We hear a great deal about breathing these days. Those who contract Covid-19 often speak of having difficulty catching a breath. Some end up needing the assistance of a ventilator just to send oxygen into their lungs. We watched in horror as George Floyd pleaded for his mother’s help as he struggled to breathe under the constricting knee of a police officer. Each day lovely images appear on Facebook under the title Just Breathe. Sometimes we become almost breathless in our debates with one another over the coming presidential election.
One thing for certain is that calming our souls and drawing deep breaths of oxygen into our lungs is good for both our physical and mental health. Sadly we often take this simple act for granted and sometimes we even put ourselves into a harmful state by neglecting to take the very measures that will ensure that we are modulating this life giving gift.
Of late we have politicized breathing on many different levels. Some follow the guidelines of wearing masks, keeping distances and staying away from crowded places in an attempt to save themselves and others from contracting Covid-19. Others see such actions as an assault on their individual freedoms, insisting that they owe nothing to others and should not have to endure the discomfort and indignity of wearing a covering over their mouths. Many saw the death of George Floyd as a clear indication of the level of disregard for the lives of our Black citizens while others saw it only as an excuse for violence and looting. We engage in debates that often become so heated and personally offensive that we literally find ourselves gasping for calm.
I remember presidential elections from as far back as the year that Dwight Eisenhower was running for that office. I was a very young girl back then who knew little or nothing about the issues but I had heard the slogan I like Ike and I was drawn to the idea of supporting the general who in my mind had helped to save the world. I remember riding my bicycle around the neighborhood with my friend, Lynda, shouting I like Ike to no one in particular. The only other memory of that campaign is the anger that I felt when political convention coverage preempted The Mickey Mouse Club. Nonetheless I was thrilled when Eisenhower won without ever really knowing what party he represented or what ideas he espoused.
The next time I recall a presidential election was when John Kennedy ran for that office. I was not yet a teen but I had a great deal of interest in that contest mostly because Kennedy was a Catholic like me and I thought he was quite handsome. I also felt that his wife was quite lovely and would grace the White House well. I knew little of his actual politics until he was already acting as our Commander in Chief and the Cuban missile crisis ensued. I thought he handled that incident well and I was inspired by his speeches, his support for the space program and his smile.
I had much more skin in the game when Lyndon Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater. By then I had studied the issues and realized that I leaned more toward Johnson’s thinking. Mostly though my motivations were rather shallow. I wanted someone from Texas to be in charge of managing the country. I felt a certain obligation to demonstrate loyalty to a fellow Texan even as I disagreed with many of his ideas.
Over the years I became more and more attuned to what each presidential candidate believed. I never found someone who perfectly fit my own philosophies nor did I agree implicitly with one party. For that reason I remained staunchly independent and voted based on hopes that my choices would be leaders who worked for all of the people all of the time. I went back and forth between Republicans and Democrats over the years attempting to determine who approximated the greatest number of my beliefs. As I matured I realized that every single candidate who ran for president was flawed in one way or another so my vote became more and more of a selection of the lesser of two evils or, to be more positive, the one who seemed more likely to be a good shepherd of democracy.
I won some and lost some. From time to time I voted differently from my husband and other relatives and friends. There were occasions when I regretted my choices or came to realize the value of a president for whom I had not voted. Above all I greatly appreciated that I lived in a country where I was free to openly agree to disagree and still keep my relationships with my fellow citizens strong and loving. We all seemed to be alike in our earnest desire to keep our nation strong even when we differed in how to achieve that goal. There was a kind of mutual respect that we saw in the friendships of both political allies and those who battled one another. It was not just okay for us to support divergent ideas but actually something that we all seemed to know was necessary for the health and continuation of our political system.
I do not know the exact moment when things began to change. I suspect that the roots may have found a hold in the atmosphere of Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks. They festered like a virus until they raged again during Bill Clinton’s time in office. The great downfall from grace came with the hanging chads of the 2000 election and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. A kind of hysteria overtook politics and became louder and more filled with suspicions and hoaxes and anger than it had been in decades. Political discussions were polluted with demeaning language and anger. People began to become evangelists for their specific issues, preaching a kind of doomsday scenario for the future of our country if we did not join them in their crusade.
Then there was Donald J. Trump who took the populist idea of preying on fears to a level not seen for more than fifty years. He spoke with a venomous passion of foreign and domestic enemies. He hearkened to a time that may or may not have actually ever existed. He insulted those who disagreed with him in language that we had never seen a president use so publicly. He was a street fighter who appealed to our lesser instincts. He demanded loyalty from his followers and as he gained more and more power even members of his own political party who spoke against some of his actions became victims of his bombast. His supporters explained away his flaws and elevated him to a level of adoration unseen during my lifetime.
Now we cannot seem to simply express our own feelings about various issues without fear of having someone argue with us, put down our ideas, sometimes even reject us. Friendships are lost. Families are divided. We feel as though we cannot breathe in the toxic atmosphere.
It does not and should not be that way. Each of us should be free to choose a political stance and still maintain close and loving feelings for those who have decided otherwise. We should not be turning each other into opponents nor should we be judgmental or self righteous. Why are we making people so anxious that they feel as though they are gasping for breath? Why can’t we simply accept other points of view and maybe even learn from them?
The real danger in our country is not from Russians or Chinese but from ourselves. We have interjected far too much emotion and not nearly enough rationality into our discourse. We have forgotten the ideals upon which our country was somewhat imperfectly founded. We can be better than we have most recently been. We can sit quietly and discuss our beliefs like my father and grandfather often did, like my mother-in-law and I used to do. Let’s get back to dignity and respect. Let’s demonstrate empathy. Let’s all just breathe.