Plague and Prejudice: Today's Famous Last Words
Help, I can’t breathe.
Esther is a dear friend who I truly admire for her heroic courage during these past months of global pandemic. Without fear for personal safety she has, as an emergency room physician, tended to the sick, the infected and the dying. She shared with me an observation that in the past weeks assumed totally new significance – an astonishing linkage between two seemingly unconnected historic events.
Esther described to me how death by coronavirus is a horror beyond description. It is painful and protracted, a drawn-out process of gasping for life-giving breath. She told me how sad it was that for many their last words were a plea to which she was incapable of responding. “Help,” their final request on earth begged, “I can’t breathe.”
This very refrain of coronavirus victims found its sequel in the tragic death of George Floyd. He too pleaded for air. His last words: “Help, I can’t breathe.” This time the cause of death was racism rather than contagion.
There is no denying that the two foremost threats to present day survival are plague and prejudice. Both have the potential to destroy civilization as we know it. And both, if not overcome, will lead to similar result – a cry for the breath which from the time of creation grants us life.
It is fascinating that the English language preserves a profound biblical idea. When a person dies we say that he expires. The word comes from the Latin ex, which means out, and spiritus, spirit, soul, breath. Death is the moment that undoes what is described in the book of Genesis: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being”. (Genesis 2:7)
Breath is what gives us life. It is what makes us human – and at the same time grants us a portion of the essence of the Almighty. When it departs from us, we die, because there is no longer any point in our being alive having lost the spark of God within us.
To prevent us from “expiring” there is only one alternative. We need to be “inspired”, to reanimate ourselves with the spiritual insights of the soul.
I do not dare to suggest, as God warned Job who sought to understand His ways, that we might comprehend or justify our present global pandemic. Yet I do know that from this tragedy have already come many vital lessons which can profoundly “in-spire” us. We need to acknowledge that the divinely ordained “timeout” to our frantic lifestyles - the pre-pandemic norms which threatened our environment, our health and our families - may have taught us a far wiser perspective. Perhaps there is more truth than he realized in the words a very wealthy executive shared with me when he said “this is the first time in twenty-five years that I have eaten dinner together every night with my wife and kids as a family, that I have had the time to catch my breath, to read, to think and to talk with my loved ones.” Perhaps we can come to realize how great a blessing it is to be able to stop and catch our breath - before we become incapable of breathing.
So too, in the aftermath of the racist murder of George Floyd from whom was cruelly taken the divine gift of breath, we need to be inspired to relearn the simple truth that we are all created in the image of God. The reason God created the entire world with the creation of a single human being, the Talmud teaches, is to remind us that he who destroys one person is as if he destroys an entire world. The tragedy of George Floyd’s death needs to be followed by more than protest. If it is to have historic meaning and purpose it should spur us to generate a healing breath of fresh air – a breath of divine spirit which reminds us of our shared uniqueness as children of God.