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Figure of Speech

By Gerry Turcotte

11/09/2016

Gerry Turcotte

The air we breathe

“In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being” (Job 12: 10).

Famed astronomer the late Harlow Shapley once ruminated on a remarkable notion. He explained that some components of our air, and especially the argon atoms that comprise one per cent of our atmosphere, recirculate indefinitely. Unlike ozone gases, these components of the air that we breathe never really disappear. They pass through the body virtually untouched and then re-enter the atmosphere. As Shapley put it, “Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Gandhi breathed in his long life. Argon atoms are here from the conversations at the Last Supper, from the arguments of diplomats at Yalta, and from the recitations of the classic poets.”

We think of ourselves as removed from the distant past, and perhaps only tangentially connected to Jesus. So this theory is especially wonderful because it reminds us that we carry within us the breath of those who sat at the Last Supper. That we are not only symbolically a part of that ancient event, but also that we are actually participants at the table of our Lord. It changes how we might think of holy communion, reminding us of a shared and sacred feast, not just of bread and wine . . . but breath!

I remember once discussing historical events with one of my classes, and a somewhat jaded student saying, “What does it matter? It’s all ancient history and it has nothing to do with us!” I forget what class it was, but I will never forget the question. It’s relevant and legitimate, even if it is misinformed. The reality is that we are all connected, always and everywhere. We always implore leaders to learn from, and not repeat the mistakes of, the past. The reality, however, is that we seem unable to learn. We continue to repeat the same injuries, trigger new wars, and turn our backs on our fellow human beings. Is it possible that we do this because we fail to understand how deeply we are all connected, and how an injury to one is an injury to all?

Shapley’s theory puts all this into remarkable perspective. We are breathing air that passed through the lungs of dinosaurs and prehistoric beings; Anthony and Cleopatra; Shakespeare; and yes, we are breathing the words of Jesus. We exhale them into the lives and spirit of our children. We share a breath that all of our brothers and sisters, the world over, have had a part in shaping. It’s a sobering thought that reminds us we are not alone, and that we bear the responsibility to remain connected to our neighbours near and far. Frankly, the thought of it takes my breath away.

Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.