The Mysterious Yin and Yang of Early Birds and Night Owls
Updated: Dec 24, 2020
There is the sun and moon
They sing their own sweet tune
Watch them when dawn is due
Sharing one space
- Al Jarreau, “Moonlighting” theme song
I’ve heard wonderful things about the mornings, and some day, I would really like to experience one firsthand for myself. There’s talk of sunshine, freshness, and limitless possibilities, and that all sounds perfectly lovely, but for me, no morning could ever compete with the romantic, lunar pull of the night and its subtle mysteries.
In all seriousness, I’ve seen both sides of this fierce (and sometimes divisive and ugly) debate; for the past two years, my commute required me to leave the house at 6 am, and so I would arise at 5 am, sometimes even 4:45 am. So, those two years do give me a certain credibility to write with authority and frown-faced gravitas about being an early bird, even though it wasn’t my natural or my most optimal disposition. And yes, I know there are extreme early birds among us who arise even before 4:45 am, waking up during the hour of the wolf – when ghosts walk abroad among night shift workers and coffee shop baristas. That’s fine. I have no desire to compete on that front; I know that 5 am is somewhat amateurish, but still – you have to respect it a little bit. And I must admit a bit of nostalgia for those early morning years, with the black coffee and the fresh, sunrise commutes.
On being an early bird
When you’re up before 5 am, it’s not so different from the extreme night owl's experience of staying up until 2 or 3 am, in the sense that you have that secret, omniscient feeling associated with being the only person awake in the house. It’s a special thing to be awake before (or after) everybody else, and it’s natural to feel some pride. But it goes deeper than pride, doesn’t it? It’s a feeling of stolen time, for me, when the rest of the world is sleeping, and I’m awake. In that moment, the juggernaut of the clock has been temporarily held at bay, and it’s like you exist in a different dimension where time stands still. Or rather, there is no sense of time because the people around you are not experiencing the passage of time – they’re off in a blanketed dreamscape of castles and chocolate and some blue pillow that was actually a swimming turtle before he turned into a bicycle. So, if your friends and family are not subject to the mundane consciousness of time, then why should you be? And that’s what makes those extremely early (or extremely late) hours so enchanting. They exist so far outside the normal dimension of the day, with its meetings and rules and deadlines. 2:34 pm on a Tuesday afternoon (during a staff meeting, following a paper jam with the copier) is about as far away from this enchantment as you can get, and so that’s why 2:34 pm will never hold a candle to 2:34 am, in my book.
So, the extreme early bird has a satisfaction of being the first person awake; between 4 and 5 am, when the rest of the world is under cover with their respective turtle bicycle pillows, you can do anything you want, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get it done before anybody else – and that’s really not a bad way to start your day. It creates an empowering sense of momentum, and you can ride that tide all day long: the first person to make coffee…the first person to take a shower and get dressed…the first person to get into the car…the first person to arrive at the office…you’re just on a winning streak all day, and nobody can touch you. It builds self-confidence and self-efficacy. And when you’re an early bird, you’re really tuned into this vibe of empowerment and agency; it’s the energy of the morning sun, and it begins to flow through you the moment you decide not to engage the snooze button when most humans would.
And then…if you keep moving in this direction of morning excellence, and you up the ante and decide to venture forth into the gym during these early morning hours – well now you’ve just summoned the power of the yellow sun at its zenith; you’re no longer just an early bird now – you’re approaching the domain of Thor and his lightning bolt. And the pedestrian challenges of the day (staff meetings and intra-departmental personality squabbles) melt under your high energy, cardio-endorphin-laden body of ironclad self-discipline. Nothing can stop you now.
When I was an early bird, I was a powerhouse in the office, in the mornings. At the same time, for better or for worse, I noticed that I had less patience for people who were milling about, walking and talking slowly, laughing, joking, having a good time, without much direction or purpose. I had pressing goals, after all, and I was moving through my day in a crisp, deadly efficient manner. “What are my goals for 10 am? What are my goals for noon until 2 pm? How can I more efficiently accomplish this task, and prioritize this project, and overcome this obstacle? …You’re standing there, telling a highly inefficient joke? Get out of my way.”
It’s like you get in touch with your inner drill sergeant when you wake up that early, and you’re ready to do push ups and calisthenics and blow the whistle at people who are jamming the copier with their joke-telling. I know I did, and people didn’t seem to like it. But that was my experience with being an early bird. Perhaps it’s different for others; maybe for actual, naturally-disposed early birds, it’s possible to set your alarm for 5 am without joining the Marine Corps, but for me, these things often go together: mornings and efficiency and a touch of agitation.
On being a night owl
But now, with a shorter commute, and the ability to sleep in, I’ve dropped out of the early morning barracks, and I’ve returned to the longhaired rock band of night owls and less punctual poets. We’re not as efficient, and we waste more time joking around the photocopier, and sometimes we laugh so hard that I even forget my goals for 10 am, but we have such a good time that the clock is once again held in check. "What time is it? What were we doing? Oh my Gosh, that’s funny! Tell that joke again, my friend!" The goals are not achieved so quickly or decisively, but the product is now less important than the simple presence of being. And so it seems that the night governs this attitude of being, while the morning holds the dimension of doing.
But isn’t that lunar yin so warm and mysterious, when hustling surrenders to its absence? It’s hard not to fall in love with the whispery hours between midnight and 3 am, when the night owls hoot through the velvet curtain, and time sits still across the stage. It’s true that the night owls might not be so disciplined or punctual, but they can ride the rivers of creativity and mysticism that can’t be felt as strongly when the sun is blazing overhead and daily planners are in force. I suspect that Shakespeare was a night owl, as I’m almost certain that Romeo and Juliet were conjured up in that mystical, darkened place where time is held at bay:
“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
- Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 2
The bewitching, creative temperament of night can often be suspect, it seems, within our culture. We worry about people who stay up too late, as it violates the creed set forth by our father, Benjamin Franklin: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” We applaud the extreme early birds in their virtue, but we withhold that praise for the extreme night owl, who ventures too deeply into night. Perhaps we are keenly aware of the Hindu god, Shiva, who holds court during the lunar hours, and we remember that he possesses that dual capacity for both creativity and destruction. Shiva is the artist in the bathrobe, wild hair and unkempt, forgetting to eat, missing deadlines, chasing a melody that was heard the night before in a forgotten dream. I imagine that Beethoven and Chopin can be found here, among the painters and the poets, and the Beatles. They’re dancing with that genie, and if they’re lucky and they’re clever, they’re avoiding the worst of Shiva’s nature, while summoning what is best about that mysterious and ever-flowing lamp.
I respect the early birds, and I wonder whether I might join their ranks again, and find a way to exist in those early hours without the impatient efficiency that seems to arise with the morning glare. Perhaps less coffee would facilitate that balance. In any case, I have no desire to take sides in this dance between the birds of morning and the owls of night; don’t we have enough divisions between red states and blue, without adding another layer of confrontation? So, let us not argue about which feathered creature is the better bird; we need both polarities, as we need both summer and winter. We need the scruffy dreamers who draft poetry at 2 am, and we need the shorthaired sergeants who change the oil by 6 am. So long as there’s coffee in the morning and stars at night, we can share one space – the hoot of the owl might just be in unison with the morning chorus of the song sparrow. And that’s exactly where the sun rises.
Carl McCoy, copyright 2017
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