It doesn;t happen every night, but most nights it does. I’m talking about the sudden jolt that strikes just when I am dropping off to sleep. Sometimes my body experiences little involuntary twitches in those early minutes of bed. Most of the time, though, I feel a huge muscle spasm abruptly halt the downshifting of gears that has brought me right to the edge of relaxing sleep. A loud guttural gasp usually accompanies the jolt. So does a racing heartbeat. Just when I thought I was in never-never land, I’m suddenly wide-awake.
Perhaps you’ve experienced this same unnerving body reflex. Or, if you’re a late night reader next to a sleeping mate, you’ve been party to the same, suddenly dropping your book as if someone just hit you with a stun gun. The recovery period, especially the calming of nerves, takes a minute or two.
In my case, that jolt springs from the feeling of a fall. Not falling asleep but falling from something else. Falling from someone else’s favor? From grace? From my bicycle? From some make-believe pedestal? From the extension ladder while cleaning the gutters? I don’t know. But my brain gets confused and tells me that I’m falling. That’s when my arms and legs jerk into action to prevent the fall.
Sleep scientists, it turns out, have a name for these odd reflexes. They call them hypnic jerks. These jerks occur as our nervous system slows down for the day, or tries to slow down. Our muscles know they need to transition into a relaxed mode, but our brain keeps sending the wrong signal, shouting instead, Not yet! Your body isn’t quite ready yet.
My brain sends that signal because, I’m quite sure, I haven’t convinced myself that the day has fully concluded. There is more living to do.
I cannot be the only creature in the world who would love to receive the gift of one more hour each day. Just one more hour, Lord. What’s wrong with a 25-hour day? If you could figure out the planet-earth-sun rotation thing, which must be a small adjustment given your capacity, it can’t hurt one iota to add 60 minutes to a day. Okay, agreed then. I can compromise. How about 30 minutes?
There’s too much excitement on some days to go right to sleep. All kinds of encounters rattle around my head at bedtime. The mom who told me that her autistic son was a groomsmen in his brother’s wedding recently, and was so proud of his accomplishment that he kept walking around the reception saying, I did it. I did it. The 28-year old who is about to experience her first airplane flight. She’s taking a trip to Florida, paid for from the savings she accumulated in an envelope. The older gentleman who summoned the courage to phone two days ago, and come in and visit, all for the sake of plotting the tough moves he knows he needs to make to beat his drinking problem.
This exciting human stuff happens all the time, and it makes me want to avoid falling asleep too soon. Admittedly, there are less thrilling scraps of concern that take up too much lobe space in my brain. Like missed opportunities and failed efforts attributable to no one but me. Or deadlines. Deadlines will send anyone’s hypnic jerk needle flying.
There is one other possibility for these jolting muscle spasms that happen just when I am relaxing into sleep. It could be that something deep down in my psyche is informing me that I missed the mark spiritually—that I was way off. Another day has just concluded, and I spent more energy on my own desires than in making space in my life for the Lord.
The psalmist seems familiar with this experience. I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling-place for the Mighty One of Jacob (Psalm 132:4). A 25-hour day wouldn’t have helped him much, and I’m beginning to realize that it won’t help me either.