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Lynn Casteel Harper Headshot

What Lack Of Sleep Does To Your Spirit

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My favorite local coffee shop sells merchandise brandished with their amusing slogan: "Sleep is for the weak." After petroleum, coffee is the world's most traded commodity. My spouse tells me of one of his students who sleeps with headphones on that repeat all night long the terms she is trying to memorize. From Red Bull to 5 Hour Energy, products claiming to boost one's energy proliferate. It comes as little surprise that one-third of Americans report getting insufficient sleep -- that is, fewer than seven hours a night. The CDC calls this pervasive lack of sleep a "public health epidemic."

In war zones, sleep is a casualty due to the unrelenting anxiety and vigilance required for survival. When we who live in relative safety consistently forgo sleep, we turn our everyday lives into battle scenarios that require our hypervigilance. Depriving someone of sleep is used as a torture tactic. How strangely sadistic that we inflict this violence on our own bodies by denying ourselves sufficient sleep.

On the one hand, we need sleep to survive; on the other, we often lament and resist our need for it. We feel we must "earn" a nap and may feel guilty if we "sneak" one in. We act as if adequate sleep were tantamount to indulging in a luxury. We know that good sleep, like good nutrition, is an essential component of good health, yet we don't feel we must "earn" a salad, nor do we deem a healthy meal a rare indulgence.

This curiously strained relationship with our body's need for sleep prompts me to reflect on what within us fuels this scorn for sleep, what spiritual dynamics might lurk beneath this epidemic.

Let me first say a word about my intended audience. I'm not talking to those who are in seasons of life where sleep, by necessity, comes at a premium -- those first weeks for parents after a birth, for example. I'm not talking to those who must persistently assume the exhausting task of caregiving for a sick child or parent or partner, or those whose own illnesses disturb their sleep. I'm not talking to those who must work double shifts at low wage jobs in order to meet basic needs; this brand of exhaustion is a burden foisted upon their backs. Rather, I am talking to the segment of society with a measure of privilege (which includes me) that has a choice -- whether we admit it -- between adequate and inadequate sleep.

Our fatigue is worn with the same sort of duty-bound pride as battle fatigues -- our tiredness, a badge of honor. Exhaustion is lamented in the same way that "being so busy" is -- as a sort of faux complaint. While we genuinely may be tired or busy, such remarks, however unintentionally, often serve to signal our own importance. It is decidedly uncool to admit you consistently get a good amount of sleep, which may shoot up the red flag of laziness. How valuable our time must be if sleep is sacrificed in order for the world to have a bit more of us. The world is simply too much without us.

The need for sleep challenges our obsession with control. Sleep forces us to let go. So much is beyond our control while we sleep. We can't check our e-mail or Facebook; we can't make transactions; we can't make connections or plans; we can't even think about doing anything. Sleep is one of the only human activities that requires our undivided self. As much as some may try, we literally can't do something else while we sleep but sleep. Sure, we lock our windows and doors and have smoke detectors, but we are little more than sitting (lying) ducks while we sleep. Sleep reminds us that we are all, as e.e. cummings penned, "human merely being."

The psalmist writes: "He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper" (121:4-5a). The writer envisions the Holy One as the ever-vigilant source of the people's care, making clear that the role of "keeper of your life" does not fall squarely on human shoulders. Unceasing vigilance is the Creator's domain; our striving to "neither slumber nor sleep" is to grasp for a station that is not ours. Our need for sleep means we aren't little godlike keepers of every aspect of our lives.

Sleep confronts us with our limitations. Instead of acknowledging our needs and limitations simply as part of life on this planet, we recoil at the slightest whiffs of vulnerability. Part of our disdain of our own and others' aging bodies, with our growing need for recovery time and rest, is a failure to come to terms more broadly with human finitude and dependency. We pump our bodies full of stimulants, shirk off sleep, bow to the merciless gods of productivity and fancy ourselves invincible.

Sleep is not for the weak; it is for the mortal. When we seek to defy our human finitude by overriding sleep, we harm not only our own bodies but also the broader community. Our constant striving, our unrelenting production and consumption, gives no one else room for rest either -- not the land and not its laborers.

In the natural rhythms of the earth, dormancy is part of the cycle of life. We all need rest. In order to thrive, fields must lie fallow; animals hibernate; day recedes into night. The seventh day in the Genesis account of creation speaks to this truth, as Sabbath rest is deemed a holy part of the whole creation. In Genesis, even God rests. When we scorn sleep, we get out of tune with the rest of creation, playing a dissident and foreign countermelody.

Learning to honor the body's needs as a sacred part of our design constitutes soul work. It requires moving toward an acceptance of our mortality and away from an adversarial stance against our bodies. "Great work is done while we're asleep," writes Wendell Berry. The world continues to spin -- thrive even -- without our ongoing input. We who were made a little lower than angels need not be our own slumberless keepers.