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.

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.

Imperfect Choices, Conflicting Loyalties

I’ve been thinking about how often the discontents in our lives are rooted in the tension between our social bonds and our sharp sense of our individual well-being. Our genes happily carry both our social and our self-protective tendencies because both capacities, when they work together, support our survival. Like other social species, humans have long been “stronger together” when it comes to planning a steady food supply, building housing, and defending themselves. But the quickest signal that one of us is sick, injured, threatened, or being cheated comes not from a group but from our individual first-alert reactions—fear, pain, suspicion.

When our sociality—the term refers to our inherited tendency to form groups—and our sense of self harmonize so smoothly that our well-being seems complete, that’s a mutuality that we build our moral ideals on. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

But such balance doesn’t last. The self is quick to feel slighted in one way or another. In a recent family discussion, for example, several cousins and in-laws of mine told tales of flawed diagnoses and unwanted side effects.  “Damn it, it’s my body that’s at stake” was one protest. Change the wording to “my life,” “my rights,” “my money,” “my freedom” and you have a sampling of the self-protective alarms that go off when we find ourselves at odds with a group or what it stands for.

But we may be less quick to notice how often our discontent also comes not from the “me” end of the social spectrum but from the “we.” We often and easily assert the values of our family, community, workplace, ethnicity, political affiliation, religion. Liberals and conservatives denounce each other, seniors lament their juniors, believers rebuke the skeptics. As often as we defend “my” interests against a group, we also speak up for “our” values when dissidents seem wrong-headed.

Beneath all these labels,  accusations, and justifications by and about selves and groups I’m hearing more clearly the tumultuous human dilemma that sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson summed up in a memorable passage. Wilson may be best known for his thesis that natural selection favors not only those changes that benefit the individual organism but also changes that favor the group itself. Most biologists dispute the validity of such “group selection” as a separate level of natural selection. But no one disagrees that sociality itself runs deep and strong in our species among many others. And when our loyalty to our clan, party, religion or other group clashes with our sense of our own well-being, we feel angry, sad, confused, frightened, or betrayed. Here, says Wilson, is our spiritual turmoil—and our humanity.

Some years ago I read this passage in Wilson’s Sociobiology (2000 edition). The sentences appear near the close of the fifth chapter. Wilson characterizes our biological and humanistic dilemma with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic from around 300 B.C. E. Here, the god Krishna steers the chariot of the reluctant prince Arjuna to an impending battle in which Arjuna’s relatives and closest friends will be fighting for the other side. Wilson writes that the theory of group selection

predicts ambivalence as a way of life in social creatures. Like Arjuna faltering on the Field of Righteousness, the individual is forced to make imperfect choices based on irreconcilable loyalties—between the “rights” and “duties” of self and those of family, tribe, and other units of selection, each of which evolves its own code of honor. No wonder the human spirit is in constant turmoil. Arjuna agonized, “Restless is the mind, O Krishna, turbulent, forceful, and stubborn.”

Krishna-Arjuna-battle (

Arjuna hesitates on the Field of Righteousness (

I remember feeling the sweep and the dilemma of human emotion here, from its biological roots to its spiritual consequences, from doubt and guilt to righteousness and war. I took in what I could, then turned the page. But the passage was the kind that sometimes plants itself in our memory more firmly than we know and rises again years later when we need it. Actually, I remembered the passage inaccurately. The condensed version that I had carried for so long included the words autonomy and sociality, two terms missing here that Wilson uses elsewhere.

Still, though, I think that autonomy and sociality are good labels for these volatile allies. We are Arjuna. We all come to the field of life with two capacities that work together though not easily or perfectly.  And I have more empathy for people, myself included, when I listen for the rumbling, ageless tension of self versus group beneath our “imperfect choices” and “irreconcilable loyalties.”