A virus that’s attacking our lungs. George Floyd crying “I can’t breathe” over and over before being suffocated to death. Wildfire smoke choking much of the western U.S. Saharan dust clouds crossing the ocean to infiltrate the respiratory systems of the American south. Intolerably high temperatures everywhere.
We can’t breathe. Air, perhaps the one thing we took for granted — smog- and pollutant-rich though it has been for years — is eluding us. Its absence making us sick. Killing us. (As always in this country, disproportionately killing people of color.)
Several days over the last few weeks I haven’t been comfortable anywhere. Air purifiers and fans circulated what little oxygen was left to us in our small apartment with all the windows shut in 90+-degree heat. I decided that I prefer smoky air that moves to air that is thin and still. The air-conditioned car has felt life-saving.
Constantly I’ve been aware that this suffering of mine is nothing compared to that of folks driven from their homes by fire; driven out of their own cars and onto the ground to be cuffed, knelt on, shot; feeling the life drain out of them as doctors look around in vain for an available respirator.
We can’t breathe.
I went looking for what this points to, the fact that we — as a nation, a culture, an ailing, flailing, crumbling empire — can’t breathe. It wasn’t terribly hard to find.
In Chinese medicine the lungs are associated with grief, sadness and detachment.
“The lungs encompass the heart centre and the emotions. The symbolism of many of the symptoms which affect the lungs is breath holding, being in a state of emotional hurt, a sense of giving up and fear of living life fully, with the mucous which often accompanies these conditions a physical manifestation of unshed tears.”
– “Symbolism of Illness: The Lungs and Breath,” Melanie Creedy
And from a different Australian article:
“…the lungs are directly affected by emotions of sadness and grief, which constrain the organ’s feelings, and restrict its movement. Being unable to express these emotions or being overwhelmed by them causes the lungs to weaken. Our immunity goes down, and we can easily develop respiratory problems… Grief is a necessary painful process. It is a transitional period of acceptance that one part of our life has changed.”
– “Grief and The Lungs,” Olivier Lejus
In this culture, grief is a disorder. It is seen as something we need to cope with, get through, overcome. If necessary (and it is often deemed necessary) we drug ourselves so that the fullness of grief doesn’t overpower us.
This, of course, is no remedy at all. The repressed grief will hide somewhere in our bodies and express itself as something else: resentment, illness, abuse of self or other. It carries into future generations, embedding in our evolution, growing us into a detached, head-based culture that encourages being ‘strong’ in the face of grief (i.e., bottle up anything you’re feeling for fear of freaking out the kids).
It was trickier to search for physical manifestations of grief. I found “symptoms” of grief. I found ways to cope. To get through. I typed in “grief and letting go” and found advice on how to let go of grief and move on.
What is missing in all of this, I think, is the acknowledgment that grief IS letting go.
Thankfully (and not surprisingly), Jack Kornfield’s wisdom swims gently upstream from the prevailing current. He says:
“Grief is one of the heart’s natural responses to loss. When we grieve we allow ourselves to feel the truth of our pain, the measure of betrayal or tragedy in our life. By our willingness to mourn, we slowly acknowledge, integrate, and accept the truth of our losses. Sometimes the best way to let go is to grieve…
Most traditional societies offer ritual and communal support to help people move through grief and loss. We need to respect our tears. Without a wise way to grieve, we can only soldier on, armored and unfeeling, but our hearts cannot learn and grow from the sorrows of the past.”
– From his intro to “a Meditation on Grief”
What are we grieving? What are we not letting ourselves grieve? Why can’t we breathe?
To help with these questions I revisited the teachings of one of the sagest elders out there, Stephen Jenkinson. To oversimplify his vocation, Stephen educates folks about what it is to be human, sane, and mature in the face of death—and how to be useful in our dying culture.
In a 2012 interview that I revisit often, he points to all that is happening (eight years ago, mind you, not the thousand-fold version of it we’re seeing now) as the signs—not the causes—of a dying culture. The question he poses is, “If the culture is dying, then what is asked of you?” He likens it to a dying parent: in that scenario, do you try to stop it happening? Do you get as far away as you can? No.
“You approach. You’re terrified, you’re enormously distraught, you don’t know what to say or do, but still you must make your feet walk toward his/her deathbed. That’s the obligation we have if the culture itself is dying. Our job is to be a faithful witness to what is happening… Don’t turn your head, and don’t blink. Cause some day someone much younger than you is gonna need to know what it looked like in the early days when things started to turn real bad, and it was irreversible. They’ve gotta get it from somewhere, man, they’re not gonna get it from newspapers… But they might be able to believe someone in whose eye they can look while the story’s being told.”
– Extraenvironmentalist podcast, Interview: Stephen Jenkinson – Culture of Dying
We can’t breathe because this culture is dying and we don’t know how to grieve it. We haven’t been taught that. We’ve been taught to act, fight, fix, deny. We know how to long for how things used to be. We are expert at kidding ourselves that it will all go back to ‘normal,’ convincing ourselves that we actually want that.
We can’t breathe because we can’t let go of our collective biases, beliefs, attitudes and actions that have contributed to the terminal illness of this world. We won’t let go because we believe they’re the truth, and if the truth is taken away what do we have left to stand on?
We can’t breathe because early on we disconnected from our collective breath, the breath of the planet, which has done her best to impart her wisdom since the dawn of humanity. That is when she—and we—started dying.
We can’t breathe because we can’t face our grief here at the deathbed of our known way of life. Grief, if felt, if allowed, is the pathway to something new, but if we don’t let our hearts break that metamorphosis isn’t going to begin.
We can’t breathe because we don’t know what is to come. We need to know, we strain to know, we frantically grasp and rearrange the few pieces of certainty left to us to formulate a story we can swallow—one that ends happily. That lets us know that everything is OK.
We can’t breathe because we won’t surrender into grief that comes with acknowledging that it’s not OK. It won’t be again for a long time, not until we learn what we are supposed to. That may take generations.
This morning I step outside and smell smoke faintly, grateful that there is any air at all. Eye my little air purifier and tabletop fan with reverence. Amazed that even a few years ago I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever stop taking air for granted.
I feel my own directive being re-awakened. I can’t breathe, my body is in pain, and there are things I can’t ignore any longer. It is time. It is time — as I’ve known for a while — to consciously bear faithful witness to our dying world. Become a hospice worker of sorts. Keep turning toward what is happening, powerless though I am to stop it. Be as kind as I know how to be to myself and others. Face what I have done and continue to do to contribute to our hurt, our disconnection, our brokenness. Do what I can to repair it.
It’s not a passive activity, grieving. We must stay awake as the parade of emotions barges through our being. We have to say what we need to say before it isn’t possible any longer. We have to face what is broken, hidden, unresolved.
To grieve is to let go, yes, but it is also to repair what we can, remove the wreckage of what we can’t, and prepare for whatever newness that clearing makes way for.
We don’t like this year because it’s getting harder and harder not to grieve, so we’re holding on tighter and tighter. Constricting our collective breath. As with our culture’s approach almost everything, it is completely unsustainable. It is the opposite direction of healing and growth.
Sounds like giving up, I imagine, to willingly let go in this time when all there seems left to do is fight for our lives, and in a culture that knows no other way. Perhaps it is not for us to go down swinging, but rather breathless and in awe.