The Air We Breathe

Any medical practitioner worth his salt knows the ABC’s of resuscitation: airway, breathing, circulation. When approaching the victim, first open the airway; listen for breathing; check the pulse. Even if the heart is contracting, pumping blood to the body’s vital organs, it won’t do much good unless that blood has been oxygenated in the lungs. Breathing is vital to sustain life processes in the body.

The ancients equated breathing with life itself. The Greek root for wind or breath—pneuma—surfaces in our modern vocabulary in words such as “pneumatic” and “pneumonia.” Pneuma also denoted spirit. When you breathed your last, your spirit departed from the body; with that final breath, you expired. Our customary “Bless you!”—said to another person who has just sneezed—stems from the old idea that the spirit temporarily leaves the body during the act of sneezing, and it is necessary to cover the soul from a potential invasion by an evil spirit in the meantime.

Breath is also the vehicle through which we communicate with each other in speech. Exhaled air resonates over the vocal chords to create sounds. These spoken words transmit our thoughts, emotions and ideas. Without breathing—inhalation and exhalation—speech itself would not be possible.

Again, in the ancient economy, pneuma—wind or spirit—transmitted the spoken word. When received by another person, words were incorporated into the psyche or soul. Depending upon the individual’s response, you might see a change in attitude or behavior. The power of speech to teach, persuade or motivate others was recognized early on. Rhetoric was revered as one of the most important subjects in the ancient liberal arts curriculum. The ability to speak well in public enhanced one’s power and influence in the polity.

We have witnessed the deterioration of such standards within our lifetime. Gone is the eloquence of public discourse; words are broadcast like seeds sown haphazardly. Small wonder that many times we fail to understand what our fellow human beings are talking about.

Listening also is a skill that has fallen by the wayside. The ability to read—for comprehension or for pleasure—is in a state of decline as well. In short, we in western society have developed a communication problem—and few of us seem to be paying attention.

I cherish words too much to see them batted about like badminton birdies. It’s high time we got back to our roots—and theirs. Perhaps then we could finally begin to communicate with one another: spirit to spirit, soul to soul.

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