How To Breathe

It took me 75 years to find contentment,” she said, glancing around the table. We were listening, our pens ready to write wisdom.

“How did you finally find it?” our table leader asked.

My friend, who is 77 years old, shrugged her shoulders like someone who has decided on this watermelon over that watermelon at the supermarket — and answered:

“I gave up my right to understand.”

It wasn’t that she had given up her right to possess this or that thing, this circumstance or that bank account, this physical health or that material advantage. It had nothing to do with getting something she wanted at all.

A few weeks ago, I was stricken by a sudden, shooting pain through my neck into my right shoulder. I could barely turn my head; it was life-by-Advil. After a couple trips to a very excellent chiropractor, the verdict was in: I was BREATHING wrong.

Did you know the human body carries itself around bearing the weight of a small car in metric tons of atmosphere? “That’s a lot of pressure on the human body,” said my doctor, even for athletes and people with titanium bolted into their joints. Of which I am neither.

But it wasn’t the ton of weight bearing down upon me that caused the excruciating pain; it was just the simple act of breathing. I was doing it wrong. I was tensing up my throat muscles. My THROAT. Instead of using my diaphragm, the thing designed to breathe, I was relying on muscles that were never meant to work that way. After a few days of very simple breathing exercises—and intense deep-tissue massage—my pain was completely gone.

I think we do the same thing with our spiritual muscles. We use soul-strength we were never meant to use just trying to understand.

We think:

I can live without X if I can JUST SEE its grander purpose in Y.

If I could JUST SEE, understand, and comprehend this deficit, then I could relax in that surplus.

We strain to JUST SEE, squinting our tired eyes. We have the weight of the world bearing down on us and we try to understand it, but our spirits don’t have the structural integrity. Pain explodes.

I think when the apostle Paul says in Philippians 4 that he has “learned the secret to being content in any and every situation,” he has discovered what my friend Carolyn is coming upon herself, and what my body is coming upon with my new way of breathing. He was content not because he wasn’t in need or under pressure. It was just that he let that be the end. He didn’t take it the step further, the step beyond trust, the step of seeking rationale. He had given up and relaxed, the way you relax when you’re talking with a friend and suddenly the present moment—the wine, the conversation, the laughter—is most important. Paul’s secret was Jesus himself, the presence (and power) of a person he trusted more than he trusted his own ideas about a life that makes sense.

I have a hard time with this, especially around Thanksgiving. Sure, I can make my list of things for which I’m grateful. Can’t we all? But I struggle to live a truly contented life as someone who’s not only thankful—but truly relaxed in my Right Now. Knowing Christ: that’s the key, apparently. Paul thought so: “I consider everything as loss compared to the possession of the priceless privilege—the overwhelming preciousness, the surpassing worth and supreme advantage—of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:8, AMP)

Maybe here’s the problem with JUST SEEING the reason why I lost that baby or lost that job or lost that marriage or lost my mind: the reason might not be good enough—for me. Even if I understood. If I don’t already know and trust Christ deeply, even the reasons themselves could perhaps be more frightening than the original thing; cruel and unusual at worst and unsatisfying at best. We might not have the muscles yet to bear up under those reasons. Yet.

But Jesus? He’s given us the skeletal structure and muscular overlay to know him right here, right now. He’s available, even when explanations are not. My soul, with its rivets and angles and supporting beams, was designed to know him, engineered to interact with him, fashioned to experience him. Not someday, but today, in all its fullness.

It’s a secret worth telling.

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