The Humiliation Of Sleep

There’s a meme going around saying that a bed is just a padded shelf where we put our body when we’re not using it. The saying is oddly clever, but it doesn’t capture the fact that we don’t actually have a choice about sleeping. It’s going to happen. Consciousness wears us out, and then leaves us, despite our best efforts to force it to stay for the coffee and energy drinks. Eventually, we all need that shelf to serve as our wireless recharging station. Try as we might, even the strongest and fittest and most prominent humans can’t avoid shutting down regularly. For hours on end, we lie prostrate, vulnerable, and undignified on our beds, completely unaware and unable to work on our to-do lists and ambitions. Presidents snore. Queens drool on silk pillows. Celebrities wake up with bad breath and messy hair. Geniuses roll out of bed with foggy brains, groping for the coffee pot.

Nobody is exempt. Nobody can push past these limits for long. Like it or not, sleep is a regular reminder that we are finite, that our strength has borders we simply cannot cross. Our already short lives are shortened further by the many hours spent in necessary unconsciousness. As Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant put it in a conversation with Sophie,

‘Human beans is crazy for sleeping. Is it ever occurring to you that a human bean who is fifty is spending about twenty years sleeping fast?’

‘I must admit that never occurred to me,’ Sophie said.

‘You should allow it to occur to you,’ the BFG said. ‘Imagine it please. This human bean who says he is fifty has been fast asleep for twenty years and is not even knowing where he is! Not even doing anything! Not even thinking!’

The BFG is incredulous, and we are inclined to agree. It seems like such a waste. Just think of all the things we could do if our bodies could stay switched on constantly! We could be so productive. We could develop our hobbies. We could have time for the important things that always feel shortchanged. Time for volunteering. Time for our family and friends.

And maybe we would. Then again, maybe the bosses and schools would want more hours and the Netflix shows and Facebook notifications would keep flowing beside the breaking news and sports scores and even if we were somehow able to use all 24 hours every single day in the highest, most honourable, most productive pursuits, there would still be limits on what we could accomplish.

I’m tired just thinking about it.

Maybe God didn’t make a mistake when he built in to us the need for rest. He knows we are not him, and he never asked us to do his job. He’s quite capable of doing it himself, and promises that he will, even when our consciousness fades:

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
   where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
   the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
   he who watches over you will not slumber
He who watches over Israel
   will neither slumber nor sleep”
– Psalm 121:1-3

Sleep is a loss of control. We can’t get around that. The worse news is that we don’t  have much control over anything anyway, even while we’re awake. The much better news is that the One who does is trustworthy and good, and has proven it by going in my place to the cross I deserved. When I have to shut down tonight, I will accept this as an act of humility, recognising the limits of my power. But my sleep will also be an act of trust in the One who made me. I may not be strong enough to maintain control even over my own mind and body, but I can sleep tonight knowing that’s okay.

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