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Redeeming Night Terrors

night terrors – en


Jason Jones - published on 08/30/13

When I'm awake at night comforting my child after a night terror, I pray for the children suffering all around the world. Unfortunately, I never run out of children to pray for.

My daughter woke up screaming as if a bear had crawled through her window. I raced into the room, seized her, held her, and waited it out. I’d learned firsthand that nothing I could do would wake her up, console, or comfort her in the least. What she was suffering wasn’t a nightmare, doctors assured me; in fact, when she goes through these fits – she’s so deep asleep that her mind is blank and she wakes up in the morning remembering nothing. So all I could do was hold her, keep her safe, and suffer with her. Welcome to “night terrors,” my friends.

In Eva’s case, she doesn’t have them every night, but sometimes they will come in clusters so that three or four nights in a row, I must rush to the rescue at 3 or 4 AM, and hope that the rest of my kids can get back to sleep when it’s all over. When the night terrors first started happening, I couldn’t sleep – I’d lie there and stare at the ceiling.  First of all, it was the relief that nothing serious was happening (it always takes a second or two for my sleepy, rational brain to reassure my twisting gut that my daughter is howling with fear not because a wolf or a prowler has attacked her, but thanks to some random brain static generated by the transition into REM sleep). Then I feel relief. Then compassion, concern, and tenderness.   

After a few weeks of this, I knew there had to be a better way to handle all this – and by “better” I don’t mean something like getting some earplugs and leaving this mess to my wife. The doctors told me that this condition would pass as her brain develops and grows. So I needed a way to cope – or better yet, to transform this patch of night-time shock and awe into something useful and good. This is where Jesus comes in: Christianity, at its heart, transforms suffering into holiness. It takes that ugly toxin, and turns it into a whole family of medicines, such as empathy, patience, humility, and love. But you have to work the chemistry right, and to learn the formula, I turned to a favorite saint: Ignatius of Loyola.

It’s hard for someone like me to resist a saint like Ignatius: he started off a vain soldier, a triumphalist, renowned alike for bravery and braggadocio. He pursed the ladies of the court and chased after glory and wealth. In other words, he was a guy. If he were alive (and unconverted) today, I think that Dana White would sign Ignatius to a UFC contract.  But after a battlefield injury ruined his leg – and hence, in his eyes, his looks – he spent long months in bed reading the only books on hand: the lives of the saints. And Ignatius was converted. He took his own raw materials and turned them on the pivot of the cross: the militarist became a militant preacher; the soldier became a pauper; the womanizer pledged his faith to the Virgin Mary. You know what happened next: he started an army that would conquer the earth’s four corners for Christ, or willingly die trying.

What I learned from Ignatius was his technique called the “composition of place.” It’s the method he used to teach lay Christians to read the scriptures – not as amateur scholars or proof-texters, but rather as participants. Since the goal of the Christian life is closeness to Christ, why not use his own words and story to train your imagination and heart by his example? So Ignatius takes a scene from the New Testament, and teaches us how to “be” there in our minds: to taste the olive oil, smell the sweat, hear the crowds, feel the heat, and see the beards. Once we’ve tried to register in every sense what it might have been like to be present alongside our Lord, we tap into the emotions that Christ or the Apostles might have felt: the fear, the joy, the confusion, the hope. A few months of this sort of thing, and Christianity ceases to be an abstraction – as it too often is, even for solid believers – and becomes a part of your lived reality.

One night, as I held Eva tight to keep her from hurting herself, I tried Ignatius’ method. As my daughter screamed and tossed around, I prayed for a family I had read about earlier in the day that had been obliterated by a US drone strike.  I imagined the helplessness of the father as he must have scrambled to pull his family to safety.  I thought of the smells, the screams, the fear…

Night after night sadly I was not wanting for children to pray for:

  • The Sudanese Christians whose lips are parched at night, because the Islamists won’t let them near the wells.
  • The preborn babies sleeping safely in the womb, who tomorrow will be destroyed.
  • The Assyrian and Chaldean children who huddle in refugee camps, after our botched intervention made Iraq unsafe for Christians.
  • Those who have lost their parents to the military in Egypt, or whose churches were burned by the Islamists while the military stood by and watched.
  • The kids who were slaughtered in the chemical warfare attacks in Syria, who are victims either of the government or of the rebels (there’s still no way to tell).
  • Those children who fear to go to sleep because their abuser lives in their house…

And so on. Each night, I choose a different group of suffering innocents and try to pray for them – to feel with them – as I rock my daughter uselessly and wait.

Is this just an exercise in becoming a better person? In trying to shed some pounds off purgatory? Well, maybe, in part. But it is much more to me than a mind game or a pious exercise. You see, it’s all too easy for us as moderately prosperous Americans to see those who suffer grievously as an abstraction or set of statistics (when my child dies, it’s a tragedy; when one million foreigners die, it is a statistic). It is those others who live in backward countries with unpronounceable names who suffer like this and die. We live in an orderly and free democracy at peace, and our worst worries are probably over our pensions.

Dream on. The same dream soothed the peaceful citizens of Belgium in the summer of 1914. They never imagined that their thriving potato fields would be blasted to look like the moon, layered thickly with lost limbs and organs, and poisoned with clouds of gas. Nor did the red-cheeked, hard-working peasants of the Ukraine imagine that after three years of gruesome war a revolution would install a regime that would starve them by the millions. Nor the Armenians who prospered as traders in Ottoman Turkey. What of the thousands of Jews who served the Kaiser in his army – could one of them have been so deluded and paranoid as to foresee what the German army would be doing to Jews in thirty years?

Learning to empathize with those who suffer when human dignity is attacked is not just a matter of piety, but of preparedness. Had Europeans in 1914 been more alive to the spiritual dangers of their day – to the crackpot nationalism, the callous brutality army commanders had honed in colonial wars, the stupid self-confidence of peacetime generals and bragging politicians – then the great catastrophes of the last century might just have been avoided. And no one would ever know what a nightmare they’d missed, just as nobody celebrates the plane that did not crash. If we wake up and smell the blood that is in the air, we will gain a sense of the urgency that faces us. Even as human nature is argued away in the classroom and tinkered with in the lab, real human beings are treated as chattel in our day, and we can do something to stop it – even if all that lies within our power is to pray.

So that’s why I pray through the terrors: to stop the next terror that’s waiting in the wings.

Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood.  His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at This column is from his upcoming book (with John Zmirak), The Race to Save Our Century.

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