POLING: Breathing messages into eternity

Dean Poling

You inhale a bit of Julius Caesar everyday.

Everyday, we breathe in the exhalations of Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Madame Curie, Adolf Hitler, Susan B. Anthony, William Shakespeare, Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Franklin, Cleopatra, Henry VIII, Louis Armstrong, Mata Hari, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Muhammad Ali, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jerry Mathers, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Martha Washington, James Fenimore Cooper, Charlotte Bronte, Andre the Giant, Genghis Khan, Mary Magdalene, Jesus Christ.

But not only the famed, the legendary, the known. At some point everyday, masks notwithstanding, we breathe in a portion of the exhalations from the unknown, the forgotten, the breadth and depth of humanity from now to when.

We inhale the breaths of our grandparents, great-grandparents, ancestors who lived nearby and who lived, toiled and died on other continents centuries ago. We breathe in the breaths of queens and slaves, of generals and serfs, of bosses and employees, of men, women and children ... of everyone.

As Bill Bryson writes in his brilliant book, "The Body: A Guide for Occupants," "In breathing, as in everything in life, the numbers are staggering – indeed fantastical. Every time you breathe, you exhale some 25 sextillion (that's 2.5 x 10 to the 22nd power) molecules of oxygen – so many that with a day's breathing you will in all likelihood inhale at least one molecule from the breaths of every person who has ever lived."

Imagine that, everyday, we are breathing in the molecular breaths of our loved ones, friends, those we love who are no longer with us, ancestors, the famed, the great, strangers, the poor, the wretched, our enemies, scoundrels, villains. 

We breathe in the breaths of every race, of every gender, of every ethnicity, of every age of humanity.

And not only do we share the air with all mankind literally, figuratively and molecularly, we all share the same elemental mitochondria – which Bryson describes as "the vital little powerhouses of our cells."

Science has shown every person living on Earth right now – all of us, you, me, them, everybody – is a descendant of the same "mitochondrial ancestor." Also referred to as "Mitochondrial Eve," whom Bryson refers to as the "the mother of us all."

So, we all breathe in the same air. We are all descendants of the same person.

Still, even though we breathe in portions of all humanity from there and back and from in the beginning to now, though we share so much of the same source material, we cannot get along.

Whether it's traditional family siblings squabbling over parental attention; or political disagreements with coworkers, neighbors or friends; or people of different races doubling down on differences of skin color or culture; or wars built around nations, religions and ideology, we refuse to understand so much about one another.

Our differences and the reasons we find for differences are arguably as many as the stars or as many as the molecules of oxygen we regularly exhale.

Instead of embracing the world and genetics we share, we cling to our differences. 

We should readily embrace being individuals but we should also embrace respecting the differences of others, especially given how often we literally inhale those differences to stay alive. And how much of ourselves we regularly send out forever into the world.

"... every person who lives from now until the sun burns out will from time to time breathe in a bit of you," Bryson writes. "At the atomic level, we are in a sense eternal."

What message are you breathing into eternity?

Dean Poling is an editor with The Valdosta Daily Times.

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