The Breath of Life

Take a breath. Exhale. Repeat. Hold back your breath for a while if you want to but not for too long, because the oxygen must keep coming. It has to get to every one of our several trillion (twelve zeroes) cells steadily. The cells can’t break down food molecules without it. That would be like our eating dinner without having the stomach acid to digest it; no nourishment. When we die, it’s because, for one reason or another, the oxygen no longer gets to our cells, and they starve.

Reading about how our breathing works, I was surprised by some of the proportions of oxygen involved. For starters, only about twenty percent of the air around us that we pull in to our lungs is oxygen. The rest is nitrogen and a percent or two of carbon dioxide and other gasses. And we don’t use even very much of that oxygen that we do pull in. Only about a quarter of it goes into our blood. While the air we inhale is twenty percent oxygen, the air we exhale is still fifteen percent oxygen. Still, that five percent difference is the oxygen that keeps us alive. In the course of one day, in total volume, it would about fill the trunk of a large sedan.

oxygen cycle in breathingThe oxygen that stays in our lungs must cross the thin membrane of the lung itself to the blood stream on the other side before it can go to work. Gasses, including oxygen, move away from the location where they are the most densely packed to wherever they are less dense, (just as smoke will spread steadily from its source into the air around it). The oxygen in the lung is much denser than any oxygen left in the blood cells flowing in the veins nearby. Those blood cells have already dropped off their previous oxygen at cells around the body. Oxygen, because of its arrangement of electrons, is, as some would say, a very “friendly” gas. It readily combines with many other elements. So the incoming oxygen easily crosses the membrane to the oxygen-depleted blood and hooks up with a hemoglobin molecule in a blood cell.

As the oxygenated blood flows to, say, the fingers, and passes near cells that have used up their bit of oxygen to energize themselves, the incoming oxygen detaches from the hemoglobin and crosses cell membranes  to take part in the cell’s digestive chemistry. Meanwhile, instead of making the return trip empty, the blood picks up the carbon dioxide left over from the cell metabolism and drops it off at the lung for exhaling.

People have long spoken and written about “the breath of life” and about breath as spirit. But after learning in some detail about how the body distributes oxygen, I’m thinking that it’s not the air or the oxygen itself that is so wondrous. It is the breathing of it, the body itself that pulls in the oxygen in an endless rhythm, that sets up the conditions for it to move across membranes, and distributes it to a million million cells. In the right amounts. Every instant while we’re alive.

Black Body and Soul

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates often refers to himself and other black people as bodies. The central fear of blacks in America, he writes, is and has been that their bodies will be destroyed. The fear pervades the bravado of black youth as well as the steely hope of the elders. Instead of using an I or we or you, Coates writes such sentences as “Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed” and “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage” (103).

In the middle of the book, this theme of the body takes a turn.

I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh. (79)

I have no praise anthems [in memory of the deaths of slaves], nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton. (103)

For Coates, soul and spirit exist as mortal, not immortal, human attributes, present in us when we live and gone when we die.



Coates surprised me when he argued for the thoroughly bodily nature of spirit and soul. I think of my own blog here as a history of bodies and a non-theistic view of spirit. But I have had the luxury of holding that view without feeling that the threat of bodily destruction by other people hangs over me and all those close to me at all times. Coates puts aside the immaterial and the supernatural despite believing that the bodies he cares about are never safe from violence. I’ve never been put to that test.

Coates is not fully comfortable with his secularism, however. He writes to his son, to whom the book is addressed, that he, Coates, worries about having missed something by rejecting religion.

I thought of my own distance from an institution that has so often been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. (139)

Perhaps what he might have “missed” here, something beyond the body but less than the supernatural, is the experience of feeling an integral part of the church he has kept his distance from. Even for a person skeptical about god, the sharing and bonding among church members as a group of humans over time can impart a strength and well-being in and of itself. Other prolonged collective efforts can have similar effects, including political activism. Coates writes to his son that his life has essentially been happy, “that I drew great joy from the study, from the struggle toward which I now urge you” (115). The joy of the struggle may be small consolation for pillaged bodies, but for this writer of racial tragedy, it seems to have been worth a great deal.

Chet Raymo on Santa Claus, Hot Stoves, and the Blooming, Buzzing Confusion

We cannot live without some sorts of make-believe in our lives. Without made-up maps of the world, life is a buzzing, blooming confusion. Some elements of our mental maps (Santa Claus) satisfy emotional or aesthetic inner needs; other elements of our mental maps (a hot stove) satisfy intellectual curiosity about the world out there. We get in trouble when the two kinds of maps are confused, when we objectify elements of make-believe solely on the basis of inner need.

The passage is from Chet Raymo’s book Skeptics and True Believers: The Exhilarating Connection between Science and Religion (1998). Raymo is Professor Emeritus of Physics, raised as a Catholic, with a religious sensibility alongside a firm skepticism. He recently stopped posting on his blog, Science Musings, but the inspiring archives remain open.

We all carry around mental maps of the world—images and words that guide us—that should not be confused with the real world itself. Raymo writes about the two kinds of entries on our maps. Some entries reflect our neediness, since we were children, for emotional comfort, simple explanations, and a sense of our own importance. Santa Claus is on the map for many children. When we’re adults, other superstitions, miracles and astrology often take Santa’s place. Such beliefs help many of us make sense of the world. They also help us feel we have a place in it, for there is nothing worse than thinking that we are only insignificant specks.

As Raymo puts it, these are beliefs about what we yearn for. In contrast, we also put on our maps more objectively realistic items that we learn about. These include the facts that stoves can burn us and that dinosaurs and humans did not walk the earth at the same time.

Artificial island in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean (pinterest)

An artificial island in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean

But—and here’s what makes the book so valuable—Raymo is not saying simply that we should value the learn items and let go of the yearn ones. For a person who values only objective knowledge runs the risk of becoming cold and arrogant. We need a mix of worthwhile knowledge along with an appreciation of what we don’t know and yearn to understand.

Raymo’s central metaphor for all this is that our map resembles an island in a sea of mystery. The island is our knowledge and the sea is the actual, mysterious, and infinite universe around us. On our island, “We dredge up soil from the bed of mystery and build ourselves room to grow. And still the mystery surrounds us. It laps at our shores. It permeates the land.” When such thinkers as Galileo and Einstein illuminate some of the mystery, that mystery sweeps in on a tidal wave and overwhelms much of what we thought we had known for sure. So we rebuild.

As we expand the island and extend its shores, the border between the land and the sea, instead of shrinking, grows longer. That is, the more we know about the objective world, the more that the mysteries of existence beckon the scientists, artists, and other creative people who are open to them. Raymo’s book appeared in 1998, but his metaphor of this extended shoreline fits well with recent discoveries of the many planets circling other stars and with the neuro-imaging of the brain. Both advances in knowledge have, instead of dulling our sense of mystery, excited and extended it.

Where on the island, Raymo asks, do we find the best and most creative work being done? At the shoreline. “We are at our human best as creatures of the shore, with one foot on the hard ground of fact and one foot in the mystery of the sea.”

The stance describes Raymo himself. And it reminds me that to relish both our knowledge of living things along with our sense of the mystery of being alive is a good place to be.