A Theology of Sleep
For some people, the fear of sleep accompanies the fear of death. For some, the fear of not being awake is akin to the fear of not being. Public Radio International personality Ira Glass spent a program discussing his own fear of sleep, along with others who find something worrisome in the altered, vulnerable state of slumber. "I'd lie awake at night scared to go to sleep," says Glass of himself as a child. "'Cause sleep seemed no different than death, you know? You were gone. Not moving, not talking, not thinking. Not aware. Not aware. What could be more frightening? What could be bigger?"(1) Others describe a similar sense of foreboding in the still of night that is irrationally paralyzing for them: a seven year-old trains himself to resist sleep, a young student describes her extensive intake of caffeine and denial. But one man, speaking bluntly of the fear of death in the middle of the night, attests to the altogether rational quality of his fear. "It's not an irrational fear... You understand that you're a mortal; your life is going to be over at some point. You're fighting the worst enemy in the world as you lie there in bed....you're trying to fight death and there's no way you can win."(2)
Glass closes the program with an excerpt of Philip Larkin's "Aubade," a poem about waking at 4 a.m. and staring around the bedroom, and seeing "what's really always there:/ Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,/ Making all thought impossible but how/ And where and when I shall myself die." Larkin, who died a bleak philosopher at 63, continues:
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
Larkin is not the first poet to draw attention to sleep's grasp of death's hand, a hand most admit at times fearing, at times simply hoping to outrun. Keats referred to sleep as the "sweet embalmer," and Donne was convinced that both death and sleep are the same type of action. Glass is right to point to death as the worst enemy of which there is no escape, and sleep, which is similarly unavoidable, is perhaps the disquieting reminder of that which we attempt to deny the rest of the day. For how much of our lives and livelihoods are aimed at outrunning the reality of our deaths? The forces of culture that insist we give up an hour of sleep here or two hours there—the grinding schedules, the unnerving stock piles of e-mail in need of responses, the early-taught/early-learned push for more and more productivity—are part and parcel of the forces that urge us to stop time itself, to live anti-wrinkles, anti-aging, anti-dying. Sleep could well be the daily reminder that some of us need to reclaim the reality of death, the beauty and brevity of life.
This is precisely the rationale with which author and professor Lauren Winner urges the world to sleep more as a means of waking to oft-unchallenged social cues and fears. Writes Winner, "Not only does sleep have evident social consequences, not only would sleeping more make us better neighbors and friends and family members and citizens. Sleeping well may also be part of Christian discipleship, at least in our time and place. It's not just that a countercultural embrace of sleep bears witness to values higher than 'the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things.' A night of good sleep—a week, or month, or year of good sleep—also testifies to the basic Christian story of Creation. We are creatures, with bodies that are finite and contingent."(3) We are, likewise, bodies living within a culture generally terrified of aging, uncomfortable with death, and desperate for our accomplishments to distract us. The demands that our bodies make for sleep is a good reminder that we are mere creatures, that life is to be revered, and death will come.
This is indeed a sobering reminder, but it need not be only a dire reminder. For to admit there is no escaping the enemy of death is not to say we are left without victory: "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, shall live" (John 11:25-26). The one who made this claim made it knowing that death would come to all of us, but longing to show the world that it is an enemy he would defeat. Perhaps sleep, then, providing a striking image of finite bodies that will lie down and cease to be, can simultaneously provide us a rousing image of bodies that will rise again.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Ira Glass, This American Life, 361: "Fear of Sleep" August 8, 2008.
(3) Lauren Winner, Books & Culture, January/February 2006, Vol. 12, No. 1, pg. 7.