Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Help Me Make It Through the Night

A man woke up in the middle of the night with the strange feeling that someone was in his bedroom. He was not sure whether something had actually touched him on the face or whether he had dreamed it. He was terrified as he felt more and more alone. He opened his eyes very slowly, trying not to make any sound. Then he saw it and felt it as something brushed past him. Whatever it was, was beside his bed. His heart was pounding, but he didn't move a muscle. He waited with fear, knowing that the blow of a hammer, or an ax, or a knife would strike him any minute. He was literally frozen with fear. As the long hours of the night slowly passed, the threatening presence in the room continued to move from place to place.

Finally dawn came and revealed the nature of the intruder: It was a balloon - a Mickey Mouse balloon that his son had brought home from the fair the day before. He had released it, and it was on the ceiling when his parents went to bed. Gradually during the night the helium had escaped, and as it lost helium, it descended from the ceiling. Finally, it floated over the bed and moved with the movements of the air in the room. What a night!!

It would be a little embarrassing, but otherwise a great relief, to discover that the things that terrify us in the night are so simple and harmless as a deflating Mickey Mouse balloon. But "the ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties, and things that go bump in the night" are not always so simple, so tangible or so harmless. The cause of most of our long sleepless nights is seldom there the next morning in tangible form to relieve our fears and cause us to breathe a sigh of relief. The cause of our nocturnal fears seldom turns out to be something we can laugh at, or something we can see or remove before having to spend another long and sleepless night. There is more substance, and yet less tangible form in our fears than a deflating Mickey Mouse balloon. The things that keep us awake nights are more likely to be floating around inside us than floating around outside us.

While sleeplessness is but one of the symptoms of a troubled heart and mind, it is one of the more painful symptoms. There is an Egyptian proverb that says that the three most painful things in life are:

"To wait for one who comes not,

to try to please and please not,

to be in bed and sleep not."

We live in a fear-promoting society which tends to push us into the zone of paralyzing anxiety about so many things that we often feel we are surrounded by a covey of demons. We come to fear things about which we can do nothing. There is always some legitimacy in media-induced fears. But when we obsess over crime and hope that the weapons we have bought will protect us; or when we become so afraid of terrorism that we refuse to fly; or so afraid of anthrax that we do not want to open our mail, the enemy has won. As one writer put is: "The home of the brave begins to look like an asylum for anxiety sufferers".

When we give in to fear about things that are beyond our power to control, we tend to ignore the real risks to our welfare over which we do have some power to control. We forget to be afraid of smoking, over-eating, not fastening seat belts, social injustice and the people we elect to office. Our greatest fears should not only be rational, but also invested in things about which we can do something. While it is true that we do live in a dangerous world (and always have), there comes a time in which we must bravely face the risks of living in the world in which we exist. There comes a time in which we must realize that if our goal in life is absolute safety, then being born was a fundamental mistake.

When we cannot sleep (unless there is a physical reason), it means that we cannot trust enough to ‘let go' and surrender control of things over which we likely have far less control than we think.. But if sleeplessness persists, and if none of the common devices can sweep our minds clear of tension and fear, perhaps we need the help of some skillful mechanic of the human emotions to help us locate and identify the ghosts that are keeping us awake.

Asking for help is not easy for those of us who are already apprehensive about surrendering control, but it is the very best thing we can do. People do not like to hear this, but we have less control over what happens in our world than we think. But, we do have some modicum of control over how we respond to what happens in our world.

I have never tried it, but some people count sheep when they cannot sleep. If counting sheep does not help, try talking to the Shepherd.