A reflection by Anne Stewart
In the creation story we are told that God first breathed into his creation and gave things
life. That act of passing life-giving breath seems so small and simple, yet, every living
creature starts with a first breath. Later in the Biblical story, the newly resurrected Jesus
breathed on his disciples and they received the Holy Spirit. A lot can happen with a breath.
A lot can happen when you can’t get a breath too. Breath matters!
I have been thinking quite a bit lately about this breathing thing. I think it has been
preoccupying me because it feels as though the act of ‘taking a breath’ is under attack at
present. I wonder if we have been taking breathing for granted without really
understanding the gift that it is. Here’s what I mean by under attack: we have a virus
indiscriminatingly sweeping the world, taking lives and decimating livelihoods, by literally
taking breath away. The primary organ the virus attacks is the lungs, denying us the air we
need, to keep us alive. As if that wasn’t enough for us to handle, we have another sickness
that has lain deep within our societies eating away at how we relate with one another. This
sickness recently manifested in the brutal taking the breath away from a man called George
Floyd. A white policeman, watched by others, who did nothing to stop him, rested his
weight on the neck of a black man, without considering that a black life mattered enough to
take the pressure off even when he heard him pleading, “I can’t breathe”.
After our daughter Hana had her son Finn, she explained to me how the lungs change in
their function as a baby is born. It’s extraordinary. Before birth, the baby’s lungs are full of
fluid and are not inflated. Once the baby takes the first breath, the fluid drains, or is
absorbed from the respiratory system, and the lungs inflate and begin working on their
own, moving oxygen into the bloodstream, and removing carbon dioxide by breathing out.
That’s why they used to smack their bottoms, to make them take that first gasp. I think
they have other methods these days! That first breath, that moment when the lungs
change their function and independent life is kicked off, how precious is that!
Sometimes we talk about ‘having our breath taken away’. What do we mean by that? I
consulted the dictionary on this and this is what I discovered.
A literal meaning is: To cause someone to be out of breath due to a shock or hard exercise.
Running this fast takes my breath away.
A figurative meaning is:
to overwhelm someone with beauty or grandeur; to surprise or astound someone.
Ann looked so beautiful that she took my breath away.
Truly, that was what it said! The Ann was spelt wrong but I am willing to overlook that this one time!
Another dictionary described it as: ‘to put into a state of awe or shock’. I imagine the
disciples had their breath taken away, in this manner, when they encountered Jesus post resurrection. Isn’t it fascinating that something, a surprise or fright, or recognising something beautiful, can have that physical reaction in us, just the same as running too fast
or climbing too many steps?
But having the breath squeezed out of us, as George Floyd experienced, or suffering an
illness that won’t let us draw enough oxygen into our system to sustain life, which in time
may lead to multiple organ failure, or pollution so thick that the lungs can’t function – these
are different forms of taking our breath away. What’s happening in our world that is so
compromising our ability to draw these all-important breaths?
George Floyd’s story also took my breath away recently. While I knew he wasn’t the first to
be treated badly because of his skin colour, I was shocked to discover how long the list is. It
was a lynching – no, not with a noose, but the weight on the neck provided the same result as a lynching.
Those of us living comfortable respectable and respectful lives have to work especially hard
to even begin to understand anything of what it is like to be treated so differently because
of genetics we have no control over. It seems that the understanding that ‘different’ is
therefore ‘inferior’ runs so deep in some places that even the laws of the land can support
and uphold such prejudice. It’s harder for us to see because it’s something most of us have
never encountered. A quote I learned a long, long time ago in school comes to mind here.
It’s from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, where Atticus Finch says, “You never really
know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”
In 2001, singer Bruce Springsteen wrote a song that has resonated with me for a long time
but it has especially haunted me since George Floyd was killed. The song is called American
Skin (41 Shots). It was inspired by the police shooting death of Amadou Diallo. Diallo was a
young Guinean immigrant who police mistook for a rape suspect from a year before. When
they encountered him there were no questions asked, instead they shot him 41 times,
thereby removing any chance of establishing his guilt, or innocence. The four officers who
did this were charged with second-degree murder and were all acquitted. The system
legitimates this way of treating some people! It’s harder to imagine an acquittal had it
been four black policemen who shot a white chap 41 times, before his innocence, or guilt,
was established. When the Springsteen song was released it led to some controversy in
New York City, where the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association called for a boycott of
Springsteen’s shows. Springsteen has always been viewed as a man of the people, and had
been generally loved by the police community, until that song.
That song talks about a mother preparing her son for school and coaching him on how he
should be when the police stop him.
You may like to listen to a piece of it, there are subtitles in case you have trouble hearing the words.
