Do We Overvalue Sleep?

Do We Overvalue Sleep?

Do We Overvalue Sleep?
by Ed Welch

The subject: sleep. Now, talk among yourselves.

We all sleep so we all have something to say.

Sometimes it is a hassle; sometimes it is a delight.

Why do we even sleep? After decades of research, its actual purpose is a mystery.

Will we sleep in heaven? Some love the idea that we might not need it; others would find a sleepless heaven to be tragic and inconceivable. All we know for sure is that sleep is an ideal reminder that we are finite creatures.

I ponder the topic of sleep most everyday. “How’d you sleep?” are usually my first words in the morning. “Father, would you give her good sleep” are some of my last words of the day. But I am lingering on the topic a little longer here because of a recent book, Wide Awake: A Memoir, by Patricia Morrisroe. In it she states the obvious: at least in the United States we have a national quest for the perfect night’s sleep. We deserve it. We have a right to it. And when we don’t get it, we believe that we deserve a wide-awake day anyway, so keep the coffee and Provigili knockoffs handy. How sleep became a national obsession is hard to say, but hotel rooms advertise a sleep-inducing color, sleep-inducing aroma, the perfect mattress, the ideal temperature.

Closer to home, I remember my father getting one contraption after another, then going from one physician to another, all to get that elusive perfect sleep, which, he said, never came. One day, with mild frustration, after watching him catch a long nap in a favorite chair, in which he denied ever sleeping, I suggested that, just for fun, he vary his physical complaints a little more and focus on aches and pains. Perhaps I should add that, though that sounds a bit disrespectful, my father didn’t take any offense, and it certainly didn’t change his answer to the question, “How are you doing, Dad?”

Oh, and there is another reason I think about sleep. Along with the cultural and familial reasons, I have personal ones. I am a very poor sleeper and I sleep right next to a very good sleeper.

Here are some thoughts about sleep on which most of us would agree.

We don’t die from lack of sleep. Poor sleep is not lethal. There are probably more important matters to obsess over. That being said, I would get checked out for sleep apnea if I was always tired and the neighbor down the street could hear me snoring.

We don’t go crazy from lack of sleep. Some of the sleep deprivation studies suggest that, though our bodies can tolerate sleep deprivation from the neck down, our brains don’t fare as well. The problem with these studies, however, is that they didn’t study insomniacs so much as they studied people who were aggressively deprived of sleep. Most of us don’t have someone blowing horns and shaking us every time we nod off, unless we are driving. There is no question that lack of sleep can temporarily make us less sharp, but hallucinations and irrationality are for those who are forced to stay awake.

If we don’t mess too much with our bodies, they will get the sleep they need. If we are not ingesting massive doses of stimulants – or even if we are – our bodies typically get the rest they need. We can all go into phases in which we sleep less because there is a lot to do, because we are traveling across time zones, or because we are junior high pastors who schedule too many all night lock-ins, but once the intensity lets up our body will sleep longer than usual. Or, perhaps our body will rebel and get sick as a way of saying, “slow down.”

Anxieties will disrupt sleep. If there is a lot on your mind, you will have a more fitful sleep. We go through sleep cycles during the night, and some parts of the cycle are deeper, others more shallow. When you enter those shallow stages of sleep, or briefly wake to change positions, pressing anxieties are just waiting to explode back into consciousness. Sometimes these anxieties can be traced to our unbelief as we hold on to things that are not of first importance. Sometimes our minds are simply active and don’t slow down until it is time to get out of bed and start the day.

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7, from Psalm 55:22). I am in my fourth go round with this passage, still finding new depths and direction in it. Meditation on it doesn’t always lead to better sleep, but meditation is a fine thing whether it yields the fruit of sleep or not.

We spend too much money on sleep. We spend millions on drugs to fall asleep but that does not necessarily point to some strange sleep pathology plaguing Americans. Instead, it points to the value we place on sleep. The interest is connected to what we as a culture deem important. Though everyone knows that sleep inducing drugs disrupt sleep as much as help it, and most of them are addictive, their promise of a good night’s sleep is enough to keep us asking for more.

I am not suggesting that everyone stop filling their prescriptions for sleep medication. My point is a simple one. We take too much medication for sleep, and we all know it.

If sleep is our number one concern, our priorities are misplaced. Let’s latch on to something more important. I think a mitigating factor for my father’s obsession with sleep was dementia. I suspect he was saying, in part, “something is wrong, I don’t know what it is, so I will attribute it to sleeplessness.” Most of us don’t have that mitigating influence. As a result, our aim is to make any sleep problems secondary to the thing of first importance – the gospel and its endless implications (1 Cor.15:3-4). Insert any physical difficulty in the place of sleep and we would say the same thing. The body is wasting away. We can only postpone or retard that downhill course in the same way that our sand wall made below the high tide marker will only briefly delay the inevitable. Yet, in the midst of that reminder of our mortality, our inner beings can be renewed day-by-day (1 Cor.4:16), and, somehow, that inner renewing, extends all the way to eternity itself.

Okay, this all makes good sense right now, after I’ve had a decent night sleep. I’ll check back with these propositions on the heels of a short and restless sleep and find out if I can sign off on them then. Sleep, of course, is no big deal—unless you didn’t get any.

iA prescription drug used to treat excessive sleepiness.

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