My husband Jeremy and I recently took a drive up to Wisconsin from our home in Chicago on a spontaneous camping trip with old friends. If you’ve never been there before, the Midwest has some awesome road trip sightseeing to offer. While the major highways run north-south east-west in a cross marking the central location of the capital, Wisconsin also contains innumerable state highways that meander through tiny old towns with no stoplights and names like Reedsburg and Elroy. In between the empty main streets lined with brightly painted Victorian houses, miles and miles of open, rolling farmland dotted with picturesque red barns and whitewashed farmhouses stretch out in endless emerald.
As we took one of these “highways” in a diagonal across the state to our destination, I pointed to each farmhouse and yelled, “Let’s buy that one! I want a llama! And a pony!” Luckily, I married someone much more level-headed and realistic than myself (for all you singles out there, find a mate who won’t let you spontaneously buy a farm). Still, he would smile wistfully as each idyllic homestead passed us by.
Maybe someday. I’m bound and determined to have a llama named Frank.
We’re both country folk at heart. Our residence in the Big City came about mostly because of job and education opportunities. When we first moved into our ancient one bedroom apartment, we felt suffocated by the closeness of the concrete and brick, the lack of visible sky, the constant press and noise of people. Over two and a half years, though, the scrawny trees in the medians began to look like a forest and the sickly trampled strips of grass began to take on the properties of gardens. We stopped noticing the people and their smells and noises. We learned to honk our horns loud and long whenever anyone committed a minor traffic infraction, to elbow old ladies and children indiscriminately as we pushed our way onto crowded trains during rush hour.
Driving through Wisconsin felt like finding a world that my mind had convinced me was only a dream (Narnia, anyone?). Sky! And where were all the people? There were huge stretches of land with no people, no bus stops, no concrete. Where did they all go? Were they hiding? I actually caught myself looking behind trees at one point, at another reassuring myself that some apocalyptic event had not occurred (anyone who grew up on the Left Behind series knows how easy it is for the Rapture to come to mind).
But the further we drove, something even more astonishing came to my attention: the smells.
If you have never lived in the city, let me offer a little-known fact of existence in the land of concrete: we learn not to breathe too deeply. During the winter, the cold air sinks down in the channels created by rows of buildings, concentrating exhaust on street level. On particularly cold days, the pollution has even been known to turn the surface of the snow a dingy gray. In Chicago you rarely have the chance to breathe in this exhaust anyway, as the air is usually too bitingly cold to go outside without several scarves wrapped over nose and mouth. Otherwise your boogers freeze, which feels really, really weird.
During the summer, when the heat and humidity bake the contents of dumpsters behind innumerable restaurants serving foodstuffs from Argentina to Zimbabwe, walking down the street becomes a sort of obstacle course for your nose. You have to time your breathing so that you can make it across an alley entrance without inhaling. You must consider wind direction, current temperature, and the day of the week (garbage pickups are sporadic, so this is the most challenging aspect). After a while, it becomes second nature to take shallow, cautious breaths whenever you’re outside or have the air on in your car.
So driving through the country, I was still breathing like a city girl, following the pattern of sniff, inhale, exhale, sniff, inhale, exhale as if navigating a mine field of toxic gas. But after realizing I hadn’t picked up a whiff of week-old Ethiopian food in over an hour, I started focusing on my exploratory sniffs. What was I smelling? Was that…fresh air? Freshly cut hay? Rain on fern leaves? Even the occasional breezes from the animal pens reminded me of delightful childhood afternoons with my grandfather’s horses.
And for the first time in a long time, I was really breathing in. Deeply, with my whole diaphragm. I let my ribcage expand and I just pulled it in. In, out, in, out. No sniffs, no shallow half breaths. Real breathing.
When I started breathing so loudly that he could hear it, Jeremy looked over with concern. “Okay, I’ll get you a llama,” he said, “Just don’t have a heart attack.”
Something as simple as breathing. I hadn’t even realized that it had changed over the last year or so, that I had adapted my inhalation the same way I had adapted my previously careful driving to road rage or my fear of strangers to sitting next to a hulking transvestite on the downtown bus. I had completely changed something fundamental to my living, and I hadn’t noticed at all.
Gradually, my astonishment turned into the thought that maybe this happens to all of us more often than we even think. Maybe it’s something that not only happens to us physically, but spiritually as well.
From the time I was in middle school up until about a year ago, I lived in the shallow-breathing world of depression and an anxiety disorder. The labels sound so clinical and fancy, but really they just mean that I had lost trust in the air around me: lost trust in goodness, in beauty, in hope, in other people, in God. And so I barely lived, sick with despair, just taking in enough cautious air to keep me going.