41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
She says, now on these streets Charles
You got to understand the rules
Promise me if an officer stops, you’ll always be polite
Never ever run away and promise mama you’ll keep your hands in sight
Cause is it a gun?
Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet?
This is your life
It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin
I wonder what you were told when you were setting off for school? Have you got your PE
gear, your lunch, don’t talk to strangers, come straight home after school? Can you really
imagine what it would be like to have to prepare your child in how to not get shot by the
very people you try and teach them are there to protect them? It’s almost unthinkable,
isn’t it? So much so, that we can even dismiss it as something that could ‘only happen in
America’. This way we can carry on as we were, ‘because it’s not like that here’. For the
most part we do live in an easier place, yet, far too often, I hear about situations right here
in Christchurch where children of colour are treated differently. Watched accusingly,
before anything happens, in a way a white child seldom is watched. How did this ever start,
this deep conviction that skin colour could determine the value of a life?
Take a deep breath, we say. We say this to mean wait, pause stop, have a think. But what
if we have a society that makes it harder for some among us simply because of a bias against their skin colour?
What if you can’t get any breath because someone is leaning on your airway, blocking it,
cutting the air off? Or your lungs are so inflamed by pockets of fluid that a virus has
created, that they can’t take any more breath in. Or the air is so thick with pollution it can’t
get through and into your lungs. What’s going on, here? Look at all these things that are choking us?
I wonder what we need to be learning here, what’s being revealed about how we live?
Whatever is happening, we need to be listening and reflecting so we can do something
about how we are. One thing is certain, we can’t go on as we were. If I learned anything
from the lockdown experience, it was around recognising what really matters in my life. I
recognise too the losses from this time and am not wanting to undervalue the pain
experienced by the loss of life, or income, or travel opportunities. But much was revealed
in that time when the whole world stopped. I have heard retired people say that they were
forced to confront retirement as it might have been intended, and it was ok. I have heard
‘almost’ retired people say that they no longer fear it, because they had a taste and found
that they could do it. I have heard parents’ comment that before the lockdown they just
couldn’t see the madness they were embroiled in, in keeping up with their children’s after
school activities, until it all stopped and they found joy in simply being together. Personally,
I loved how it felt when everything stopped. The quiet, the stillness (it was a lovely autumn
season) and, despite still working and doing what needed to be done, there was a marked
reduction in the burden of deadlines. We walked every day (and have seldom managed
that since), we cooked all our meals and loved it, and having the time to think about and
plan our meals was wonderful. We read more and watched some great Netflix series. We
tidied, decluttered (you can hardly tell again already!), and gardened. We noticed we had
more money in the bank and no car costs. These are just some of the things we noticed
and feel the need to learn from. The trouble is, these old bad habits were well formed, and
changing them requires we stand against what has become normal in our society. We have
to keep taking those deep breaths, I think, and keep thinking about why we are doing what
we are doing, and keep questioning whether this or that is still working for us. Are there
better ways we could be living, shopping, eating? What can we let go of? What really matters?
How often do we take a deep breath and appreciate, really appreciate, the air we breathe?
How often do we savour the food we taste, and smell the flowers we rush past? When was
the last time we listened to a child, laughed with a friend, hugged someone – just because?
It is true that the best things in life are free, but we are often too distracted, or too busy to
see the simple treasures of life right in front of us. After lockdown, I began to understand
why being at our place at Totara Valley is so important to me. Maybe it’s because I am a bit
of a country girl, but there in that spacious uncluttered countryside, I can breathe. I think
it’s about the weight of responsibility I might feel in my other life here, lifting, like a weight
being lifted from my back and feeling the air flow and fill my lungs. I really need to do this
now and then to be human!
As we reorient ourselves into our new world, we know that some things have to change
because the old normal wasn’t right. We have been able to stop and see some things more
clearly and recognise that many of the things we have taken for granted because they have
always been this way, aren’t ok at all. It’s not ok to keep living as we have been, when we
know that many of those old ways are wrecking the future of life on this planet. It’s not ok
to treat any human as inhuman, for any reason. It’s not ok to play Russian roulette with the
health of others, because we want to put our individual desires first. We had to pull back –
we have to pull back.
We who still have the luxury of breath – need to use it well. We need to show our gratitude
by doing what we can for those who can’t get a breath. The vulnerable, whether through
age or illness, or because they have been told that their breath does not matter. The
powerful who are sucking the life out of our world by plundering resources to enable
lifestyles beyond what anyone needs.
God first breathed life and gave life. Jesus breathed his life on his followers and they
received the Holy Spirit. Every breath matters!