By Etta F. Carter, Ph.D.

Theressa Hoover UMC, Leadership Team, SPRC Chair

“Oh Lord, what is man that you regard him, or the son of man that you think of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” – Psalm 144:4

The word “breathe” has taken on a more prominent and significant meaning for me during these current times than in years past. It has become synonymous with a struggle for air, a physical struggle to continue to live, step back, pause and think before you act. In other words, just breathe! Everyone has their own images and ideas of what specific words mean to them. I can imagine that if you are reading this now, there are many of you with recent images of Black men who lost their lives struggling to breathe due to cruel unjust actions that resulted in depletion of needed oxygen. Or maybe you are feeling empathy, sadness, hurt or anger as you imagine the suffering of 430,000 plus victims who have died within the last year in the United States from the Covid-19 Coronavirus as they struggled to breathe. Or just maybe, you or someone you know has been blessed to continue to live a productive life with the aid of a medical device to help with breathing: an inhaler, or a CPAP machine, or portable oxygen. Whatever your image(s) happens to be, I have been quite uneasy over the past two years whenever I think about the word “breathe” especially now that I wear two masks as I leave my home.

Growing up in rural Dallas County, Arkansas in the small town of Ivan was exciting for a little girl who knew only her daily happy life. Ivan, with a population of 64, was large enough to have its own Post Office and was listed on the state map. I grew up experiencing death as a normal part of life: the farm animals were killed for food; other animals and pets died naturally; and it seemed as if my mother was attending a funeral every week – as an outing. She would dress in all black to attend funerals of deceased family members or church members, friends and even people she did not know. But I never thought that the last thing the deceased did in life was breathe. Of course, it became amazingly clear when I never saw them again. However, the memories were prevalent in my thoughts, and finally I knew I would never see, hear, or touch them again. 

Then childhood became complicated when rules were instituted and the answers to my “why” questions became “because it’s just that way.”  Why can’t I play anymore with the twins, who were white, that I played with for five years each time my mother babysat them? The answer was “because it’s just that way.” Why can’t we have new schoolbooks instead of the books with seven or eight names of white children who had used them years before? Why can’t we ride on the new, more than half empty, school bus to Fordyce with the white kids?  Why did the white high school have so many more student programs than our high school? The answer was the same. However, the traditional answer was not good enough. So, I searched for the answers that helped me to breathe. 

As an educator, I have received blessings and opportunities that far exceeded my dreams and goals, and I promised myself that I would always give the correct answer, no matter how seriously it hurt.  My mother had a saying “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” And I have added, “If you want to be truly amazed, follow HIS plans for you.” It is with glazed and amazed eyes that I look back over the many chapters of my life, from childhood to great-grandmother, from student to teacher to administrator, from sister-member of a national teacher’s organization to national president, friend, missionary, UMC clergy spouse, to retired senior. As a teacher in Chicago and New York City, I have faced many difficult challenges. Challenges that took away my breath. However, my primary goal was to give children a sense of self-worth, aware of the endless possibilities that lie ahead within their lives, the joy that comes from learning, and the assurance that God is on their side. My prevailing worry at this time is that “many children continue to be judged by the color of their skin, and not the content of character” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed. Good teachers who love children can teach regardless of circumstances, which is evident during this pandemic and the country’s reliance on the resilience of teachers. They can and do instill dreams and make the magic come alive. Yes, we must breathe! Breathe… in the good times, the bad times and the ugly times. Breathe during the threat of physical harm, breathe in panic, breathe in uncertainty, and with certainty knowing that with each breath brings God’s love. 

Every person who has stopped breathing because someone knelt on their neck, every person who tries to defend democracy through a crushing door of the Capitol building, every person who is a target of hate; every person who has experience death of a loved one, family or friend, because of the pandemic; or is continuing to experience isolation; mental stress; a yearn for physical touch; loss of their jobs, homes, or personal security, needs to know that to breathe is a gift. So, let’s breathe together and thank God for his blessings!

“Breathe, let go, and remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know you have for sure.” – Oprah Winfrey