After a while, I trained myself to live in this dark world and I stopped noticing the stench, the loneliness, the pessimism, the lack of joy, my lack of God. The world was a horrible place and God was a horrible God if I really admitted what I thought of Him, so I got by with only the smallest doses of looking outside myself, of talking to Him, of reading my Bible. Of living.
A Christian counselor convinced me that in order to regain a real life, I needed to start breathing again. Slowly at first, sniff, inhale, exhale, sniff, inhale, exhale. I made a collage of those things that used to make me happy: an old journal, a flowering garden, a galloping horse in an open field, a huge library full of ancient books. The counselor told me to look at that collage whenever I felt choked by anxiety and despair. I did, and found a whiff of hope. So I made more collages, finding beautiful things in magazines, catalogs, brochures, online, everywhere. Then I bought a camera and took my own pictures: a wrinkled old man sitting in the park on a sunny bench, a little white dog rolling in the grass, crying seagulls, crashing waves on Lake Michigan after a storm, the delicate veins in a single leaf. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
But as I began to seek out beauty and breathe it in, I still left God out of it. I thought He had abandoned me in the darkness. How could I trust Him again?
He didn’t force me. He sat beside me as we watched my life begin to bloom again, become the growing, living thing it was meant to be. And when the flowers had come up and the charred remnants of my despair had been covered over with mounds of green grass, I knew I couldn’t avoid it any longer.
So I told Him why I couldn’t trust Him, why I was so angry, so hurt. Really, it wasn’t in words so much as a long, wailing cry full of all the pain that I had held inside for so long. I poured it into His lap and He looked at it and wept with me. And when I had dumped it all out and the tears stopped I realized I was breathing deeply again in His presence for the first time in forever. In, out. In, out. Because I knew He felt my pain, mourned with me, I could trust Him again.
Fresh bread in the oven, my husband’s shaving cream, the dog napping in the sun. He was the source of all these other things all along, this God I had thought of as a stench. He was the source of all good things, and I had been breathing Him in more deeply every time I took a chance and trusted that good things might be in the air. Eventually, I was seeking Him out directly, searching His Word, praying, worshipping, trusting that I could breathe Him in as deeply as I could be filled and never be disappointed. Instead, I could actually find what I needed to live fully, something I thought impossible.
How many of us say we trust Him and yet refuse to breathe Him in deeply, breathe Him in to the depths of our souls and feel ourselves living and growing and breathing out His love and peace to others? I think that many of us live day to day breathing shallowly, not trusting that if we take a deep breath of Him, we will be filled with good things.
This is because, if we’re really honest, I think many of us secretly believe He stinks. He’s let us down, He’s left us alone. We say He is loving and good, but we really believe He is harsh, critical, unjust, unloving, incapable, impotent, ugly, uncaring, unhearing, unseeing. Deep down, we think that He’s really just as petty as all the people (parents, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives) who have hurt us: He really hates us, He lied to us in His promises, He never gives us what we need to survive. He thinks we’re too ugly to love.
We’ve learned to breathe shallowly in a world full of hurt and pain and sin, and so when it comes to God, we keep our distance. We play a spiritual obstacle course, reading our Bibles sporadically because we have to, singing the songs without feeling the words, listening to sermons we feel don’t apply to us, offering up superficial things when anyone asks if we need prayer. We say we want the Spirit, for God to fill us, to use us, but really we’re afraid of that sort of intimacy. What if He’s just like…fill in the blank with the name of someone who let you down, violated you. What if He lets me down?
There are even those of us who have surrounded ourselves with so much stink that we think that it’s normal. Despair, abuse, lying, perversion, materialism, hatred, violence, manipulation, depravity, twistedness, ugliness, darkness. Others have told us this is the way it is, that there is nothing else, and we’ve accepted that. We’ve refused to believe that God has something different, something better to offer, that there is such thing as clean, fresh air. That not only does it exist, but that we were made to live in it.
When it comes to God, are you breathing deeply? Or are you suffocating?
Trust me when I say I know what it is to choke, but that I have also come to believe that we were not created to live this way, swallowing smog. God is all things good, fresh air to a dying soul. He is what we are dying to breathe. He died so we could breathe Him in even in a world that is decaying, rotting away. He died so we could live.
Take a deep breath. In, out. In, out. Run to Him and breathe Him in as deeply as you can and you will find life, real life, again. This is what you crave. This is what you need. And take it from me, you won’t be disappointed.