The Death of Sleep

So far I’ve talked about how the deaths of my past have helped create my current joys, in particular the joy of fatherhood. This post is about the deaths of my present.

And presently, I’m freaking tired.

Anybody who knows me knows I’ve always been a sleepy fellow. I love sleeping in, taking naps, dozing in cars; I love sleep in general. And one of the places I’ve failed in my spiritual life is in my battle with sleep.

Some of you might be thinking, “Sleep has nothing to do with your spiritual life.” But that’s just not true. You see, part of taking on a Catholic worldview has meant realizing that everything affects my relationship with Christ. Every choice I make every day is either bringing me closer to Him or farther away. And it’s not just the big stuff. Whether I go back for seconds at dinner is a matter of infinite importance. What radio station I listen to on the way to work echoes in eternity. Whether I hit the snooze button, or for me, how many times I hit the snooze button, impacts my everlasting soul. This is what Catholics believe. There is no action of insignificance. In this battle, every skirmish is a matter of life and death.

Perhaps you think this is overly exaggerated. But let me put it to you this way: if you believe, as the Catholic Church always has, that the death of the soul, i.e. Hell, is a real possibility for all people, then you would be cautious about every step you take in that direction, same as you would be about a man stepping closer to the death of his body. I mean, if there was a real possibility that somebody could fall off a cliff, you would do anything you could to keep that from happening, right? Even if he kept taking baby steps closer and closer to that same edge, you would intervene (or at least say something to him), wouldn’t you? Any step towards death is a scary one, even if it’s small, because whether you run to the cliff’s edge or tip-toe over, the result is the same. This is what we believe about our actions: we are either moving towards the precipice of our death, or we are climbing the mountain towards the apex of life. And it is a narrow and slippery ledge if you decide to just stand still.

Or another way to see it (if you’re tired of all this death talk): every choice I make impacts my relationship with my wife. If I eat seconds, maybe I will be uncomfortably full and won’t want to go on a walk with her. If I sleep in, maybe I will have to do schoolwork in the evening instead of being able to watch a movie together. If I watch t.v. shows that show impure things, maybe I start looking at her impurely. Everything affects my relationship with her. It either makes me a better husband or worse. Our relationship with Christ is much the same.

So if this is really the way things are, then my sleepiness had to be bringing me one way or the other. If I was sleeping enough to refresh my body and mind and spirit so that I could go out and attack my vocation each day, then sleep was bringing me closer to God, further up the mountain. If it was just for my own pleasure, a means of indulging my laziness, then it would be inching me backwards towards the ledge.

And I’m not the only one who thinks this. One of my favorite saints, St. Josemaria Escriva, speaks about sleep in much the same way. As a matter of fact, he calls the moment your alarm goes off the “heroic minute”. He says, “Conquer yourself each day from the very first moment, getting up on the dot, at a fixed time, without yielding a single minute to laziness. If, with God’s help, you conquer yourself, you will be well ahead for the rest of the day. It’s so discouraging to find oneself beaten at the first skirmish.” The “spiritual journey” analogy only goes so far: what we really have is a spiritual battle, one whose result is often determined in the minutiae. I knew I needed to win the minutiae, and I knew this particular area was one that I was losing.

Now, I’d like to think that the other choices I’ve made have moved me forward in my journey, even if sleep has been one area that’s inched me back. I think overall, I have some good momentum. But if I really were to regularly contemplate the wonderful life awaiting me at the end of my journey, I would be sprinting forward towards my goal and no obstacle could keep me back. Alas, that type of contemplation is too infrequent for me to have such wild success. I am too worried about myself and my surroundings to focus well on the destination.

So here I was, a twenty-five year-old guy who hadn’t woken up to his alarm on the first try since the nineties, and all of a sudden I have a child. And she didn’t have my same affinity for sleep, or at least not at nighttime.

And so my attachment to sleep began to die. It had to.

I heard a quote once that talked about what a blessing it is that so many of us are called to married life and parenthood: what else could force our hand on our unselfishness but a human life dependent on us? My vocation was going to require success in the areas I had always failed. My vocation was going to ask me to be strong where I had been weak. God knew what I was holding back, and he sent a little girl to demand it of me. Perhaps he knew I could not refuse her.

I am still by no means perfect in this area. I still go back to sleep after getting up at 6 am to change a diaper when I should really be staying up and getting things together for the day. I still sleep through my alarm most days. But what has changed is that I know I can win the battle I’ve been losing for so long. I don’t need sleep the way I thought I needed sleep. I have stayed up for hours at a time in the middle of the night rocking my daughter. I have been woken up at four by my wife who needs a break from trying to get that girl back to sleep. I have had my sleep interrupted by farts and spitting up and crying pretty much every night for the last month. And it’s been wonderful.

I have found that it is not that I couldn’t give up sleep; I just didn’t want to. I wasn’t focused enough on what I needed to give it up for. Or rather, Who I need to give it up for. Before my daughter, I would wake up and think only of myself: I am so tired, I had such a long day yesterday, I have such a long day today, I really worked hard this week, etc. But now when I wake up, I’m wondering what it is she needs, why she’s crying, when her next feeding is supposed to be, and it’s so much easier to get up. When I stop thinking about myself, I realize that I don’t need as much as my body tells me I need. I don’t need all the sleep and food and beer that it wants. I don’t need to listen to it’s every whim. And if I stopped to think about who it is I am giving those things up for, it would be so easy.

My daughter is so beautiful, and she won’t let me forget to look at her beauty. She demands my attention, forcefully at times. And I could not be more happy to give it to her. She deserves my time and sleep and focus and concern; she can have it all.

God gave me her so that I would remember that I am called to do the same for Him. As a matter of fact, all of that beauty I see in my baby girl is but a reflection of His beauty, a small sampling of the Heavenly reward waiting for me if I can just forget myself and forge towards my True Home. He sent her to me to remind me that I need to give Him everything, and if I can’t give it to Him directly, then I can give it to this little girl in whom His Spirit lives.

Just like my daughter’s pudgy cheeks and bright blue eyes and tiny fingers remind me constantly how deserving she is of my small sacrifices, so does God’s face when I take the time to look at Him. If I would spend the right amount of time gazing into His eyes, listening to His noises, putting my finger into His hands, I would not forget His beauty and the wonder of His promises. He sent me my daughter so I wouldn’t forget. What a gift. But I must always remember that no matter how wonderful the present, it is the giver who deserves my praise and love, even before rejoicing in the gift. I must give up everything, not just for his blessings, but for Him. And I know it’s worth it. I know He will continue giving His love.

And during those long nights and early mornings, I can always remember that Christ has promised us our Heavenly rest. Maybe I can sleep in then.

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