I'm writing this at 5:36 a.m. Some people are starting their day, but I haven't been able to end mine. This has been my first sleepless night in weeks.
I was having two sleepless nights, each week, since September: Sundays and Tuesdays. I taught Monday and Wednesday mornings during fall semester at NYU. It was my first semester teaching my own class of bright, millennial undergrads.
Regardless of lecture or lesson plan set, the detested iPhone alarm inevitably announced the time to get out of bed and head to campus, without a wink of sleep. It didn't matter; the excitement of teaching caffeinated me by the time I got to Washington Square Park. And since having sent my students' grades to the registrar, I've slept like a baby.
But tonight, as a budding sociologist with the restlessness back, my mind is filled with questions. What keeps people up at night? What are people willing to sacrifice sleep for? Is there a difference between a dream and a goal?
I have spent more than a year studying unique stories of triumph, learning about individuals and their agency -- their capacity to obtain desired outcomes, given their specific abilities and constraints. Different people have different amounts of agency, which is not surprising given the different income levels, demographics, and networks they have.
Still, there is a very common, human characteristic in the desire to create change and better oneself through challenging pursuits. Often, successful exercising of agency comes at the cost of pushing yourself beyond the realm of your comfort zone.
I have been most interested in people who have navigated around very tough structural and interpersonal obstacles, often through the help of education. I've met many people who showcase the limitlessness of human agency and the trivialness of sleep.
As a 46-year-old chauffer, Tim sacrificed sleep for his kids. He had his GED, but when his 18-year-old son told him he wanted to be just like his father, Tim felt the need to set a higher example. He enrolled at a community college and after excelling through his associate's degree, Tim was accepted by an elite private college with scholarships to then go for his bachelor's.
His age caused him to sometimes uncomfortably stick out in class, but Tim used his life experiences to get exactly what he wanted. Tim had always been a role model in his Brooklyn community, but now his diploma in applied psychology allowed him to give back from a more formal post -- Tim is now an advisor in a program that helps young fathers with career preparation and transition into college.
Jabari remains alert from fear of breaking parole and being sent back to jail. He was 18 when he committed armed robbery and released after he turned 31. Jabari worries about what is out of his agency to control -- he could get stopped and frisked, miss his curfew, and be locked up again. He wears a three-piece suit to work everyday to ensure less friction between him and the greater society.
Jabari grew up in and out of group homes and during his 13 years as an inmate, he wondered why he felt entitled to take things from those who had more than him. He enrolled in college-level economics classes offered in the prison. Since being released, Jabari has secured a paying position as an advocate for criminal justice reform and is pursuing a college degree.
Sophia's agency has somewhat been limited since birth. Her mother abused hard drugs while pregnant, and Sophia was born with one sub-optimal kidney. A mother herself, Sophia stays up to set the example that any setbacks can be overcome; she has received many scholarships and is now attending one of the best private colleges in the country, despite having to often visit the hospital for health concerns.
These stories show that accepting one's unique challenges is important in devising critical strategies for overcoming them. Resilience need not form overnight, but instead can develop over a sequence of sleepless nights. The trick is in finding your own Moby Dick: picking a moving target that you have had in your sights for some time.
Maybe nightmares too, then, are goals not yet achieved.
With the new year upon us, and the ubiquitous and often lackluster setting of resolutions, maybe it's time to finally tackle our most looming and pestering challenges. Being context-specific can help us compartmentalize the steps necessary to increase our own agency. We should always keep in mind that fears, doubts, and perceived shortcomings are all relative when confronting them.
Instead of simply resolving to go to the gym more or to get better grades, we should think of specific problem areas to improve on and ask why they have troubled us in the past. We should try new approaches to old questions. If you're worried of not making enough money quickly enough, instead of just looking at those who are ahead for cues, it could also make sense to spend time with people who have less than you, and see what you can learn from them.
No one knows the limits of our agency better than ourselves and there are countless examples of others' stories, which can motivate us to pursue our own dreams.
Unable to sleep, I find myself recalling Langston Hughes' Dream Deferred:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore --
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over --
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I'm not a literary analyst, so I can't tell which outcome Hughes thinks is worse. What seems most bleak is deferring the dream in the first place and not allowing it an opportunity to express itself into one of its many potentials.
My insomnia from teaching was not just from feeling inspired, but also from apprehension of whether or not I'd be any good at it. I guess that's not bad, if I can work to improve and learn from my mistakes. I'm fortunate to have gotten assigned another class in the spring to try it out, so I have many more sleepless nights to look forward to.