Take a deep breath and be grateful

It’s either a routine or an addiction, I’m not sure. But I’m in the habit of watching the evening news, religiously. It’s most likely a religious addiction since I seldom have a “high” afterwards; rather, I’m left wanting more, and better. I realize the networks do their best to leave us with one cheery down-home story at the end of each newscast, but it doesn’t compensate for what we saw and heard earlier.

Needles on the news. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a needle being prepared, or poked into someone’s arm in the last 18 months. I’d be a rich man.

And ventilators! The news doesn’t usually show you the machine at work or the body on the bed, out of respect I suppose, or perhaps to protect the mystery of this life-and-breath giving machine. I mean, it used to be when the breath left the body you were dead. Sitting at the bedside of a loved one, you knew when they were gone because their chest was no longer rising and you couldn’t hear any release. There were other signs, of course, but breath defined the point of leave-taking. Now we have a way to keep that oxygen pumping into skin and bones when the lungs have given up.

Apparently, some kind of respiratory assistance dates back to Biblical times. The more modern positive-pressure ventilators were developed in the 1940s. I’m told we are well on the road to the development of “smart” ventilators that will be electronically tuned in to all the other signals in the body and will pump the lungs appropriately. The longest anyone was on a ventilator with COVID that I could locate, and lived to tell about it, was 51 days. The normal ventilator experience during this pandemic is anywhere from a few days to three weeks. Recovery can be long and difficult with “brain fog” and other maladies.

I’ve been thinking about breath and remembering a book by an anthropologist I read some years ago. The author proposed that the word “soul” originated with the ancients, as they named the “breath” that left the body at death. His conviction was that early humans had made a physical function into a spiritual one, to support their belief or wish for an afterlife.

Regardless of what one believes about breath and a soul, it’s altogether obvious how important to human life our breath is. Breath is intimately connected to all the body functions; the lungs, the blood, the brain, the heart. It can calm or excite the body. The basketball player takes a cleansing breath or two before the free-throw. The Olympic biathlon athlete breathes deeply before shooting the target. The worker takes a deep breath before opening the boss’s door. The mother steadies her breathing before confronting the teenager once more. The meditator counts the breaths until the mind is clear and receptive.

Breath is a clear and instructive way of connecting us to the rest of our body, to others and to the larger creation. We speak to our friend on the wings of the breath. We breathe in the smell of the campfire, the dung or the ripe tomato. We hold our breath underwater. It takes breath to clear our sinus, as we blow our nose or clear our windpipe with spit. Rapid or slow, our breath keeps pace with the world around us, responding to stimuli here, there and everywhere.

There are stories of Buddhist monks so deep in meditation they can be buried alive six feet under with little air, but a meditation practice that allows them to stay there for hours on end. Such a monk once sat in my office. He could have been dead, as there was no sign of breath and his eyes were closed, deep in meditation.

The Biblical story of creation in the book of Genesis tells us that God breathed into Adam the “breath” of life. Understanding the Hebrew word ruach, this can also be translated “spirit.” God breathed into the first human the spirit of life. It’s our breath!

If you have been underwater and have water in your lungs, artificial respiration can help. If you have a bad case of COVID, ventilators and intubation can help. But we haven’t reached the point yet where we can give a body the breath of life, except as they come into this world as a newborn child. Breath is what makes us human and children of the deeper, mysterious and creative author of life. Celebrate breath and be grateful!