I am not only what I do, but also what I do not. — John Fowles
Every few seconds, whether we realize it or not, our brain sends a signal down our spine telling our diaphragm to contract, enlarging our chest cavity and allowing our lungs to expand and air to be pulled in through our nose.
The cold air we breathe in is warmed by the blood flowing through the capillaries lining our nasal cavity. That air then passes through our windpipe, where hair-covered cells trap small particles, like dust, preventing them from reaching our lungs.
Finally, the air passes through our trachea and reaches the aveoli, thin-walled air sacs that allow oxygen to pass into surrounding capillaries, which carry the oxygen-rich blood to our heart to be pumped to every cell in our body.
At the same time, carbon dioxide travels from our heart to our lungs to exit the body: our diaphragm relaxes and moves back into our chest cavity, pushing the carbon dioxide-filled air out of our lungs and back through our windpipe and nose.
In other words, we breathe.
If we try, we can escape the roar of traffic, the chatter of crowds, even the rustling of the wind. We can find a quiet place to be alone. But the whisper of our inhale and the sigh of our exhale—the sounds of our body sustaining life—we can never escape. And when we remember to listen, they are a constant reminder of what is.
This week, I found myself wanting to escape from the expectation, the fear, the disappointment, and the anger that seemed to permeate so many conversations in the days leading up to and following the U.S. midterm elections. Frustrated with the substanceless vitriol that pervades American politics and with the persistent inaction on issues about which even most Americans seem to agree—improving education, reducing violence, repairing infrastructure—I understand why many have sought to escape the political process entirely. Why cast a ballot when your vote has never seemed to matter?
Yet even when we seek silence, we continue to inhale and exhale. And life continues to swirl on around us. We may sit still, but in doing so we leave what is moving to persist and grow. Doing nothing becomes a tacit acceptance of—and aid to—the forces already in play.
This is as true for ourselves as individuals it is for our government and our society as a whole. Adopting the attitude of “laissez faire” is not to be passive, but to allow the structures, power dynamics, and attitudes currently in place to press on.
Nationally, 242 years of expanding democracy, civil war, economic booms and busts, and the persistent push and pull of business and social interests has left us with the system we see today. Globally, thousands of years of civilization marked by religious wars, state wars, colonizations, epidemics, and cultural development mean there is no such thing as a blank canvas. Neutrality, just like silence, is a myth.
This week, 118 million Americans representing 49 percent of eligible voters—the largest percentage since 1969—chose to participate in the ongoing conversation of who we are and how we want to live as a nation. It is often a difficult one, one that challenges, confuses, and even hurts us. But the more of us who contribute to it, the better we can all shape the contours of our individual, national, and global identities and create the world we want to live in. Let us come together, but not in silence.