It turns out that I like the poem whose last line is “Fear wastes air.” But that’s only because I sat with the poem for a long time and had my interior quarrel with such a facile declaration (three words—what hubris!) and in the end decided that these slim pickings also had genuine merit.
The poem is by the visionary poet, Mark Nepo, one-time Albany resident, and there I go being annoyed again. Not at Mark—I know him, I like him—but at the term, “visionary.” I’m suspicious of people who think and talk in terms of visions, even though I am both paradoxically and vocationally, drawn to such language. But come on, visions also drive people mad! Think of Lear on the heath. Think of Lady MacBeth. Or her husband. Enough of Shakespeare: think John of Patmos, stranded on Patmos, penning Revelation, ensuring would-be prophets of the apocalypse job security for millennia.
But I like “fear wastes air.” And I like it because I’ve quarreled with it plenty.
Because first of all you’ve got the “air” bit. I’m a yoga teacher and a pastor. I know plenty about breath. And breathing is all about air. I’m schooled enough to know that the words for “spirit” and “breath” are the same ones in both Hebrew and Greek—“ruah” and “pneuma,” both feminine nouns. And that when we talk about the Holy Spirit moving among us, she is sometimes envisioned as wind blowing. When we make changes we say we do so because the spirit moved us.
I also know that breathing is involuntary. Which makes it also irrational. Sure, we can control our breath and that’s a big part of yoga. But we cannot will ourselves to stop breathing. Even in those bleakest, saddest moments of heartbreak when our rational minds will us to die, our bodies make us breathe. We breathe until we finally can no more.
Fear, on the other hand, is rational. I’m a person who is afraid of most things of the transportation variety and I defend my fears even as I know they limit my mobility and annoy my friends. But it seems perfectly reasonable to me to be white-knuckled and stomach-knotted traveling down switchbacks in the Alps or the Rockies.
And if I have to use the yogic ujjayi breath to get across the Tappan Zee Bridge that’s only because I know that bad things can happen. I have a memory of driving through the Smokey Mountains with my college boyfriend after our gas pedal had gotten stuck and we had had to make a hair-raising emergency stop. As we continued to drive on, I was nervous as a kitten and he was annoyed as hell, “Just shut up and go to sleep!” he kept yelling. As if, Dude. I’d felt what happened when that gas pedal was accelerating.
So fear, to me, is a rational response to the potential for danger, however slight. And yet air is what we need most of all. More than the fear about what could potentially happen, it’s our breathing that gives us life.
When my younger daughter was born ten weeks early, she couldn’t initially breathe on her own. Even after she was extubated, she would sometimes “forget to breathe” as the nurses put it. Her father and I, regular vigil-keepers at her incubator, were instructed to jiggle her foot or her arm to give her a hint that she needed to take a breath.
I sometimes think it’s no mistake that, twenty years later, she chose to get a tattoo with a quote from Cicero on it: dum spiro spero. It means “while I breathe, I hope.” We sport matching tattoos now. And when I look at mine I am reminded not only to keep on breathing, but also of the cautionary corollary: fear wastes air.