“When you feel the first signs that it’s hard to breathe, stop trying. Hold your breath. It’s your body, and you’re in control.”
I was twelve, and I was at a Buteyko technique workshop for asthmatic children. The goal was to teach me to manage my asthma, and it worked. Within months I was off most asthma medication; since then, I’ve only had one serious asthma attack. But that workshop taught me a far more important life lesson.
Asthmatic since birth, I knew asthma had a physical cause. What I hadn’t realised was that panic caused at least half of my breathing trouble. Like most animals, when I suddenly find I can’t breathe, I panic. It’s a completely normal response. When I panic I hyperventilate. That makes it harder to breathe, which feeds into the panic and the hyperventilation and the panic… and then I’d wake up in hospital again.
That workshop taught me it’s okay to stop fighting. When I can’t breathe, I choose to stop trying. When not breathing is my choice, there’s no need to panic: I’m in control. That pause, that momentary absence of panic, gives me a chance to deal with the problem.
From medical mishaps to shipboard disasters, I’ve spent a lot of my life dealing with crises beyond my control. In any crisis, the first step is to avoid panic. If that means choosing to pause and think rather than immediately fight, then start there.
During an attempted rape on the Lisbon docks, an attacker had me pinned. I couldn’t escape by thrashing, so I stopped fighting and went limp. I hadn’t given up, but that pause gave me time to think and recover. When I stopped fighting, the attacker thought he’d won. He released one of my wrists to undo his fly; his momentary distraction gave me a chance to escape.
When my home country closed the borders during COVID, I was stranded in a foreign country. The same lesson came into play. I could have spent lockdown stressed, frantic, looking for loopholes, fighting the system. Instead, I chose to stop fighting. The New Zealand government wasn’t going to let me go home; beyond that, my choices were my own. Rather than fighting the inevitable, I spent lockdown studying, wrote a book, started a business, and found several online freelance jobs.
When the lockdown eased, I realised that I wouldn’t be allowed to go home until there was a vaccine. Again, I could have fought it. Instead, I signed up to volunteer on a hospital ship for the rest of the year. Now, the fact that I can’t go home is my choice. If I extend my contract, it will also be my choice. I’m having fun, making friends and enjoying a close community – none of which I would do if I’d stayed where I was and kept fighting.
The Stoics had a wonderful metaphor. Imagine a dog on a long leash, tied to a moving cart. The dog has no say over where the cart’s going, but they do have a choice: fight, or enjoy the journey. If the dog fights, it will be dragged along; if the dog walks with the cart, it can explore, learn new things, and maybe enjoy the journey. Either way, the dog will end up at the same destination.
If there’s a new opportunity, the dog who isn’t exhausted from fighting the inevitable will be in a better position to take it – the journey makes all the difference.
Marcus Aurelius observed, “If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.”
I can’t go home. I could sit in misery and whine about the injustice or, like the dog exploring the route, I can accept the inevitable and do something that brings me joy.
When you can’t breathe, or you feel trapped by circumstances, you have a choice: you can sit, complain, and fight the inevitable; or you can pause, think, and look for a solution.
Choosing to stop fighting is not the same as giving up—it’s accepting the inevitable, giving yourself time to think, and making the situation work for you. You always have a choice: you can’t control the world, but you can control your reaction to it. What choice will you make?