Don't Forget to Breathe


I had been waiting tables for about three years and the job wasn’t really getting any easier. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the job. I never lost it, as we’d say. I didn’t forget orders, or get so swamped and addled that my customers were left wondering where I’d gone. I was never rude or short with tables. Sometimes I might have even been charming.

But I was always tense. As soon as my section filled up, as soon as I got to that point in the shift where I was holding a continuous running checklist of three or four things I had to do in my mind (place drink orders for 21; get coffee for 22; drop bread on 24; take dinner order of 23), I felt as if I had to concentrate, that I couldn’t relax or the tasks would scatter like restless children freed from their parent’s vigilant stare.

Then one day I was in the middle of a busy shift, holding a particularly long list in my mind. I was standing in the waiter’s station, which was a kind of backstage at this restaurant, a place where you stored you pens and receipts, where you placed the orders, and where you could screw around with the other waiters if things were slow. Things were not slow. I pulled out my order pad, signed into the terminal, and was just about to begin ringing in a table of six, feeling that rising urgency in me as I fought to keep a cool head for accurate ordering – when I thought of Jane Fonda.

My wife had been exercising to one of her aerobics tapes for the last two years. In the middle of the workout, just as fatigue might start setting in, Jane says, “Stay with it now. Stay with it. Don’t forget to breathe.” The first time we heard this, my wife and I had a good laugh. How can you forget to breathe? I even came up with a joke that went: “Jen, I just forgot to breathe – but then I remembered. And then I remembered again. And then again. And then again.”

Standing in the terminal in the waiter’s station I heard Jane in my mind reminding me to breath. So I did. I put down my pad, stopped ringing in the order, stopped concentrating on the list, and drew in a full, two-lung, diaphragm expanding breath. As I did, I could feel all the constricted muscles in my shoulders and chest and back relax as they made room for the oxygen I’d brought in. I didn’t realize until that moment that I’d been breathing so shallowly it was as if I was nearly holding my breath.

From that moment forward, three or four times a shift, I’d think, “Breathe, Bill. Breathe.” The job got easier. I don’t wait tables any more, but I still hold lists of things that need doing in my mind, and I still have to remind myself to breathe. Tension is a choice, not a condition. It’s just that sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in my own busyness, and so I do what any drowning man does as he struggles to the surface – until I breathe, and discover I’m already floating.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.

William KenowerComment