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Insomnia, Accidents, and the Need to be Prudent

February 10, 2014

By their very nature, accidents are random, unintended events in our lives that usually have unfortunate consequences in the form of harm, damage, or injury to property, self or others.  While these events may be random and unintended, one can often find a causal-chain that can explain why someone fell down, why a car crashed, why someone got a cut, or was burned, or suffered any of the many mishaps that happen in our lives. After an accident, we may say, “I wasn’t paying attention” or “I was distracted,” in order to make sense out of how the accident happened, but sometimes the lack of attention or distraction has another cause lurking beneath the surface, such as a preoccupation with another matter, an inability to focus, or even drowsiness at the wrong time.

One unfortunate reason for accidents is a lack of proper sleep. Saint Augustine once wrote, “Our bodies need to have sleep, because if the body doesn’t sleep a person grows faint, the body grows faint. After all, our frail body cannot sustain for long a soul alert and intent on activities. For if the soul shall have been intent a long time on active pursuits, the body being frail and earthly cannot hold and sustain her forever in an activity. And so, the body fails and falters” (Saint Augustine, On Psalm 58, PL 36.750). Alfonso Marino points out in his dissertation that there is a correlation between accidents and insomnia.  Marino writes, “Literature in the area of sleep disorders and sleep deprivation, strongly supports that as people become more tired or sleepy for whatever reason, their ability to function mentally may become impaired (Angus et.al 1985; Monk, 1991a; Monk, 1991b; Reite, Nagel & Ruddy, 1990; Thorpy, 1988)… Individuals with insomnia are reported to have vehicle accident rates three times higher than the general population (Wake Up America, 1993).”

Marino buttresses his argument concerning the relation between accidents and insomnia by noting that industrial disasters such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the grounding of the Exxon Valdez shared the common characteristics of sleep deprivation playing a role in these tragedies (Folkard & Totterdell, 1993). Because of the deleterious effects of sleep deprivation on mental acuity, doctors in internships and residency programs are now limited in the number of hours in which they are on call without proper rest.

In a passage about the need for watchfulness for the onslaught of temptations, Saint Gregory the Great also gives an apt description of the dangers that the perpetually drowsy face: “And thou shall be as one that sleepeth in the midst of the sea, and as a steersman that is lulled to rest, having let go the rudder (Prov. 23:35). For he sleeps in the midst of the sea who, placed among the temptations of this world, neglects to look out for the motions of vices that rush in upon him like impending heaps of waves. And the steersman, as it were, lets go the rudder when the mind loses the earnestness of solicitude for guiding the ship of the body. For, indeed, to let go the rudder in the sea is to leave off intentness of forethought among the storms of this life. For, if the steersman holds fast the rudder with anxious care, he now directs the ship among the billows right against them, now cleaves the assaults of the winds aslant. So, when the mind vigilantly guides the soul, it now surmounts some things and treads them down, now warily turns aside from others, so that it may both by hard exertion overcome present dangers, and by foresight gather strength against future struggle” (Book of the Pastoral Rule, Part 3, Chapter 32).

Some accidents are nearly unavoidable, but precautions can still be taken to make them less likely. What is needed is a bit of prudence, which Cicero and Saint Augustine refer to as the memory of things past, the understanding of things present, and forethought for things future, relying on the certain past and observable present to plan for the unknown future (On the Trinity, Book XIV). In other words, the knowledge that accidents have taken place by those deprived of sleep can make us careful in the present when we have not slept well and help us to plan in the future what we can and cannot do safely. Running a vacuum cleaner may be no problem, but running a chain saw could be a real risk. So, the prudent thing to do is to recognize that our insomnia may lead to accidents and try to avoid the most accident-prone tasks until we feel more refreshed. It is also possible to have someone assist us or check our work.  This might be a trusted friend, a close colleague, or even a spouse who is sympathetic to our plight. And finally, we can and should call on God for help, recalling the words of the prophet David: “My flesh and my heart fail: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever” (Psalm 73:26).

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