Listen: You Are Worthy of Sleep

Even in a pandemic.

On the latest episode of the Social Distance podcast, Tricia Hersey of the Nap Ministry joins James Hamblin and Katherine Wells to explain the importance of rest and how to get enough of it.

Listen to their conversation here:

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: Tricia, will you introduce yourself?

Tricia Hersey: My name is Tricia Hersey, and I’m the founder of the Nap Ministry, which is an organization that examines the liberating power of rest. We name sleep deprivation as a racial and social-justice issue. This project came out of my own experiences with exhaustion.

Wells: You have an undergraduate degree in public health, and you went to graduate school for divinity, so you’re interested in both the science and spiritual aspects of rest, is that right?

Hersey: Absolutely. My undergraduate degree was in community health, and I was really interested in looking at the body in a holistic way.

Wells: Jim hasn’t been sleeping for three months. He has been sleeping maybe five hours on average each night, but sometimes less. And he told me that he feels like every moment that he rests, he’s not doing something that he should be doing.

James Hamblin: I am also just consumed by lots of worry for the world generally and for specific people in it. Normally I can put that aside and go to sleep. But these are extenuating circumstances.

Wells: Jim knows the science. He knows that he’s putting his health at risk by not getting enough rest. But I can’t get him to take it seriously. He just doesn’t seem to care. I was hoping that you could help.

Hersey: It sounds like he is taking it seriously, and this is, like he said, an extenuating circumstance. I want to first uplift that I don’t think there’s any particular right or wrong way to deal with anything that’s going on right now. I always say, Take it easy on yourself. This is a slow deprogramming. It’s really about uplifting what is happening, removing those veils, and really sitting in the midst of right now. I think a lot of people are having issues with sleep right now. I’m not sleeping as well as I used to either, because I’m really worried as well about my family.

Hamblin: I don’t feel constantly exhausted in the way that I would with real insomnia. I just hit these walls where I become so exhausted that I can barely function, and then I know I can sleep. But otherwise, if I have capacity in me, I am up.

Hersey: You said something important when you said that you feel like you could be doing something. You feel like, While I'm up and while I'm alive, every moment of the day needs to be filled with me doing something to help with what’s happening. That may be a response to you being a doctor. People who go into this field have some sense of wanting to heal and help.

Hamblin: Yes, that is exactly it. This feels like a moment that I don’t want to squander, because I studied public health and went to medical school and have a lot of knowledge about this, and there’s a real problem with lack of information and lack of knowledge and lack of context here for a lot of people.

Hersey: I totally understand. A lot of my work is with people who are community organizers and movement leaders. They are on the front lines. They’re working 80 hours a week. They are planning direct action. They really feel, How can I be resting right now when the people who are causing all of this oppression in our world are not resting? That’s a true and real thing that we need to uplift before we can get to the point of giving someone a rest schedule and forcing them to follow it.

Wells: I was hoping I could just berate him into a nap. But your approach seems much wiser. What do you tell people who feel the way he does?

Hersey: I led a training with human-rights activists all over the country, and I told them that they really had to understand rest as a spiritual practice. Rest is productive. When you are resting, you are being productive. I’m trying to reframe rest and deprogram people around the concept that if you aren’t “doing something” in the classic sense, then you’re not worthy.

I want to uplift that when you’re sleeping, you are actually doing something. You’re honoring your body. You are giving your brain a moment to download new information. You’re disrupting toxic systems by reclaiming rest.

Hamblin: I’m curious about your own experience with being driven to exhaustion.

Hersey: When I first started thinking about this, I had started seminary. I was in divinity school. I had an 8:00 class. I’d be there by 6:00 in the morning, and then I wouldn’t come home until after midnight sometimes. And after that, I would be up until 3:00 in the morning studying. That was hard. And I had a 6-year-old son at the time. I was robbed while I was walking home from school with my son one day. Two of my family members died suddenly. And then right at that moment, Black Lives Matter was really heating up. And I was a community organizer and justice leader. I was dealing with being pulled to the front lines with that while I was still in school. And I was traumatized, in a way, by constantly seeing all of the murders that were happening, because everything was on video online. It was a lot of strife. And I was at a predominately white institution where there weren’t that many people who looked like me there.

The stress of all of that, combined with trying to go through a really intense, high-level graduate writing program, I just couldn’t take it. I felt like, I’m either going to just quit and just go lay on a couch, or I’m going to just go to school and try to get the attendance credit. I started sleeping all over campus. I was everywhere.

Hamblin: There should be more public spaces for people to take naps.

Hersey: That’s why I started to think about collective napping and public napping. A lot of my work as an artist is public installation: All over the country, we curate spaces for the community to rest in a safe place.

Wells: Is part of that about normalizing napping? Because napping is kind of embarrassing.

Hersey: There’s a stigma around caring for yourself. Unless it’s attached to capitalism, then it’s okay. You can pay $200 for a facial, and then you’re taking care of yourself. But if you’re caring for yourself with something as deep as sleep, which is one of our most ancient and primal needs, if you’re doing that in public, caring for your body, that’s shameful. I tie that back to capitalism and to white supremacy and these notions around not seeing humans as divine and not seeing our bodies as belonging to us. When you start to deprogram around all the systems that have us at this point of sleep deprivation, where we don’t think we are worthy of sleep.

Hamblin: That phrase you used, “worthy of sleep,” jumps out at me. I can see there’s an issue there of someone in my position not deeming themselves worthy of that time, because something we’ve talked about a lot on this show is there are a lot of people who are suffering so much more than we are. But we need to take our own needs into consideration, deem those concerns worthy, and address them.

Wells: Tricia, once you talk to people and convince them of the idea that rest is something that is okay to care about and to prioritize, what do you say? I’m interested in your idea that we can change how we think about rest or what rest looks like. That it doesn't necessarily have to be eight hours of sleep a night. What do you suggest for different ways of thinking about resting?

Hersey: I lead this back to intuition and listening to the body. I want to reimagine rest to be a slowing down, a mindfulness, a paying attention. I believe taking moments of silence is a form of rest. Taking long baths. A longer shower. Prayer, meditation, daydreaming. Doing a sun salutation in the morning. Sitting on your couch for a few minutes before you rush out to do 300 more things, giving yourself 10 minutes of intentional time listening to your body. And the time to rest is now, because it’s not a privilege; it is our right. It’s a human right.

Wells: I’ve been thinking a lot about essential workers, and I imagine a lot of people feel like rest is not even an option.

Hersey: That’s the No. 1 thing I’ve heard. People say, Oh, you do the Nap Ministry? That sounds cute and nice, but who has time to rest? I could never do that. It sounds nice, but no.

This is what I always tell them: That is a part of the brainwashing of living under toxic systems. White supremacy and capitalism have stolen not only our rest, but also our intuition. To think that in this day and age, there’s no time for you to at least take 10 minutes to reclaim rest and daydream and shut your eyes or debrief for a little bit longer before you go to shower, that is not true. That’s all false and has been told to us by systems that don’t see us as divine. Part of this rest resistance is also reclaiming your imagination and reclaiming hope, reclaiming your intuition of knowing what’s right and knowing there’s always time for you to reclaim your body as yours. Even those essential workers have 10 minutes before they take a shower in the morning and go out, or while they're in the car, before they step into a hospital. There are moments when you can integrate rest throughout your day.

Hamblin: I worry right now that, especially as jobs are so few, a lot of people are feeling even more like they have to just keep grinding. It’s going to be a dark period. I hope we emerge better for it. But this is a marathon; it’s going to go on for a year or two. And this has helped me to realize that it doesn’t help if I burn out in the first two months of it.