Sunday, December 12, 2010

At Night

“I only need the pain med at night”; “I just take one a day, at night when I’m trying to sleep”; “I need something to help me at night”; I hear words like these over and over from patients. Something happens at night, lying in the dark waiting for the escape of sleep to overtake us. The pain of recent surgery often intrudes and seems more intense at these moments. The distractions of the daytime; other people, the humdrum light and noise of the daytime are gone and all the pain that has been buried during waking hours rises to the surface.

Our brain is amazing, the way it filters out wave after wave of unwanted stimuli, selecting only what’s important to capture our attention. But all this stimulation fades away in the night and we are left with only ourselves, our thoughts, dreams and pains. My patients fill out a history questionnaire as part of their initial evaluation; one of the symptoms they can check is difficulty sleeping. I think almost half my patients check this box.

Little children cry out in fear and their parents rush to comfort them; the darkness and solitude are fertile ground for the young imagination, calling up horrible monsters that prey on the innocent, but are frightened away by even the tiniest bit of light and a few sharp words from a loving parent.

The monsters of childhood give way to the demons of our later years. The worries of these supposedly enlightened progressive times creep out during the dark hours, robbing us of the tranquility that sleep promises. Perhaps the monsters are real; a prodigal child, a wayward spouse, financial burdens or disappointment over perceived failure, concerns that well up into our consciousness at a time when we yearn for the serenity and peace of sleep.

Charlie Brown of “Peanuts” fame would lie awake at night and ask questions out loud addressed to no one in particular or, perhaps, to God. The answers were never particularly comforting:

“Sometimes I lie awake at night and ask ‘where did I go wrong?’ And a voice answers ‘This is going to take more than one night.”-Charlie Brown in ‘Peanuts’

“Sometimes I lie awake at night and ask ‘Why me?’ And a voice answers, ‘Nothing personal, your number just came up’-Charlie Brown in ‘Peanuts’

Is God so arbitrary? I doubt it.

But, the night isn’t always bad. Triumphs and successes of the day bring a sense of joy and excitement that can keep us from the peace of sleep. It is far more likely that elation leads to celebration and sleep is banished for a while; our day to day struggles pushed back into the recesses of our brain, quietly waiting for the moment to emerge and send our joyful feelings crashing into the abyss.

The Bible speaks of rest as a reward, something given by God for work well done.
"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." -Matthew 11:28-30

At the end of a long day or a long life God rewards us with His rest. Scripture presents rest as the ultimate gift from God. Over a six day period God created the universe and our world and on the seventh day He rested. Number four of the ten commandments is to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, which means set apart as something special, a time for rest.
So night is the time for rest, to be alone with God and with our thoughts; a time of reflection on the day’s events and a time to anticipate the days to come. So many times at night I think about the day that has just past, surgery’s that have been done, family concerns and any troubles. It’s a time to offer prayers of thanks and supplication. Personally, I think God listens best at such moments or, more likely, I can focus better at these times; the quiet darkness shielding my thoughts from unwanted intrusion.
And then there’s sleep. We drift away from consciousness, but remain alive. While we sleep amazing things happen. Although it has never been proven I think that sleep provides a time for repair: physical, mental and emotional. Body temperature falls, heart rate decreases, blood pressure decreases and vascular resistance falls. Our organs are bathed in blood that seems to circulate more slowly during sleep, allowing built up toxins to be released and disposed, focusing our immune system on potential invaders, repairing damages done and probably a multitude of other functions that remain a mystery.
Sleep is the time for dreams, our pent up thoughts and feelings released into a private theater that may be cryptic, vivid, heart-warming or terrifying. Sometimes in color, sometimes in black and white, Freud wrote a whole book on the interpretation of dreams. The Bible gave special credence to those that could interpret dreams and treated our dreams as messages from God. Daniel and Joseph were the premier dream interpreters of the Bible; they both suffered because of this skill, but were also rewarded. Most often our dreams leave us confused and often we forget them as soon as we awaken; leaving us with a vague recollection that something of importance may have transpired, but little more.
We may never remember a dream and remain oblivious to our environment, but we still yearn for sleep, for this time of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual repair. We cannot live without its benefits and yet it can prove to be so elusive. Lying awake, tossing and turning, counting sheep by the millions, downing pills and elixirs; searching for the elusive rest. Our world has become so complicated that moments to relax, do nothing and dream become fleeting until they seem lost forever.
Where can we find peace? As children the comforting word or touch of a parent was all that was needed. So, we come back to our parent, to God, our Heavenly Father. His word, His grace, His promise are all that we need to find rest. It is promised throughout the Bible and night is the time when we can feel His soothing touch and receive His peace.