The Softest Pillow is a Clear Conscience

Toby Hazlewood

A guiding principle for a life well lived?

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This weekend I spent a little time scanning through my daughter’s high school yearbook. In the wake of Covid-19 shutdown many of the traditional rites of passage (graduation ceremonies, proms and so-on) have been cancelled in recent months. The school did their best to ensure that the class of 2020 were able to enjoy as much of the experience as possible. Publication of the yearbook was one such gesture.

I’d eventually been allowed to look at the yearbook after promising not to assume that a particular picture of her and a boy together meant he was her boyfriend. I gave the reassurance she wanted (although I remain unconvinced regarding their relationship) and enjoyed reading through the book and seeing how much she and her friends have changed over the last few years.

Amongst the contributions from the teaching staff, a parting message from her French teacher caught my attention:

“The softest pillow is a clear conscience.”

I love this quote for its simplicity and for the fact that it would benefit anyone reading it, not just a high-school student embarking on the next phase of their journey into the wider world. It struck me immediately and has stayed with me since.

As a writer, I often wonder what it is that most effectively grabs and holds the attention of readers.

As a reader I want to discover ways to feel happier, more fulfilled, more grateful and at peace with myself, with who I am and what I have. I want to discover ways to feel more healthy, vital and comfortable in my own skin. I want to sleep better. I want to learn how I can accomplish bigger and better things and develop new skills and enhance existing ones in the process.

I want to find new ways of interpreting the world, and to live successfully within society. I guess that explains why the things that grab me, grab me. They resonate with that cause. They signpost how the betterment of my life may be achieved.

As I read the quote in that yearbook, I was immediately reminded of the power in living in a way that keeps the conscience clear.

The power of a clear conscience

The metaphor that I believe the teacher was using in regard to a clear conscience enabling good quality sleep was just that - an analogy for how we should live our lives - so that we can sleep at night. However, the benefits of getting enough good quality sleep cannot be understated.

This article from SCL Health outlines the typical benefits of getting good sleep - including stress reduction, improved mood and memory and a heightened ability to lose and manage weight. The effects are remarkably easy to foresee and yet it's common in modern life that getting adequate sleep is not a high priority for many - compared to wasting hours doomscrolling on social media or binge-watching Netflix.

A clear conscience isn’t just a means of achieving a good night’s sleep. A clear conscience comes from living a good life from a place of truth and honour. It comes about as a side-effect from doing and saying the right things and from living with decency and consideration for others.

When we treat others as we expect to be treated our conscience will likely remain clear. It doesn’t mean we won’t feel hurt or wronged by others from time to time, and our kindnesses to others won’t necessarily be returned — we’ve simply done all that we can, as best we can.

Life may force us to take difficult decisions, to confront unpleasant tasks and to have challenging conversations that we’d rather avoid. If we can show up to these with courage, conduct ourselves with integrity, honesty, diligence and fairness then our conscience will likely be clear. If we hold something back, dodge or delegate the trouble, or leave it for someone else to deal with, then our conscience will remind us of it at some point.

We may want to shy away from putting in the work required to deliver an arduous project or achieve a challenging goal, believing them to be too difficult, too time consuming or beyond our capability. Whether these prove true or not, if we acted with determination and gave every scrap of effort and energy to the task at hand then we can rest easy with a clear conscience that we did our best.

A clear conscience is a big part of sleeping soundly at night. The pillow feels softer when our mind isn’t racing with feelings of guilt, despondency or disappointment. Such feelings often arise when we know deep down we could have done more, worked harder or treated others better than we did.

Our conscience reminds of how we acted, whether good or bad.

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A sense check for our actions and our decisions

Striving to live with a clear conscience is a useful barometer for guiding our actions and decisions as we go through life. If we’re in doubt as to how to act in a given moment, it can help to consider how we’ll feel if we do (or don’t do something); our conscience is on-hand to offer a reminder in the gut as to what the right choice is.

As a piece of wisdom for high school students moving on to the next phase of their education or possibly into the world of work, a reminder of the power of a clear conscience seems particularly pertinent and timely. It emphasizes not just the importance of striving for excellence, success and accomplishment in creating a 'good' life. It also puts the emphasis on doing what we know intrinsically to be right. The things that may be difficult to endure, but which we know deep down are what will allow us to sleep at night.

For a world weary adult looking for a principle to guide them through life, the same principle holds true — the conscience is a good instrument to help us forge a path through life, doing our best as we go.

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