Victoria Falls is breath taking, but I didn’t realize what it would feel like to have my breath literally taken away. After hiking down to the boiling point, where the waters of the Zambezi gather into rapids, we climbed over sharp, slippery rocks, across narrow, high ledges, and lowered ourselves into the raft. Paddling with all our strength against the current, we arrived at another mountain of slippery, enormous boulders. It was time to climb again. I fell, and emerged, bloody and bruised, on the other side of the mountain. Then, it was time to descend into the water.
We swam against the current, and arrived underneath the enormous waterfall. Our guide directed us onwards, until we swam to the point where the water poured down on us from three hundred and fifty feet. Everyone else made their way underneath the waterfall, but I was terrified. Alone in the water, I knew I had to follow, and so I continued to struggle, and joined the others underneath the flood. “I promise, there is space to breathe,” the guide assured me.
Holding my breath, I entered the cascading falls, and bumped up against my companions. Water was everywhere and the mist surrounding us allowed little space for oxygen. “I can’t breathe...I can’t do this...I need out...” I was stuck in a tiny space, floating underneath the waterfall, unable to fill my lungs with air. But there was no way out, except to go underneath the falls again. “Just breathe,” the guide said.
And so I did. I inhaled air and felt my lungs fill with oxygen. Again and again, I sucked in air, and I realized that I would be okay. I could breathe. I could survive. And as I looked around, I saw a million cubic meters of water plummeting over me, and realized that I was in a beautiful place, an amazing place, and I was filled not only with air to breathe, but also with wonder.
After we swam out of the falls, and back towards the enormous boulders, our guide informed us that we would do a rock dive. Upwards we climbed, slipping on sharp stones, until we emerged, twenty-five feet above the Zambezi. The guide demonstrated: three huge steps forward, and then he flew into the air, and plummeted into the waters. Another person followed suit, and then another, and then another. The other guide told me, “You can climb back down to the boat if you are too afraid.” I decided that I would not let fear control me. One, two, three huge steps, and I flew off the rock cliff and into the swirling waters below. I sank down into the river, and emerged, full of laughter. As I paddled back to the raft, I looked around again. The cliffs emerged three hundred and fifty feet above me, and the waters fell with power and beauty. I had done it, and I had survived. I could breathe. I could jump. I could trust.
The days lately have been hard, and there have been times when I thought I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move forward. I couldn’t survive. But I can. And I did. And I will. Sometimes, all you can do is open you mouth, and suck in the air, and know that the will to survive, the power to live, is deep within you. You breathe again and again, until you can look up, and look around, and see the enormous beauty that surrounds you.
I have said good-bye to people that I love lately. I have struggled with decisions that feel impossible. I have wondered if anything I do matters, if my work has meaning, if my life here has had purpose. I have felt my breath catch and wondered if I am out of air. And then I breathe. And then I look around. And then I see the enormous love, the enormous hope, the enormous resilience of those around me. And I know that beauty will win. I know that we can breathe, through the pain and through the fear and through the impossible good-byes.
We aren’t enough. We hear the stories of the racism and death and cruelty and oppression. We live these stories sometimes. Just feeling like I can’t breathe brings to mind Eric Garner and his last moments of life. It may make us all feel like we can’t breathe, like we can’t move forward, like life is just full of cruelty and despair. But we do breathe, and we do look around, and we do see that there are people full of love and courage, ready to breathe hope and justice and transformation into the world. And we realize that we can be those people, too, that we can be enough.
God willing, we will keep on breathing, until we see the beauty beyond the bruises, beyond the floods. Until we are the beauty.