Struggling to Sleep Train Ourselves

Going Less-Than Gently Into That Good Night

Sam Bush / 11.15.21

Sleep has become America’s white whale. With the CDC recently stating that 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems, the race for a cure of this newfangled pandemic has blossomed into a $30 billion dollar per year industry. Weighted blankets, sound machines and sleep apps all promise to put our minds to rest, but an endless list of products don’t seem to be making a dent in the sleep statistics. Still, that’s not enough to put an end to the alluring promise of sleep aids: that a good night’s rest is completely within your power.

The latest term is “sleep hygiene,” a series of 8-10 steps that, if followed carefully, will swiftly send you to the land of Nod. How do you maintain good sleep hygiene? Go to bed and wake up at the exact same time every day (including weekends). Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing and at 65.4 degrees Fahrenheit. And do not so much as glance at an electronic device which will shoot blue light directly into your soul. There now, ready for bed?

There are enough sleep studies on the internet to fill a library, a vast majority of them affirming the idea that the more we chase it, the better it eludes our grasp. Each insomniac is not unlike the woman in Mark 5 who “had endured much under many physicians and had spent all the money she had, but instead of improving, she was getting worse” (Mk 5:26). We do all we can to prepare ourselves. We sip our chamomile for the sole purpose of attaining that ever elusive goal. And yet, if these rituals are done for the purpose of manipulating one’s mind, they can often backfire.

For parents of young children, this is called “sleep training,” a bedtime strategy that Michaeleen Doucleff examines in her new parenting book Hunt, Gather, Parent. While this approach can often work with infants (i.e. teaching a baby to self-soothe), humans are harder to train as they get older. Doucleff talks about how the Industrial Revolution was the first time we subjected ourselves to the clock. Since then, we’ve put enormous amounts of effort into submitting ourselves to sleep schedules. The result? “We end up doing the opposite of what we want to do,” Doucleff writes. “Instead of creating a calm, relaxing environment  and mindset, we generate struggle and conflict. We manufacture mayhem.” In other words, sleep became something for us to control rather than submit to. We become slaves to something that was meant to serve us in the first place.

So the story goes: what is used to control a problem only produces a greater problem. In fact, some even argue that we subconsciously rebel against our own laws. Arthur Brooks recently addressed a kind of bedtime obstinacy called “revenge bedtime procrastination.” We put off sleep, he says, as “a form of rebellion against our own inner authority.” I’d be surprised if that didn’t sound familiar to most people. How many times do we delight in the benign naughtiness of just one more episode? “Weirdly,” Brooks adds, “we deprive ourselves of sleep to show some sort of independence from—well, ourselves.” Ironically, most of the appeal of staying up late is that it feels like stolen time, a crime in which we are both thief and victim.

So, on the one hand, our fitful bedtimes are because we “rage against the dying of the light.” On the other hand, what happens when you just want to go to bed, but can’t? The solution doesn’t seem to be rules or rebellion, but something that exists far outside the lines of our own agency.

James Parker once referred to insomnia as “God time,” a release from the partial and into the eternal. After the light is turned off, time speeds up and slows down in ways that defy reality. In those moments, the best thing to do, according to Parker, is to give up. If you’re struggling to fall asleep, there’s nothing wrong with getting vertical and fixing yourself a snack. “Therein, my sleepless friend, lies the key,” Parker writes. “You’re not alone. Even as you twist in these private coils, these very particular difficulties, you are joining a mystical fellowship of insomniacs.” He has a point. Not only does feeling less alone help quell anxiety, but it can even be freeing to think it’s OK to give up on getting a good night’s rest altogether. Who knows? Once you accept your purgatorial state between the living and the dead, you just might be released.

Feeling like a member of an elite club of insomniacs is not guaranteed to make you feel better at 3AM, but Parker may be on to something with calling it “God time.”  If you fail to sense the presence of a community in the wee hours, you may find comfort in the one who promises to give you rest. “Give me such a sense of your presence, that in the hours of silence I may enjoy the blessed assurance of your love,” as the Prayer for Sleep goes (BCP, p 461).  In fact, even if he doesn’t grant you sleep, he, too, knows what it feels like to be the sleepless one. He who prayed in the garden while his friends all kept hitting the snooze button. He who keeps you, who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Ps 121). He who is always glad to remind you that, while sleep may be elusive, he is not.

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