this, its a waste of time…”  I wonder how many deal with this?  I would venture to guess that if many currently do not, it will eventually become an epidemic as this post-enlightenment culture continues to evolve   I do suspect that it secretly is already an epidemic…though concealed in some faux virtues.

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton was a fantastic author.  I might even say he is among my very favorites.  I’d certainly go so far as to say that he is an author that today’s Christian readers should absolutely read…but won’t (which is whole different issue).    His writings and essays encompassed a great many things besides faith.   His unique style, full of wit, wisdom, deadpan, and irony, speak to truths often hidden or muddled in societal fog.  Though I think his “Everlasting Man” was his best work and worth looking at intensely, I think his minor essays are also little gems, and here is one entitled “On Lying in Bed”:

Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a colored pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling. This, however, is not generally a part of the domestic apparatus on the premises. I think myself that the thing might be managed with several pails of Aspinall and a broom. Only if one worked in a really sweeping and masterly way, and laid on the color in great washes, it might drip down again on one’s face in floods of rich and mingled color like some strange fairy rain; and that would have its disadvantages. I am afraid it would be necessary to stick to black and white in this form of artistic composition. To that purpose, indeed, the white ceiling would be of the greatest possible use; in fact, it is the only use I think of a white ceiling being put to.

He goes on for a couple paragraphs about how wallpaper isn’t scriptural and Michaelangelo was probably lying in bed when he first imagined the incredible imagery of the Sistine Chapel.  But he then returns to the philosophy of lying in bed and its resultant reception…

The tone now commonly taken toward the practice of lying in bed is hypocritical and unhealthy. Of all the marks of modernity that seem to mean a kind of decadence, there is none more menacing and dangerous that the exaltation of very small and secondary matters of conduct at the expense of very great and primary ones, at the expense of eternal ties and tragic human morality. If there is one thing worse that the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals. Thus it is considered more withering to accuse a man of bad taste than of bad ethics. Cleanliness is not next to godliness nowadays, for cleanliness is made essential and godliness is regarded as an offence. A playwright can attack the institution of marriage so long as he does not misrepresent the manners of society, and I have met Ibsenite pessimist who thought it wrong to take beer but right to take prussic acid. Especially this is so in matters of hygiene; notably such matters as lying in bed. Instead of being regarded, as it ought to be, as a matter of personal convenience and adjustment, it has come to be regarded by many as if it were a part of essential morals to get up early in the morning. It is upon the whole part of practical wisdom; but there is nothing good about it or bad about its opposite.

Misers get up early in the morning; and burglars, I am informed, get up the night before. It is the great peril of our society that all its mechanisms may grow more fixed while its spirit grows more fickle. A man’s minor actions and arrangements ought to be free, flexible, creative; the things that should be unchangeable are his principles, his ideals. But with us the reverse is true; our views change constantly; but our lunch does not change. Now, I should like men to have strong and rooted conceptions, but as for their lunch, let them have it sometimes in the garden, sometimes in bed, sometimes on the roof, sometimes in the top of a tree. Let them argue from the same first principles, but let them do it in a bed, or a boat, or a balloon. This alarming growth of good habits really means a too great emphasis on those virtues which mere custom can ensure, it means too little emphasis on those virtues which custom can never quite ensure, sudden and splendid virtues of inspired pity or of inspired candor. If ever that abrupt appeal is made to us we may fail. A man can get use to getting up at five o’clock in the morning. A man cannot very well get used to being burnt for his opinions; the first experiment is commonly fatal. Let us pay a little more attention to these possibilities of the heroic and unexpected. I dare say that when I get out of this bed I shall do some deed of an almost terrible virtue.

Some things of note here I’d like to emphasize.  Here is one: “If there is one thing worse that the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals.”  In my case, and the case of many others, I think this is the root cause of the guilt regarding not just lying in bed, but a whole plethora of activities that our current society would deem as indolent.  When we go for a walk, why do we do it?  These days it seems that a majority do it in response to a mandate of health or obligation to a pet, not necessarily to interact with nature or to whistfully imagine as one strolls along.  When we go for a drive, why do we do it?  Perhaps its a bit irresponsible with gas the way it is today to just “go for a drive” with no inherent reason, yet I remember hearing about the fabled “Sunday afternoon drive” that families used to take.  Why did they do it?  Certainly not to go to Walmart or “I have to” errands.  We live in an age that not only requires reasons for doing everything, but if you aren’t doing certain things or not supplying reasons for other things, you receive pressure from the society at large that you are a waste – get to work!  Produce!  …of course all this coming from a society that watches hours and hours of reality television.  (I won’t be hypocritical and label watching reality television as a waste of time, though.  You can make that fairly obvious judgement call yourself….)  Ce la vie.

Chesterton does label early risers as misers, but I’d also like to point out I know several people with the gift of being a morning person and they aren’t necessarily misers.  I may agree with Chesterton in this: because they get up early, they have a much greater chance at becoming misers.  But again, this is highlighting the idea that one doesn’t get up early simply to get up early anymore…one gets up early for a reason that may or may not be virtuous.  In doing this, some lord it over those that don’t and getting up early becomes an act of pride, not nature.

Ok, so this isn’t a rant against being productive, don’t misunderstand.  Instead, I am attempting to honor a quiet, sacred space.  Creativity lives there.  Peace lives there.  Have we as humans outgrown this?  Why do we need to remember and protect these ideas, instead of lambasting them (and in my life, feel constantly guilty whenever I approach them)?  Why…to dream.  To create.  To breathe.  To center.  To contemplate.  To make up stories.  To “paint the white ceiling” as Chesterton suggests.  How whimsically beautiful.  But alas, as I suggested at the beginning, it is difficult to free oneself from the notion that if you are not working and accomplishing, you are becoming a waste to society.  Here is a tenuous balance, and Chesterton masterfully approaches it in his last paragraph and offers a caution:

For those who study the great art of lying in bed there is one emphatic caution to be added. Even for those who can do their work in bed (like journalists), still more for those whose work cannot be done in bed (as, for example, the professional harpooners of whales), it is obvious that the indulgence must be very occasional. But that is not the caution I mean. The caution is this: if you do lie in bed, be sure you do it without any reason or justification at all. I do not speak, of course, of the seriously sick. But if a healthy man lies in bed, let him do it without a rag of excuse; then he will get up a healthy man. If he does it for some secondary hygienic reason, if he has some scientific explanation, he may get up a hypochondriac.

A final confession: No I didn’t write this from my bed.  I probably should have.

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