How to Breathe in a World Gone Mad

July 17, 2020

minute READ 

How 2020 became the year of the breath…and why it matters.

“Breath is the finest gift of nature.” ― Amit Ray

There’s nothing quite as panic-inducing as not being able to breathe.

As a child, I once fell down on an iron railing I had been balancing on. When my ribs connected with the iron railing, the air was crushed out of my lungs.

And while I didn’t do myself any lasting damage, for a few incredibly scary moments, I couldn’t breathe.

I tried to draw in a breath… but couldn’t. I tried again…and I still wasn’t able to get any air in my lungs. When I finally, finally, finally was able to take a small, shallow breath again, it gave me the sweetest relief.

While it felt like an excruciating eternity to me, the whole thing probably lasted less than half a minute.

That is to say that I can’t imagine what horrors George Floyd must have gone through in those 8 minutes and 46 seconds that Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to his neck.

I have never felt the same level of panic I experienced in the few, short moments when I suddenly couldn’t do what most of us take for granted each day…breathe.

Breath = Life

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” ― Sylvia Plath

As you continue reading this article, please, pause a moment.

Take a deep breath in and out. Let the air fill and caress your lungs…and then let the air out. A slow inhalation, followed by a slow exhalation.

How does that feel?

When I do this exercise alongside you, I notice just how connected breath is to life, to existence.

Breathing is the first independent act we take in the world. And when people die, they’re said to take their last breath.

That’s how crucial breathing is for us.

Breath is the body function most intimately connected with life. It’s more fundamental to us than eating and drinking.

Humans can go a few weeks without food, a few days without water… and only a few minutes without breath.

Without breath, you can’t have life…and life is perhaps the most fundamental of human rights (given that you can’t very well exercise your right to vote, to voice your opinion, or to marry if you’re dead).

Breath ≠ Privilege

And yet, in 2020, it appears that breath is a privilege, not a right.

While COVID-19 endangers the human ability to breathe, it doesn’t affect all of us equally. It’s most devastating for those who are already vulnerable, such as the elderly and the immunocompromised.

In the United States, it has impacted the Native and Black American population disproportionately, yet another indicator that brings the question of privilege into sharp focus.

But there’s another pandemic going on as well.

While I’m writing this, people are protesting in the streets of America, some of them wearing signs that state “I can’t breathe” to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Protestors are braving an actual pandemic that takes the breath of Black Americans away to confront a “pandemic of injustice” (as Rev. Sylvia King called it) that does the same.

In the words of Rev. Sylvia King:

“These two events, if you will, are not isolated events. They are a continuance of injustices that have been a part of our nation’s history for far too long. This is why people are protesting — because the scales of justice are dishonest, unfair and inaccurate.”

Given how many people can’t breathe right now, it feels unfair to me that I can inhale and exhale any time I want.

Breathing shouldn’t be a privilege…and yet it is.

Here’s why we need to take a deep breath, even if it’s unfair that we can and others can’t:

Breath = Relief

“The wisest one-word sentence? Breathe.” — Terri Guillemets

Anger and fear are associated with effortful breathing patterns… and both are emotions people frequently experience this year.

I don’t know anybody who watched or read about the video of George Floyd getting killed who hasn’t felt a ton of rage about it.

I also don’t know anybody who hasn’t experienced a lot of fear during this year… or worse. At least two people in my social circle have been hospitalized in the last few weeks for an anxiety-related reason.

Holding our breath is such an understandable reaction to all of this but, unfortunately, it tends to make things worse.

Alan Fogel describes it this way:

“Chronic breath holding and effortful breathing are not healthy because the muscular effort, coupled with the effects of stress on the nervous, hormonal, and immune systems, can impair both physical and psychological function.”

There are many things we’re called to do right now, depending on where we live in the world. For those of us in the US, these include wearing a mask when going to stores and engaging in a dialogue about racism.

I would like to add one more item to the list of what we should be doing in 2020: taking a breath. It’s the 2020 equivalent to putting on your own oxygen mask first.

As physician Dean Ornish put it:

“When you’re feeling stressed, your breath becomes more rapid and shallow. Take some slow, deep breaths, which will reduce your stress level almost immediately.”

While breathing won’t solve either of the two pandemics we’re facing, it will provide you a bit of relief in the midst of all that. It will also make your actions more effective because you will be in a better emotional and mental state.

In addition to being good for you, there are other reasons to breathe:

Breath = Chance

That you’re able to breathe is a gift and is a cause for celebration. As long as you do, you can change things.

You and I, we’re fortunate to be able to breathe at this point in time.

As Andrea Boydston put it:

“If you woke up breathing, congratulations! You have another chance.”

Let’s make the most of this gift we’ve been given. And let us use it responsibly.

Most of all, let us remember that we’re part of something bigger:

Breath = Interconnection

“We’re all just walking each other home.” — Ram Dass

When I consciously take a breath, I noticed that breath connects me to all of life, including all members of the human family.

In a strange way, COVID-19 has shown us our interconnectedness. This pandemic has made it apparent that we’re all in the same boat and that we need to take steps to protect each other.

In the same vein, the George Floyd protests are about universal human rights —and those are another way in which we are all connected.

Sure, interconnection is something that is harder to feel in the year of Social Distancing.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter when you read this and when you took the breath I asked you to take earlier on.

Your breath connects you to me and all of humanity.

My breath does the same.

Breathing reminds us that we’re not alone in this world.

That we are bound to each other.

That we can be each other lights in a world gone mad.

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About the author

Bere is the founder of Leader for Good. She's a former lawyer and academic who moved from Germany to the United States where she started her own business. Today, Bere loves helping her coaching clients and students connect with their passion and purpose. You can find out more about her coaching business at

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