I can’t breathe

Life starts with a breath and ends with a breath. Breathing is everything. Ask anyone who has ever struggled to breathe. It is a frightening experience. Breath is life.

Breathing seems to be a central theme at the moment. The focus on breathing started with the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 is a respiratory condition. It affects the lungs and other parts of the respiratory system. To try to prevent the spread of the disease, wearing a mask is now also compulsory. For most of us, wearing a mask is not fun, because we feel inhibited and we can’t wait to remove it, so that we can breathe freely again.

But it was a tragic incident in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, a week ago that brought the concept of breathing sharply into our awareness.

An African-American man, George Floyd, died as a result of police brutality in Minneapolis. While Floyd was being handcuffed and lying face down on a city street during an arrest, a police officer kept his knee on the right side of his neck. In a video that went viral, one can hear Floyd repeatedly telling him “I can’t breathe”, but the pressure was not released. Eventually, he collapsed, lost consciousness and was taken to a hospital, where he was declared dead upon arrival.

Amidst all the outcry and chaos that followed, the words “I can’t breathe” linger hauntingly in our minds. If ever there is a distress call that a human can make, it must be this one. What boggles the mind is that this desperate call was not heeded. How could this happen? How is it possible that a fellow human being can do something like this to another human being? This unjustifiable and heart-breaking incident should make us all reflect deeply on what it means to be human. What does it tell us about humanity and society? We all have our own thoughts on this, but one aspect that is highlighted most starkly by this incident is the ugly side of authoritative power – the kind of power some people seem to have over others. It is that kind of power that makes it hard for millions of people on this planet to breathe because someone’s knee is on their neck, pinning them down, keeping them powerless, and creating huge anxiety. No wonder that, according to the latest research, an estimated 275 million people currently suffer from anxiety disorders.

We have become obsessed with power. We live in a hierarchical society that is structured like a pyramid, and the aim is to get to the top as fast as we can, because the higher we climb, the more power we have over others. Status, rank, and money are of course useful tools to fast-track us in this endeavor. The higher we climb, the more power we have, and the more power we have, the more force we can use to ensure that others will comply with our wishes and demands. Power has become synonymous with force.

However, the truth is that there is another kind of power that has nothing to do with force. Once we embrace that power, someone can perhaps force us to comply or to act in a certain way, but they cannot take our power away. They can sell my house, lock me up, strip me bare, humiliate me, but they cannot take my power away. Think of Mandela, of Gandhi, and of all the Holocaust survivors. The power in the hands of the so-called powerful is not real power. It is not true power. It is just an ego device and a free ticket to use any means possible to force us into compliance. That kind of power is merciless and ruthless and always reverts to force to stay in control. The truth is that using force is a clear sign of weakness, not power. Many of us are in some authoritative position, as a politician, a parent, an employer, or an employee in a senior position, and we should think deeply about how we use that power.

True power never uses force. True power is a deeply spiritual phenomenon. We are born with that. It is inherent in us. It is a part of our divine identity. Unlike the power-hungry who have a love for power, we should opt for the power of love. Imagine living in such a world: A world in which love becomes the only guiding principle. No force is required because there is mutual respect. No force is required because there is compassion. No force is required because there are truth and transparency. No force is required because I am not above you, but with you on this journey. No force is needed because I love you. We should never underestimate the power of love.

If it so happens that you currently have a knee on someone’s neck, metaphorically speaking, it is perhaps a good time to ask yourself what love would do in this situation. Start listening for a start. You may just hear the person saying. “I can’t breathe”.

Or perhaps someone has a knee on your neck, and you are finding it hard to breathe. Then remind yourself that you are not powerless. It is the one with the knee on your neck who lacks real power. Long ago, one of the enlightened masters who walked this planet was falsely accused and sentenced to death by those in power. His final prayer was “forgive them, for they know not what they do”, because he knew those in positions of power often confuse force with power.

So let us take back our power – the true power, the power of love, and let us start creating a new world in which all of us can breathe freely.