Waiting to Exhale

One morning this week I was sitting in the lobby at my doctor’s office because it’s Spring. Everything is blossoming and blooming, and I can’t breathe as a result. I’d love to be able to frolic through meadows of wildflowers, but it’s just not in the cards.

Anyway, in the waiting room there’s a TV that runs health-focused content. There are segments about healthy recipes and basic information about how to improve your general health. I was lost in a book, when I heard something so fascinating that I had to stop and pay attention. The segment was about asthma (which I have a mild case of) and what is actually happening during an asthma attack.

This may be common knowledge to everyone else, but it was brand new information for me. My assumption was that, during an asthma attack, the core issue is that you can’t breathe–hang with me–specifically that you can’t inhale. The airway constricts leaving the sufferer unable to breathe in the oxygen that is required to keep them, well, alive.

An asthma attack, I thought, was about not being able to inhale.

But that’s only partially true.

The real issue is that you can’t exhale. During an asthma attack it takes longer to exhale than it does to inhale, meaning the real culprit isn’t that you just can’t get a new breath; it’s that you can’t let go of an old one. Further, that breath we hold becomes toxic, because it’s been transformed into carbon dioxide–something the plants need, but something that could kill us.

I was floored by this realization, because it’s a truth that’s bigger than asthma attacks. It gets to the heart of how we live our lives in the world.

When we think about the reality that our planet can currently provide enough food to sustain ten billion people (there are currently seven billionish of us), yet there are more than 821 billion people who are chronically under nourished, we are experiencing a failure to exhale. We’ve inhaled and we are trying to hold that breath, usually out of a scarcity mindset–the fear that there isn’t enough to go around. So, what do we do? We gather and consume and try to get all we can, and our failure to exhale places more than 821 million people in an unsustainable situation.

When we believe in and talk about grace, and yet have little of it for anyone else, we are failing to exhale. Why is it that I want others to extend grace to me, but when others need grace, I am so reluctant? Like I want to make sure they deserve grace? What a contrast those two words bring when placed side by side–deserve and grace. It’s like saying something is gelatinously solid. Are we really afraid that there’s not enough grace? That it needs to be rationed?

What if our problem isn’t a lack of air, but it’s actually too much? What if our refusal to exhale is killing us and, as a result, even the people around us?

When we exhale, we aren’t just letting something go, we are also opening up space to receive another life-giving breath. When we share with those around us, we are making space for joy and transformation to occur–in us and them. When we extend grace to others we are opening ourselves to the awareness of all that we’ve received in our own lives.

May we remember that inhaling is only half of the respiratory cycle. That exhaling is just as crucial and life-giving.

May we inhale deeply with gratitude, and may we exhale generously with joy.

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