Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester
When I learned that I had emphysema I thought death was imminent. It took a while before I understood that emphysema is not a life-threatening disease like lung cancer. While there is no cure for emphysema, it is a condition which people can live with for many decades. The quality of that life depends on the person and how they make peace with their condition. For me Judaism once again provided the way.
After a period of depression about the state of my lungs,I settled into a deep sorrow. Breath is essential to life, and I felt that I no longer had breath.One Saturday morning I was leading services at the synagogue in Vermont of which I was lay leader at the time. There is a line near the end of the preliminary service which I had chanted innumerable times, but that Shabbat morning I understood the line in a new way. The line reads: “Nishmat kol chai t’vareich et shimcha Adonai Eloheinu – The breath of all that lives praises You, Lord our God.”
The Hebrew word “nishmat” can be translated as “breath,” but it also means “spirit.” As I chanted that line, I realized something. I still had breath! It might not be as much breath as someone whose lungs were healthy; I might have to fight for breath every now and then, but I still had breath, and I certainly had spirit! Of that I had an inexhaustible supply!
Thus I came to accept that having emphysema was not the end of life, merely another way to live that life. Emphysema is part of who I am, but it does not define me, though it might look that way to others who see me walking around inhaling supplemental oxygen.
I have breath, and each morning and evening as I meditate, I am aware of each breath and the spirit animating those breaths.
“Hope can arrive only when you recognize that there are real options and that you have genuine choices. Hope can flourish only when you believe that what you do can make a difference, that your actions can bring a future different from the present. To have hope, then, is to acquire a belief in your ability to have some control over your circumstances. You are no longer entirely at the mercy of forces outside yourself.”
Jerome Groopman, M.D. How People Prevail in the Face of Illness: The Anatomy of Hope, p. 26
Spirit – From Lat. spiritus, breathing, breath, air, life, soul. A breath of life.
A highway on the high plains of western Nebraska, a place where my spirit soars!