JOY SYLVESTER-JOHNSON: Breathe

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Just one moment—that’s what I asked for.

I wished for just one moment without the political cacophony, without the whining and complaining, without the guilt and shame and anger, grief and fear.

And then my wish came true.

It came in a reminder from a friend.

He said, “Did you know whenever we breathe we are sharing breath with 7.8 billion other people from all over the world.”

And in that instant, I breathed deeply—and then I smiled.

I was breathing the same air as my seven grandchildren. I shared my breath with Gary who lives across the street and with my friends around the world: Phuong An in Ho Chi Min City, my friend Hera in Indonesia, my friend Thuy in Hanoi, my friend Adlah Alsayyed in the Palestinian Territories and Linlin in Thailand.

And then I remembered all the people in China and Panama and Amsterdam I had seen. We too were sharing the same breath. I thought about the thousands of people I passed in the Moscow airport, the congregation I met in the little Pentecostal church in Cuba, the students in the Mercy Care Academy in Nairobi. And then I remembered all the people I have zoomed with over the past six months.

Each one of these memories deepened my smile and encouraged me to breathe again and again and again. Breathing became a version of communion with a shared breath instead of a shared cup.

And then it stopped.

I remembered the fear I felt in Charlottesville surrounded by an army of people carrying weapons and yelling obscenities, the horror I felt when watching videos from Milwaukee, Kenosha and Louisville as people were murdered. The hate mongers, the predators, the sophisticated and powerful who caused genocide with the stroke of a pen, I was sharing breath with all those people too. My smile faded as I realized the shared communion I had felt only moments before included racists, murders and people so hungry for money and power they would do anything to keep it.

I shared the air with all of them, their breath and my breath mingled and became one; the generous and the greedy, the courageous and the cowards, the honorable and the horrific, the awesome and the abhorrent. I was sharing this breath with each and everyone.

I paused and for a moment tried not to breathe.

I was at first defiant, then slightly uncomfortable and then it became a real struggle. Finally, I gasped as air filled my mouth and nose. I could not will myself to stop breathing.

Breathing is one of those involuntary actions I usually do without having to think about it. Except when I do. The one time it’s difficult for me to breathe normally is when the doctor says, “Now just breathe normally.”

When I am conscious of breathing it makes it harder—more labored.

I know I must breathe to live. And now when I breathe I know I am breathing the same air as every other human being in the world.

As I continued to think about breathing, I was reminded that I share this breath with every animal. I remembered that all the plants aided me in the breathing process. I remembered that the scripture said it was when God breathed into the first humans, only then, did they become “living souls.”

I wished for another moment without conflict. And it was granted when I realized I was not alone in my breathing. God, who created breathing, was sustaining it. My fear about breathing with every person on earth was replaced with hope for every person on earth.

Lord, as I breathe let me remember You love them all. I want to love them too. As I share this breath with all of them let Your Love overcome my reticence. When I try to withhold my love (which is the Love You loaned me when You breathed into me) remind me it will be me who struggles. Let me love fully, naturally, indiscriminately — like You do.

Only Your Love can create the moments I need in order to keep breathing.

Joy Sylvester Johnson

Joy Sylvester-Johnson