Spirituality and Mental Health: Renouncing Anti-Sleep Prejudice

The church of the São Pedro de Alcântara convent is decorated with azulejo panels depicting the life of the Spanish saint Pedro de Alcántara, born Juan de Garabito y Vilela de Sanabria (1499-1562). His extreme mysticism suggests a number of psychological pathologies, exacerbated by the practice of constant sleep deprivation. From Wikimedia Commons

How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior.

(Proverbs 6:9-11)

It’s important to set the verse above in context: it follows an admonition about getting out of debt to a moneylender. It is not a condemnation of rest. Even so, there are frequent Proverbs about “laziness” being an obstacle to wealth, and there is a consistent anti-sleep prejudice in many religious works and traditions.

I think it’s important to set this kind of anti-sleep prejudice apart from the tradition of vigil-keeping and self-denial. Many observant Christians stay up all night for an Easter vigil, atoning for the way Jesus’s own disciples couldn’t stay awake to pray with him (Matthew 26:40). Occasional fasting from sleep isa form of spiritual discipline, and some forms of mystical sleep deprivation may be part of our spiritual growth.

What we have learned over the last few decades, though, is that “laziness” is not necessarily what it seems. Even procrastination and energy-conversation are not character flaws. They are often responses to trauma or indicate a brain dealing with a complex and contradictory set of goals. In fact, poverty and the fear of poverty are part of what create sleep problems. Worry about money keeps many of us awake! But in our capitalist society we often think it’s the other way around: laziness begets poverty.

Whether we see sleep as lazy or virtuous largely depends on our cultural frame of reference. In societies where afternoon naps are the norm, people often live longer and have a higher quality of life. Western white supremacy and colonialism has often described such siesta practices as lazy, but sleep science has shown that napping can boost creativity and well-being. A famous study of a Greek island that phased out its afternoon nap time saw rates of heart disease rocket upwards.

It is also important to remember that the Biblical proverbs about laziness were written 2000 years ago, way before the invention of the electric lightbulb. People likely slept much longer in pre-industrial agrarian societies. We have artificially lengthened the day with electric lights and glowing screens. While there is considerable debate about the best way to structure sleep (in one long chunk or divided into different cycles), it is hard to deny that many modern people are chronically sleep deprived, and that this deprivation compounds other mental and physical illnesses.

I think it is important for us to renounce anti-sleep prejudice for what it is: moralistic and colonizing. Regular, regenerative sleep is part of our incarnate life. All animals sleep in some way, and denying the importance of sleep is a way to deny our creatureliness. Theologically, anti-sleep prejudice is a misguided attempt to be God, to be “all-knowing and ever-present” by rejecting sleep, and it is driven by our fear of missing out and our fear of being unproductive.

For people whose identity is rooted in capitalism and doing, sleep represents a sin against our way of valuing human activity. We should take a page from Jesus, who had no problem simply being, and even took a nap in the back of a boat during a thunderstorm.

Prayer:
Forgive us, Creator of Sleep, for trying to be God.
Sing us a divine lullaby when we lay down our heads in peace.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: The Importance of Sleep

Sleeping Buddha, Oriental Gardens, Monte Palace Tropical Garden, Madeira, Portugal, by H. Zell, from Wikimedia Commons

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.

(Psalm 127:2)

I grew up hearing that our essential needs were water, food, shelter, and clothing. Research in the last decade has shown that sleep is just as important as these, and may be second only to water. Going without sleep will kill you faster than fasting from food.

Most of America is walking around chronically sleep deprived. Our sleep deficit shortens our lifespans, diminishes our creativity, makes us more susceptible to disease, reduces our emotional intelligence, increases the risks of depression, anxiety, dementia, and diabetes, and causes more traffic accidents than drunk driving.

Some Christian leaders of previous generations valorized going without sleep. A properly sanctified person, they argued, would only need four or five hours of rest. They believed too much sleep was a sign of laziness or sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. The urgency of saving souls or working for the kingdom was more important than sleep. Here is an excerpt from a sermon by John Wesley:

“I am fully convinced, by an observation continued for more than fifty years, that whatever may be done by extraordinary persons, or in some extraordinary cases (wherein persons have subsisted with very little sleep for some weeks, or even months,) a human body can scarce continue in health and vigour, without at least, six hours’ sleep in four-and-twenty.”

The consensus of sleep scientists is that an eight-hour sleep opportunity is ideal. Six is far too little. John Wesley concedes that when some of his contemporaries advocate three or four hours, they are being a little bit extreme.

I’d like to say we know better now, but capitalism and the Protestant work ethic continue to praise those who work late into the evening and into the next day. “Pulling an all-nighter” is a sign of dedication—even though the quality of our study and work gets worse the longer we go without sleep.

I believe sabbath rest is supposed to be a reminder of the importance of rest, not just once a week but every day. Nearly a third of our life is spent in this state of altered consciousness, when our brains store and rearrange information and regenerate their learning and feeling capacity. But like fussy infants, we refuse to sleep because we don’t understand the suffering we are inflicting on ourselves.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be drawing from Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and sharing some reflections on the Bible and other religious texts.

Prayer:
Creator of Sleep, God of Sabbath Rest and Restorer of Life, help us to sleep well. Change our society into one that values the importance of sleep.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.