Rector's Blog: Rest Dysfunction
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My wife has a sleep disorder. It’s called Narcolepsy. You’ve probably heard of it, though you don’t necessarily know what it does. I remember thinking narcolepsy meant someone would fall asleep while engaged in a conversation with you, just sort of pass out and start snoring. That has not been our experience at all. Instead, my wife will experience something we call a sleep attack, where she becomes exceedingly drowsy and has to fight to stay awake. Sometimes she fights through it, though this is pretty awful for her. Other times she lets herself sleep. When this happens, it can mean her being asleep for three hours in the middle of the day.
You might call that a nap. Notice I am not using the word nap. A nap is a thing you decide to take, a sleep attack is something that takes her away. You wake up refreshed from a nap. She wakes up from a sleep attack, disoriented and oftentimes still exhausted. Narcolepsy also affects her sleep at night. Which is to say, she has trouble sleeping at night. Or will sleep for 10 hours and still not feel rested.
At Church of the Redeemer, we’re talking about the practice of Rest throughout Advent. I wanted to tell you some of this personal stuff because, well, we have a difficult and complicated relationship with Rest in the DeVaul household. This sleep disorder is part of all our lives, and it shapes how all of us think about rest. When we in the Church talk about how we all need to rest, I am often nodding my head thinking to myself, “No, but really: We need rest.” The last few weeks I’ve been writing in this space about a culture that never stops, about the expectation that we all hustle and move and achieve, about how this is unnatural, about how it’s even counter to the commandments of the God who insists we rest regularly. What I want you to know is that when I write about Rest, it’s not from a place of thinking naps and days off are lovely: I’m writing as a person who sees on a practical level how destructive lack of rest can be.
We have a tendency, when we talk about disorders, dysfunctions, diseases, to immediately seek to address why they are terrible and how we wish they would go away. Whether it be narcolepsy or cancer, or depression, or chronic back pain, or addiction, or even this pandemic. We talk about why we hate these things, naturally. And we dream about lives unaffected by these things, of course. And we search for reasons and remedies and cures, understandably.
But there is another side to our relationships with disorders and diseases. When we step away from what we wish were true and sit in the acceptance of what actually is, we are revealed so much about who we are. There is revelation and understanding that emerges from within the dysfunction – and it’s not just some trite generality like, “everyone has weaknesses".
For example, I have a lot of addiction in my family of origin, so from relatively young age, I’ve been acquainted with 12 Step recovery programs. I remember one of the first times I attended a 12 Step meeting with a family member: I was listening to the actual recitation of those 12 Steps and I thought to myself, “other than the fact that they’re talking about alcohol, who isn’t this true about? Who isn’t affected by powerlessness over somethings they can’t control? Who doesn’t need the help of a higher power? Who wouldn’t benefit from doing a fearless moral inventory of their life and making amends with people they’d harmed along the way?” Questions like that arose. I began to realize that, even if I wasn’t an alcoholic, I had a dysfunctional relationship with accountability, and had just as much need for repentance and amendment of life as anyone in my family.
Narcolepsy has been similar. I don’t have it. I don’t get sleep attacks. I’m rarely drowsy. And, to my wife’s annoyance, I fall asleep within about a minute of closing my eyes at night. But her need for rest, and the fact that rest will take over her body whether she wants it to or not is revelatory. I over-function. I never stop moving. I never stop doing. I run from rest and then wonder why I’m tired. And what’s more, I have found myself judging her for resting. Doesn’t she see how busy I am? How much we all need to accomplish?
Her sleep disorder sucks. It’s no fun. We wish it didn’t exist. But it does. And we are learning about ourselves because of it. We are learning how much shame we feel for needing rest. We are learning how much guilt we experience when something beyond our control ruins our plans. We are learning how insatiably high our expectations for our lives are – and how any disruption of that is met with anger and despair. We are learning that there is so much life to be lived and loved within the imperfection.
And because Narcolepsy is a chronic condition, we are learning something else about Rest. We are learning that the need for it won’t just go away if we try it on for a week or go on a retreat or take a medication. While rest is necessary, it’s often imperfect. It’s not always enough. It’s rarely convenient. It requires something of us and isn’t a reward for good behavior or a sign of moral weakness.
In our family, when rest shows up, we pay attention. We are trying to listen to it now.
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