On a recent college visit, my daughter Riley and I had the opportunity to see the juniors and seniors in the dance program perform. Riley plans to further her dance career after high school, so we enjoyed watching these talented young people move with precision and artistry. When one of the dances ended, the dancers held their poses for several seconds after the music stopped. The audience fell completely silent, and we could hear the dancers breathing loudly and rapidly, like they’d just run a race, which was essentially what they’d done. Even though I watch Riley and her friends dance a lot, sometimes I forget that dancers are athletes who exert considerable power and energy. I look at the beauty and grace of their dances and don’t always recognize their immense physical effort. Yet, in that moment when the dancers paused on stage and their breathing was heavy and strained, I realized we were all breathing the same air, but the ways in which we were breathing were very different.
I’ve had this experience before. I have adult-onset asthma, so I know what it’s like to have difficulty breathing. While my condition is usually manageable, there have been times when I didn’t feel as though I could fill my lungs with air, and when you can’t breathe, you start to panic, which only makes it worse. Because of my history with asthma over the last twenty years, I don’t like it when people say “just breathe” to try and calm others. Sometimes, just breathing is not so simple. Sometimes, just breathing in and out is a challenge. I know that my experiences are not as bad as those whose asthma is not controlled or those who’ve suffered from Covid’s effects on their lungs. We can breathe the same air but have very different experiences.
Breathing is so basic that we usually take it for granted. Until we can’t breathe, and then we feel desperate. Most of us take the basics in life for granted: having enough to eat, enough money to buy the essentials, enough love and friendship to make life meaningful. But plenty of people lack easy access to the basics, and they aren’t necessarily a world away or that different from us. We can be in the same community, the same school or business, the same room and still have completely divergent experiences. Even when we appear to have similar lives on the outside, our inside lives, mentally and emotionally, can mean we don’t share the same feelings about the exact same events. And it may not help if we tell others to just do something differently, just get over it, or just don’t worry about it.
God asks us to love one another many times throughout the Bible. Apostle Paul wrote, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love” (Romans 12:9-10). If we are to devote ourselves to each other in love, then we must make every effort to look outside of our own experiences to try and understand what others think or feel. We must understand that things that come easily to us, even the very basics, may present incredible challenges for others.
When we notice someone struggling to breathe, literally or metaphorically, we need to act in accordance with God’s instructions. Instead of giving trite advice, let us love them in ways that help alleviate their crushing burdens. We can lighten the heavy load for others and help them breathe easier.