At the beginning of the year one of my favorite podcasters, Tom Cheetham, declared that 2020 would be “the year of breath.” Little did he know how prophetic his statement would turn out to be.
Through the course of these past eight months, we’ve seen the progression of a respiratory disease into a global pandemic, the asphyxiation of a black American at the hands of a police officer which set off a massive civil rights movement taking as one of its main slogans “I can’t breathe,” and most recently, with the push by public health authorities to encourage and even mandate the wearing of face masks in order to combat the pandemic, there is a wave of complaints, largely from conservative voices, that masks inhibit one’s ability to breath. So what is going on in this “year of breath?”
Respiration. This common word, of Latin origin, refers quite simply to the act of breathing. If we look closer, however, etymological connections become clear: there’s inspiration, conspiracy (certainly another pertinent one for the times), and of course, spirit itself, which is the root of all these different terms.
Moving away from Latin and instead to Greek we have the word pneuma, which can be variably translated as breath or spirit. This is where our word pneumonia comes from, a viral form of which is caused by the coronavirus.
While in our modern thinking we’ve come to distinguish sharply between the immediate reality of one’s breath and this concept of “spirit,” often considered as this amorphous entity divorced entirely from one’s experience and objective understanding, it is quite startling to see how consistently these terms were in fact fully united in languages as distinct as Arabic and Latin.
In light of these etymologies, which remain resonant in English where respiration and spirit are still common words in our vocabulary, the situation of 2020 takes on a new light. Of course what we are going through is “spiritual” — not here indicating something abstractly mystical or metaphysical, but quite simply relating to the breath, that most basic reality and lifeforce which sustains us as who we are, individually and collectively.
The crises we are experiencing are spiritual, regardless of whether or not we are able to recognize the symbolism deeply embedded in our language. When the coronavirus attacks the lungs of our fellow human beings, we enter into an explicitly spiritual struggle with nature, one which has already been ongoing in various implicit ways for quite some time — think climate change, but also trans issues, where so often the discussion is framed in terms of biological nature. Here too, note the impulse to find evidence that this coronavirus was in fact synthetic — a creation of man rather than of nature. The fact that we are in a spiritual struggle with nature (and here I do not mean to moralize but simply to point out that our collective human imaginings of the natural world are breaking down, becoming monstrous, and simply failing us in our actual encounters with nature) is a hard pill to swallow, and this prompts much conspiratorial thinking.
Next we have George Floyd and his gruesome murder at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. While being asphyxiated by Chauvin’s choke hold, George protested that he could not breathe, and despite this plea, Chauvin kept up the pressure, eventually leading to fatality.
These words — “I can’t breathe” — went on to become larger than life in the ensuing protests. Walk around any major city and you will probably see this phrase on display, both as hasty graffiti and evocative street art. “I can’t breathe” has its literal meaning, of course, but behind that is its more expansive meaning, which is precisely what allowed this phrase to gain so much traction. Not being able to breathe is claustrophobia, the inability to move around and live; it is the squeezing together of the masses described by Arendt in her work on totalitarianism. It is the situation where the spiritual has become impossible.
A crowd chanting this phrase is a people longing for the genuinely spiritual, the ability to breathe freely and to breathe life into new possibilities not yet actualized. It is the longing to inspire and to be inspired — a longing which has for too long been nothing but a long shot for black Americans, as well as other members of this nation who’ve faced a history of undue neglect.
And finally, we have the issue of face masks. The spiritual significance of the veil aside — something long recognized by Islamic thinkers and more recently by contemporary Western philosophers, Heidegger chief among them — we may be attempted to psychologize the issue, even if we are able to escape the trap of politicizing it. But this too returns us to the spiritual, the Greek word psykhē itself being another one of these terms meaning precisely breath-spirit. The mask debate is a weighing of spiritual sacrifices — should you inhibit your breath voluntarily in order to reduce the risk of an involuntary loss of your spirit as a result of the virus? Here we run right up against the inability of our culture to successfully navigate a space between science and religion.
Scientifically, we know the masks we are wearing actually do not impact the ability to breathe in the case of healthy individuals, but this fact does not in fact address the spiritual, and when people are unable to discern that their issue is actually not one of the literal breath but of the spirit, well this is exactly another case where conspiracy sneaks in again under the guise of conscience.
Certainly the sudden necessity to wear a mask is startling and strange, especially in an era where authority and expertise are often so far removed from the individual and everyday life. So the psycho-spiritual reaction against this is at the very least comprehensible. But it is not reasonable and nor is it necessary. We’ve lost sight of this unity of spirit-breath, and through this divorce it’s become increasingly difficult to have a genuine discussion, where some people can do nothing but gesture at what they take to be the self-evident nature of evidence and others are only able to speak of the spiritual threat of tyranny or some other amorphous boogeyman.
Either way, we are always already in the psycho-spiritual domain, so don’t hold your breath that the situation will improve without due care. Speech itself is breath, a very creative, spiritual form of breathing, and one where our life becomes the most alive. Perhaps returning to a reverence towards speech is a good place to start — a reverence which acknowledges one’s own speech and that of others as spiritual.
Yes, reverence would be a good thing. Reverence for nature, reverence for the struggles of others, reverence for speech and truth and all these other good things human beings have been thinking about for thousands of years. When we are able to see the spiritual not as some far off, transcendent idea but as basic and immediate as one’s own breath, this kind of reverence is only a natural response. I don’t think there can be any kind of prescription to these various manifestations of spiritual struggle in the year of breath, though of course exploring new ideas and finding new evidence is important, but even this is only genuinely impactful if it is acknowledged to be spiritual—as close to our human life as breath itself.
I can’t tell you how to breathe, how to be spiritual, but we can all at least strive to inspire each other. Our biosphere is perhaps the greatest symbol for this process, where different forms of breath are exchanged by the myriad creatures of the world to both sustain life and birth new forms. This pervasive inspiration is itself something with which we are already struggling with, as mentioned, so we can’t simply hope for some natural inspiration to bubble up from beneath us or be sent to us from on high — the respiritualization of the world, the respiration of the world is simply on us.
Just take a deep breath.
And start wherever you can.
Tom Cheetham’s podcast: As Variously As Possible