Venice’s Bridge of Sighs is enclosed by heavily ornamented limestone, its view of the picturesque canal seen through small, latticed windows. Prisoners walked past these windows as they crossed from the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s palace to their cells. If they had any aesthetic sensitivity at all, they sighed, because they were seeing the beauty of Venice for perhaps the last time.
My husband sounded almost that dejected when he climbed our steep old stairs the other night, sighing as he reached the top. His sigh, though, was pure exhaustion—unlike the huge sigh I blew out the other day after a scary false alarm, or the heavy sigh my friend gave when someone informed her that Anthony Fauci was the devil.
We sigh for so many reasons. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a progression into one of his compositions: “Sighs, tears, grief, distress.” Coleridge gives us, in a single poem, a sigh of painless yearning, an anguish’d sigh, and a languid sigh—how can a simple exhalation do all that? But sighs have a weight all their own. They might seem passive, but heaving a heavy sigh makes an eloquent statement. A full and heartfelt sigh is done with the mouth open, but that quick, gusty sigh through the nostrils? That is contempt. Kids are too young for contempt; they sigh over tough homework or to telegraph boredom. Actors sigh with stage fright; critics exhale disapproval. A teenager’s sigh is one of utter exasperation with an adult world that does not match her ideal. Her grandfather’s sigh might be wistful and nostalgic, tied to memories of a time he would rather be living.
Less content is the marital sigh, long-suffering and never surprised—There she (or he, or they) goes again. Maybe this is why Andrew sighs more often than I do? Patient recognition of the loved one’s repeated folly? He does sigh a lot when he is tired, though. Why do we do that? To let the world know not to expect much of us at that moment? Or just to refresh our lungs, because we are so tired we are forgetting to breathe? Anyway, he sighs more than I do, and I was on the verge of warning him that he sounds ancient and spent. These are the years to play, I keep reminding him. “Sigh no more,” Shakespeare urged, and even if the world insists on falling apart, I intend to take his invitation.
As usual, though, Andrew has stumbled into something that is wiser than I realized. Sighing is therapeutic. It resets our breathing when we get out of sync. It relaxes tense muscles. All by itself, with no help from the facts, it makes us feel relief, simply because our body is relieved to be breathing in the right rhythm again, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels normalizing. And sighing keeps us flexible, researchers have learned, by easing transitions from one emotional state to the next.
If we never sighed? Those little balloons of air inside our lungs, the alveoli, would deflate like 480 million torn rafts. Their enclosures, the lungs, would stiffen, constraining the flow of oxygen into our bloodstream and the flushing clean of carbon dioxide. When my grandmother gave those dramatic sighs over the exploits of her seven kids, she was saving her heart and her sanity.
Luckily, her sighs were occasioned by real mischief and therefore spontaneous. Only a spontaneous sigh has any power. Try to sigh more, and you will soon hyperventilate. Even if you stop short of needing a brown paper bag (do they use those anymore? What will we do in our bring-your-own-bag society, suffocate in organic burlap for our panic attacks?) your sighs’ restorative effects will be reversed. When beset by anxiety, panic, depression, or just a melodramatic need for attention, people sigh too much, probably unconsciously seeking that sense of relief—and they wind up flooding the respiratory system and feeling even more anxious, breathless, and lightheaded.
The body has its own corrective mechanisms, and they cannot be faked. Sometimes we can beckon in a certain direction, smiling to make ourselves feel better, manspreading for confidence, whistling to make ourselves brave. But you cannot fool yourself with a sigh.
Nor are sighs confined to the human body. Most of the many poems titled “Sigh” are maudlin, but Stephen Mallarmé writes of “a white spray of water sighing/towards the sky!” Emily Brontë writes of the wind sighing. Nature sighs, and so do critters. When you stop shocking a rat’s tail (and why would you have begun?) the rat will sigh in relief. Our dog gives a loud sigh of contentment when we are finally all snug in bed together, the humans’ annoying last-minute tasks complete, and he can lay his head on somebody’s thigh and fall sound asleep, off duty at last.
We are all tired of being vigilant. Nostalgic, irritated, anxious, and off-kilter, we know that words are not enough to fix the anomie. We need the very air that moves in and out of our body, that most basic element of life, to express what we are feeling—and reset our wracked emotions.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.