How to get some rest from COVID sleep problems

There are many of us who are feeling unravelled at the moment, and not able to get the sleep we need because of worry. Some of us are not able to get the same amount of time sleeping, and some of us are waking more than usual. Some of us are putting in the sleeping time, but not getting the usual restorative results from a “good” night’s sleep.

Is this you? Maybe sickness or changed circumstances have you worried? Maybe you are intensely busy, or maybe your “free” time has expanded immensely? Maybe you are worried about loved ones, and what the future will hold as we emerge from this time? It’s all a bit changed-up and confusing at the moment.

Murdering rest

We can look through history and see other people writing about sleep, and what happens when a good night’s sleep is lost because of worry.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth shows the main character lamenting loss of sleep. He has murdered the sleeping King Duncan in order to take his place as king. A mysterious voice advises – “Sleep no more: Macbeth does murder sleep”, and Macbeth realises he has lost the ability to obtain a good, safe night’s sleep from that point on. Macbeth has murdered his own “innocent” sleep, in the same way he has murdered the innocent King Duncan.

‘Macbeth does murder sleep’ – the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2

Shakespeare is an expert at conceptual blending: he makes you think of one thing in terms of another. Here we have sleep being thought of as a knitter, and worry being thought of as a knitted sleeve. And the concepts blend together to give us new, layered understandings: worry as something that “unravels” our mind, and good sleep as a restorer of an unravelled mind.

There are lots of other ideas about sleep thrown together in this quote, the jumble ironically showing (already) the effects of total sleep deprivation on Macbeth and his loss of focus and calm thinking.

He is coming undone.

The cognitive linguist Mark Turner proposes that conceptual blending is the ability that sets aside humans as something special among all species, giving us the ability to make creative advances in different fields.

Humans are good at knitting together ideas and creating something new and beautiful from the process.

Murdered for our rest

Another time of sleeplessness is recorded as historical fact by all four gospel writers: Jesus’ agony in the garden after the Last Supper, just before his betrayal into the hands of his murderers.  In this instance, Jesus gives up sleep to pray. He is in such a tormented state that he feels as if he is dying, and his sweat is like drops of blood falling to the ground. This scene functions as a flash-forward to the time when his blood will fall to the ground as he is nailed to the crucifixion cross, and he will die.

He will be the innocent one, murdered, so that we can rest from our wretchedness.

What does Jesus pray during this tormented moment? He prays, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). And what is the “cup” that is spoken of?  The cup is the price Jesus will pay for being God’s special anointed one. He will drink to the dregs the wretchedness of the whole world. He will be the innocent one, murdered, so that we can rest from our wretchedness.

Jesus is not like Macbeth, who murders an innocent sleeping king in order to become king, and who loses sleep as a result.

Jesus gives up sleep to pray and wrestle with his Father’s will, because he knows that in order to fulfil his divine destiny he must be killed before being raised up as king.

Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, there is a mysterious voice in the story. This mysterious voice is heard at Jesus’ baptism, and announces that “this is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Jesus’ prayer shows him grappling with the hard road laid down for him, as this much-loved son.

His Father delights in his obedience, yet Jesus knows in the garden that obedience to his Father will result in his murder.

Unlike Macbeth, Jesus never succumbs to the temptation to do things the quick way and usurp power to become king. Jesus also doesn’t accept the devil’s suggestion to throw himself off the temple and show off God’s protection by being rescued dramatically by an angel (Luke 4:10-11). But during Jesus’ tortured, sleepless night – so undramatic in presentation that his friends can’t stay up to watch it – God sends Jesus quiet, angelic comfort and strength for the moment (Luke 22:43).

Knitting it all together

Many of us are suffering through a moment when sleep is struggling to knit up our unravelled sleeves of care. However, we know from the Bible that God is actually the best knitter. He knit us together in the first place (Psalm 139:13). He gave us our specialness as humanity, and was pleased that his sons and daughters take after him (Genesis 1:27).

We are all prodigal sons and daughters, but Jesus takes the hard road of obedience back to the family home, on our behalf. He wrestled with his Father’s will, but never rebelled. Now the rebellious siblings (us) can kick off our shoes and rest from our misconceived journey away from our Father’s love.

We can pray this during the sleep-disrupted nights …

Routine and certainty seem still to be unravelling during the COVID-19 pandemic. But we can trust that God will use everything for the good, even if life without a good night’s sleep feels far from good. In fact, he is already repairing all the holes and ruptures, and knitting everything together into something brand new and beautiful. As English author Francis Spufford writes, “far more can be mended than you know.”

Perhaps God will use us to create something new and beautiful out of this time of worry and sleeplessness. We can pray that he does, and we can pray this during the sleep-disrupted nights, when our worries are tempted out to wander the garden.

I’m praying to the Great Knitter that we will be restored through rest, that we will find helpful rhythms, and that we will be given our daily needs. That we will experience kingly comfort to share with others.

Jesus is rested after his torture, raised after his murder, and wants to keep us all company all of the way.

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message version)

Danielle Terceiro is an English high school teacher at a school in Sydney’s western suburbs. She is married to Michael and they have four school-aged children. They go to New Life Christian Reformed Church, Blacktown. Danielle has always loved stories, and loves thinking about how God has told us his Big Story of love and redemption through Jesus.

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