Braver/Wiser: A Weekly Message of Courage and Compassion

Exhaling in Community

By Christine Slocum

"Your breath is always with you.”
—common meditation prompt

Remember when we used to breathe all over each other? Pre-pandemic, we stood behind each other in the grocery line, chit-chatted before meetings, or sat next to each other in church. There was a clear line of sight to each other’s noses, and the sounds of our voices were unobstructed by fabric. My unrestricted exhales didn’t put me out of right relationship with those around me.

The virus changed how we understood the consequences of breathing. I used to breathe without thinking. If I was breathing mindfully, it was in the context of meditation or yoga. Breath was life force, or a tool of centering oneself. Now we know: the way we take up space includes where our breath goes.

Several people wearing masks stand, in church, holding out their hands as if in prayer.

But breath is also a vector of illness. With over a half a million people deceased, and many in my community, I could not ignore the potential power I had to spread illness. I didn’t like how something so fundamental to my being could cause harm. I also couldn’t deny it.

Masking up became so normal, I felt naked in public without it. I learned to cross the street whenever I saw anyone on the sidewalk. I chose to forego unneeded interpersonal interaction. It’s been a lonely year. My own understanding of personal space aligned with the collective revision to six feet. Even after receiving the vaccine and the requisite time elapsing to immunity, my instincts to avoid other people are still very sharp. I could still harm.

I miss the innocence about how we existed in each other’s presence. I miss the ease and lack of caution. What I understood to be true—the safety I perceived—was because I did not have the complete perspective.

Committing to right relationship means being willing to revise our practices when we learn that previously accepted habits might be harmful. It’s true of the language we use and the ways we practice power. Now we know: the way we steward our breath matters. I will leave the pandemic with a better understanding of how to protect people around me from illness. May I recognize this awareness as a gift, and use it to express care for the people around me.

Prayer

May we embrace new understandings of how to be in right relationship to each other, even if we don’t like what we learn.