I work in a hospital. As a chaplain, I am in a unique position to see people of all ages who struggle with their health. I also see much more. I see people who struggle with relationships, finances, self-esteem, self-love, direction, and discipline to take care of themselves. I see people who struggle with the hope that their lives will ever change for the better.
Most weeks, I stand with families who grieve the loss of life. A family might have lost a baby that never had a chance to run and play or grieve the loss of someone that lived a century.
Either way, I am aware of the words of the Psalmist: “(We are) like a breath; (our) days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4).
Since breathing is a part of our autonomic nervous system, we don’t have to think about it until we have trouble catching our breath. Most of us panic if we can’t breathe. That’s when we are reminded that breathing equals life.
We also think about it when loved ones are close to death. We watch as they struggle to breathe. We watch the rising and the falling of the chest. We watch the monitors. We listen for every breath until they take one last one.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master said that every breath is a small birth and death. (Pema Chodon – Relaxing With Impermanence – YouTube)
When you think about it like that, every breath is a rehearsal for dying but every breath is also a reminder that we should be living and not just existing. A lot of people are breathing, but they are not living. They are alive, but they are just existing.
Since our breath is always with us, there is great value in using our breath to pause and reflect on whether we are living or just existing.
Scientific research has shown that there is value in pausing and focusing on our breath in a mindful, reflective way. Many people do this in meditation or when they practice mindfulness.
Practicing mindfulness is one way to stop existing and start living.
What is the difference between living and existing?
People who exist are undisciplined and live for immediate pleasure and gratification.
People who live understand that there is wisdom is in moderation, that people are rewarded for delayed gratification, and a disciplined life yields great dividends.
People who exist have surrendered to the belief that they no longer have choices but must give in to the tragedies that have befallen them.
People who live know that no one is guaranteed that life will be free from suffering. Yet even a person that is suffering can live. Even in suffering a person can find meaning and purpose.
People who live do so with an understanding that despite what life takes away, we are always left with a choice of how we will respond. While life does take away, it also gives unexpectedly, too.
People who exist build a life that revolves around themselves. Those who exist are selfish and narcissistic.
Many people that live discover a Higher Power guiding and directing them and they learn to love others and not just themselves.
Christians live by two Great Commandments given by Jesus: to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and they learn to love their neighbor as they love themselves. (Matthew 22:37-39)
Those who live are filled with generosity, forgiveness, and compassion. They learn to have healthy self-love which helps them to turn away from self-destructive patterns of shame, co-dependency, and guilt.
Healthy self-love can help people develop a better pattern of self-care, like exercise and good eating habits, and less destructive habits created by body-shaming that so many people have.
One study about body images involving Disney movies found that 64% portrayed obese characters as unattractive, evil, cruel, and unfriendly and usually showed these people consuming food. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_shaming)
On August 29, 2015, at a busy public market in downtown Boise, Idaho, Amy Pence Brown put on a blindfold and uncovered herself down to her black undergarments and held out two markers, one in each hand. The sign at her feet read: “I’m standing for anyone who has struggled with a self-esteem issue like me because all bodies are valuable. To support self-acceptance, draw a “heart” on my body.
The five-minute video on her website shows people drawing hearts, writing messages, and even giving her hugs. Before the experiment was over, her body was covered with affirming messages from strangers.
Isn’t that just the opposite of what usually happens to people with less than perfect bodies? And who has one of those?
It seems that if more people were as caring as they were to Amy that day, affirming, compassionate, caring, and kind, then there would be more people living and not just existing.
If we were as open and vulnerable as Amy was that day, willing to risk, willing to take a chance, willing to hear, listen, feel, smell, and taste the world right around us, even when it’s not easy, pleasant, or comfortable, what would we learn about ourselves? Whatever we learned, it would help us to live and not just exist.
As people and the world continue to wrestle with COVID-19 and how it has dictated so much of our lives, many people are rethinking what it means to live. Perhaps you are one of them.
Throughout the pandemic, many people have cut themselves off from the world and have realized they are just existing. They have stopped living.
From the position I have in a hospital, I can tell you that life is too short to exist. It is like a breath. It is also like “a mist that appears for a little while then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
So why just exist?
It’s time to breathe.
It’s a good practice to focus on your breath every day. Be mindful. Push away the competing thoughts and just focus on what makes you alive.
Do it every day for a little while. Live!
Let this be your foundation for living in the moment.
Smell the coffee. Don’t just drink it on the go, in a hurry.
Feel the burn in your legs when you take the stairs instead of the elevator and congratulate yourself for doing it.
Savor the conversation with your child or grandchild and remember they will not be children forever. Find time to play and give them your undivided attention.
Take a walk in the rain on a summer day not because it makes sense but because you want to experience the raindrops fresh from the sky falling on your face.
Practice generosity in a way that’s uncommon for you and discover how it changes your attitude.
Be curious enough to see what it’s like to go the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, to forgive those that have wronged you.
I ask you, “Was Amy Pence Brown living or existing the day she stood in that marketplace, exposing much of herself to make a point, that we are all valuable, regardless of our shape or size?”
Living involves risking.
Exiting doesn’t require much of us, but eventually, it will cost us everything.
Today, I encourage you. Take a deep breath – and live.
Photo Credit: https://thoughtquestions.com/archives/119