by Aaron New
Sleep is elusive for many of us. Illness, anxiety, aches and pains can burden us more as we age, triggering more restless nights than we would like. That we are a sleep-deprived people and subsequently experiencing potentially devastating consequences has been well-documented. The third of our life we should spend sleeping has a profound impact on other important areas of life: alertness, energy, mood, creativity, productivity, safety, health, cognitive skills, reaction time, memory, body weight, and much more. In short, our sleep dramatically affects everything else – how we think, how we feel, and how we act.
I have often wondered why God would design us this way. It is apparently important to Him that we spend a third of our lives more or less checked out. But why?
I certainly don’t have all the answers to this question. But one important experience taught me a few things. Not long ago I was diagnosed with cancer, Burkitt’s Lymphoma. I quickly began a series of eight very aggressive rounds of chemotherapy. My first round of chemo didn’t go well when my body reacted poorly to one of the drugs and I ended up in my hospital’s Critical Care Unit.
There’s not much sleep to be had in a hospital, especially in a CCU room. This is more than just a little ironic since the overwhelming majority of my time there was spent in a bed. Rest was nearly impossible to find in this environment: nurses constantly interrupting to take my vital signs and administer medications, IV pumps beeping in my ear, the urge to use the bathroom every 45 minutes (from all the fluids in those pumps), moaning and groaning patients next-door, tubes and wires running from my chest in all directions, 24-hour on-camera surveillance, and scurrying personnel during the occasional code blue.
Imagine being thrown into a large fish bowl and cabled down to a bed that looks more like an instrument of torture than a Tempur-Pedic. The background is a never-ending and annoying cacophony of random noises, your treatment is more stressful than a 24-hour root canal, and you have the constant urge to pee. Night-night.
But even there in the CCU, sleep was important and I needed to find it when I could. I just didn’t want to.
One night in particular changed my view of sleep. And my life.
For most of us, a normal resting heart rate is 60-100 beats per minute. I was moved to the CCU during my first round of chemo because my heart rate dropped to the mid-30’s and the medical staff was finding it difficult to bring it back up. I was more than a little nervous about going to sleep my first night there. My heart rate was being constantly monitored, and the beats per minute number was just above my head. I could check it anytime I wanted. And I checked it often. As long as I was awake, I could figure out ways to slightly and temporarily raise my heart rate – tense my muscles, hold my breath, stretch, etc. But I was unsettled about “letting go” and sleeping. I had no assurance my heart rate wouldn’t drop to even more critical levels if I let myself drift to sleep.
No man likes to admit this, but I had a crisis that night. I was scared.
Jesus and I had to have a talk. I laid out for him my fears. Some of those fears were for myself and my wife, but most of them were for my 3 boys. The thoughts of leaving them behind without a father were overwhelming, threatening to crush me. So through my tears that night, I eventually offered a pretty feeble but sincere prayer: “Lord, I gave my heart to You years ago and You saved me. Tonight, I give my heart to You again – literally – and I trust You with it. Make it beat however You want.”
I surrendered control. I gave up my heartbeat. I even gave up my family. I thought of my wife and the boys and turned them over to His care. I visualized Jesus’ hands holding and gently massaging my heart. And then something remarkable happened. I slept.
I have reflected on that experience and on the place of sleep in my life. God used that time of my life to remind me of at least a couple of things.
First, the regular need for sleep reminds me there are rhythms to life. These rhythms give life structure and meaning. They provide the context for life events. Irregularities in life are important, but we only recognize them as irregularities when compared to what is constant. There is a time and a season for everything and we would do well to pay attention to these rhythms.
Second, and maybe more importantly, the regular need for sleep reminds me of my limits. Like many of us, I often work like crazy during the day to maintain some semblance of control over my life. But each night I have to let go and give it all up. I cannot control the world around me when I am asleep.
As a person of faith, going to sleep each night can be an opportunity for me to thoughtfully practice what I preach. I can and should work to take care of my family and faithfully carry out whatever tasks are before me. But at the end of every day I have a chance to give it all back to the One who is ultimately in control, to the One who knows what I need more than I do, to the One who cares for me and my family more than I could ever imagine – and find rest.
Aaron New is Chair of the Behavioral Sciences Department and Professor of Psychology and Counseling at Central Baptist College. He enjoys life with his wife and three sons in Conway, AR. You can also find him on Twitter @DrAaronNew.
Cover photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash