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Confessions of a Spiritual Insomniac

February 15, AD 2012 2 Comments

I’m a chronic insomniac. There’s a lot to that statement beyond my not being able to sleep at night—insights into my temperament and psychological composition, and, if you pay close enough attention, explanations as to why I’m largely sardonic in relation to topics of an over-arching and weighty nature. Really, how is an insomniac supposed to react to an endless barrage of calls to “wake up” because of this or that issue? It’s like telling a fish to take a bath. Believe me, I’ve heard plenty of calls to “wake up” these last few weeks. Google+, Facebook, my inbox, and all of my real-world social interactions seem to revolve around one issue at the moment. Don’t play coy; you know what issue I’m talking about. And immediately before that, there was the public fiasco about that one organization who started having doubts about their long-term steady relationship with that other organization because that other organization was not the kind of organization that that she was hoping he would be, and how after great heartache they ultimately decided it would be best to keep the relationship going for the good of the screaming activist children….You can’t make up a soap opera like that.

We sure do follow these story lines and character arcs quite closely. The issues seem to justify our undivided attention. We are, after all, endeavoring to discuss matters of life and death, justice and injustice, conscience and coercion, and the very foundations of a free society and our place within it. We need few additional reminders to tell us that the stakes are high and life itself is on the line. Rome is burning and we have no time to fiddle around. We’ll write our congressmen, sign petitions, engage in discussions with our peers and online, blog about it, attend protests, spend every online moment reading articles and watching videos about it, and make it as sure as the grass is green that we won’t vote for [insert name of soulless politician here]. But at some point—and this point is different for every person—the issue must be, like every major difficulty in life or plot-thickening suspense-creating device in a daytime serial, handed over in prayer with the abandonment and surrender of knowing that God or the author is in control, and that our power is extremely limited. We, quite simply, need the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.

Lying awake at night on a consistent basis since childhood teaches me a lot about that serenity. My insomnia arises from one of two mechanisms: one is having racing thoughts related to any particular anxiety or circumstance, and the other is hitting my creative and productive peak after sundown. The former is like trying to sleep in a burning building; the latter is like trying to sleep with a screaming infant in the other room. In either case, I feel compelled to move, to act, to change things, to get things done. I need to write another page or stanza while I have this section finally figured out, to fix that awkward chord progression with this bright new idea, or to read a book that’s been vying for my attention. On the flip side, I need to mend a friendship before it breaks, to apologize to someone for a snide remark I made that hurt them (but they didn’t say anything so I didn’t notice it at the time and just now realized it), or to figure out what I’m going to do about this particular problem or that specific issue. I can’t do anything, so why do I worry? I tell myself that it’s because I want to actually fix the problem, and that it’s irresponsible of me not do anything about it. Not being able to do anything about it, I somehow think that worrying is necessary, or somehow more just. At bottom, however, the root of all this unrest is the compulsion to act devoid of any available course of action. I must attend to the issue at hand, and that issue is sleeping.

Each night during the Office of Compline, the Church prays, “Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ and asleep rest in his peace.” The nightly ritual of prayer and sleep contains within it a humble, implicit realization that each night of sleep is a rehearsal for death. We must approach it with the tranquil realization that God presides over the course of our life when we least have control—when we are most dormant, facile, and incapacitated. Death is the ultimate incapacitation, and sleep is the incapacitation built into our lives to prepare us for that final step into death. In the same way that the moment of death requires a surrender to the loving mercy of God, sleep is a nightly mechanism that makes it possible for us to continually pray, “I surrender”.

The danger of constant anxiety, of constant compulsion to act even when absent a suitable ability to act, betrays the truest need of the human heart when faced with the stresses and evils of a fallen world. Amid our constant calls of “Wake up!” and “Don’t just stand there, do something!”, we miss the very real call to peace given to us by the very Gospel itself. Imagine the inner peace needed to see an evil, to know the compulsion to address it, while saying to yourself, “This is not the time or the place. I am ill equipped and incompetent here. God will provide.” God called David to slay the giant Goliath, but he also refused to settle the money dispute between two brothers, and at another point answered the Pharisees and Sadducees with “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s”. No, we don’t turn a blind eye. We don’t fall into inaction and complacency. We simply refuse to fall into the trap of saying that all that’s needed is action. “Sleep child, for tomorrow is a new day.” “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

Since a great bulk of our worries and anxieties seem to process from the public square these days, we must realize more deeply than ever that we can never do one bit of good at bringing the world to peace if we ourselves are not at peace. Really, I could analyze these weighty matters of great consequence without end. I could discuss the Church’s teaching on the primacy of conscience and what it truly means; I could analyze the structure of this filthy, rotten system that perpetuates injustice in countless forms; I could weigh the moral implications of voting for Candidate R, D, L, or X or conscientiously abstaining from voting altogether; I could compare and contrast Catholic pacifism with Just War Teaching and find a position somewhere within either of them; I could offer a critique of modernity, the nation-state, and Liberal Democracy and what it means for the Church to be “resident aliens” within them. Neither of these topics would do one bit of good for us or for the world, though, if not engaged with peacefully, in the tranquility and serenity of a heart made calm through the love of and trust in God. That’s the great challenge of our revolution, making peace break out first in ourselves, and second in each and every individual heart.

But let us once again hold to mind, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s.” The specific question was of taxation, but within his response, Christ sheds light on every question of Church and State relations that will ever arise. When Caesar oversteps his bounds and assumes the things that are God’s, and he pompously asserts his weight and authority over these matters like a bratty child declaring himself the king of the sandbox, what recourse do we have to this injustice? Yes, we act. We do what is in our power to seek justice, and we do so without compromise and without ambiguity. But to Mr. King O’ the Sandbox, we can simply carry on life as usual, deaf and disobedient to his arrogations, and if we have to, point a mocking finger and ask, “Who made you King?”

Who indeed?

[Image courtesy of ewanr at]

Filed in: Columnists

About the Author:

Nathan Kennedy is a 25-year old student living in Amarillo, Texas, who converted to the Catholic Church in 2008. Call him a "Renaissance Man" or a "nerd," it really doesn't matter. He is currently involved in vocational discernment to the religious life, and his hobbies include music composition, reading science fiction, spending time outdoors, and learning biology.