Catching Our Breath: Life After Beirut and Paris

Co-written with William Glass, graduate student at Southern Methodist University.

A few years ago, a friend whose young husband had died talked about her reaction to his death. It didn't happen right away. She'd had to take care of her young children--now more so than ever--so she didn't have time to grieve. Then, about a year later, her dog ran in front of a car and was killed. She and her husband had taken that dog to agility classes, where it had bounced and lurched in sheer pleasure. When she found out the dog had died, my friend stopped. Finally. Not just chores and parenting and work. She stopped breathing. She couldn't breathe--the grief was so heavy on her.

Tragedy had knocked the wind right out of her.

Just yesterday, my graduate assistant at SMU told me he has half a dozen friends who live in Paris. One of them decided at the last minute not to go to the Eagles of Death Metal concert--where one of the terrorist attacks occurred--because he had seen them last year.

My assistant--a young friend, really--was up all Friday night, trying to get in touch with his friends in Paris. He said he felt like the wind had been knocked out of him.

You know the feeling of having the wind knocked out of you. There is a moment, just a moment, when you panic because you've got no breath in your lungs. There's a jolt of helplessness, pure vulnerability, a shock to an otherwise rhythmic system, which seems like it might otherwise go on forever.

We've been sucker punched--a one-two sucker punch that knocked the wind right out of us. A vibrant neighborhood in Beirut, where more than forty people died last Thursday night. Then the 10th and 11th arondissements in Paris last Friday night, with over 100 dead and 300 wounded, a hundred of them seriously.

We had the wind knocked out of us when we saw the images of smoke and terror and people like us panicked, running, hanging from windows, bleeding. Some had been eating dinner, some dancing in the newborn weekend thrill, some gathered to see the friendly competition of two storied national teams. Normal people--diners, shoppers, spectators, theatre-goers--breathed in, breathed out, and then didn't breathe again.

Many of us, for a moment or a day or a week at least, haven't breathed either. It wasn't just the image of the French flag on American football fields, or the red, white, and blue of France on Facebook pages. Some of us, whose grandparents came from Europe--my small but stubborn grandmother, Conceptione Immaculata Capitolo, passed through Ellis Island in the early 1900s--were broken, and broken up, by the images of Paris. I wish it weren't their second attack of 2015. I wish it hadn't happened just 24 hours after the much less publicized but equally tragic violent seizure of Lebanese life and breath.

I feel as if the wind was knocked out of me, and judging by the frantic gesturing and fearful looks I see in post after post, fretful tweet after tweet, segment after segment on the evening news, I am not alone.

So how can we breathe again? I have no easy solutions, but I hope to offer something. Anything.

So I'm offering a prayer I wrote to the Spirit of God, inspired by a vision of the prophet Isaiah (32:12-18). Spirit, after all, means breath in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish Bible, the language of the Christian Old Testament, even the language that has close affinities with the Arabic of Islam's Koran.

Maybe, as we pray this prayer--it is not a prayer for Christians only--we'll catch our breath and steady ourselves, as we remember those who breathe no more this side of eternity.

Holy Spirit

Fragile is all I can think about sometimes,
How we live in a cardboard universe that reads, this end up.

We spend our days in search of safety,
our nights in quest of rest

But our world turns upside down anyway
We drop like a lead balloon

Breathless--not with wonder
But with worry--broken.

Turn our world right side up, Holy Spirit.
Deserts into green fields
Green fields into forests
Wrong into Right
War into Peace
Curse into Blessing.

Fill this cardboard universe with your presence.


Prayer from Jack Levison, Holy Spirit, I Pray (Paraclete Press, 2015) page 102.