In defence of napping

Napping seems to be defensible only if you’re an infant, a cat, or a nana. But I am a big fan.

Partly it’s a pragmatic embrace of the reality that while I am good at getting up early, I’m not very good at going to bed early. Add to that the broken sleep that four children inevitably brings, and I often find myself needing a nap during the day. If I don’t take a nap, that nap is going to force itself on me when I sit back down at my desk after lunch.

Sometimes we’re physically weary, and sometimes it’s a weariness of the soul. I love how in 1 Kings 19 when the prophet Elijah has just had enough of it all God doesn’t tell him to pray, to push through; the instruction and the provision is to eat, then sleep, then eat some more. Sometimes you have to attend to the basic physical needs first of all. Quit being so “spiritual”, working yourself up over the big questions of why things feel so hard, and have a snack and a nap (and a snack again). He sure was worn out.

Ideally you want to avoid getting to the place where you are that worn out. A life with margin, with white space, helps safeguard you from that. Self-care is a spiritual task.

Keeping it SHORT is the key here. 8-10 minutes is my usual. Longer than 15 minutes and I feel worse when I wake up. I’m in the habit of putting the baby to bed, having a quick lunch, then stretching out on the couch with a cryptic crossword, timer set for 15 minutes, and pretty soon my eyes feel heavy. A crossword is the perfect pre-nap activity because you can transition to snoozing very easily, scrolling through Facebook does not work unless you’re already super tired.

Most people who I’ve talked to about this habit say, but I wouldn’t trust myself to get up! I get that, and yes, you do just need to apply some self-discipline on this one. I find it helps to remind myself that sleeping longer will make me feel worse, and, most importantly, I have an agreement with myself. If I can’t trust myself to get up after 10 minutes then I know I won’t be able to allow myself to nap again tomorrow. You can only spend so much of your PhD time slot napping! But once I’m up, and with a cold drink in me, I am way more alert and ready to hit the books once again.

While the practical physical benefit is a big motivation, a regular nap has become something of a spiritual practice for me.

It’s a proclamation to myself that I can take a break from the constant ticking off of my mental checklist; that there is space for my needs amidst the needs of everyone else and the obligations of work.

I was completely taken aback years ago when I read this in John Ortberg’s excellent book on the spiritual disciplines, The Life You’ve Always Wanted,

“Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take a nap.”

John Ortberg

That just didn’t fit within my work-harder, put-everyone-else’s-needs-first-to-your-detriment theology. But that wasn’t a theology the bible taught, it was something I’d projected on to it.

So here I am a regular napper – even if I’m not totally smashed, even if I could keep on going, even if there is a long list of things to do. Turns out the list can wait.


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