I never used to lie down to sleep and worry that I would die in the night, gasping for breath--but I do now. Not every night, but every night that there's tickle in my throat or a wheeze in my lungs: the initial warning signs of an asthma attack.

Fighting minute, invisible threats--chemical odors, dander, dust mites and molds--I monitor my breathing closely. In the ominous silence, the engineer in my cerebral cortex listens for whistle stops in my chest. I lie on tenterhooks, wire-tapping my airways, as my mind races.

The tickle and wheeze grow stronger. Mucous plugs that I can't clear begin to form battle lines in my bronchioles. I take two puffs of my emergency inhaler and close my eyes. I think about passing from this world to the next. I'm a little afraid and begin to sweat. I tell myself to calm down, since tension makes the symptoms worse. I get up to make sure the phone's connected, just in case I need to dial 911. I think about the time I fell from a ladder and did dial 911 and the ambulance took 20 minutes to get to me. I realize I can't hold my breath for 20 minutes. I go to the kitchen and drink some hot lemon water and wait for the wheeze to subside. The medication and lemon water take effect. All clear. Battle fatigue. Onward, Christian soldier.

A classic religious theme declares spiritual growth often comes less from our voluntary intentions and more from measured adversity engineered by Providence. Such situations redirect our lives like a sluice gate in a millstream, reducing a wide, wild flood to a directed, purposeful current. Asthma has taught me the meaning of the "narrow gate" (Mt 7.13-14)--physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

So, how can this constriction in my chest, which has caused so much restriction in my life since my adult-onset asthma began seven years ago, be good? Speaking more broadly, how can any chronic, life-threatening condition be spiritually beneficial? Let me count the ways.

For one, I'm more empathetic. People whom I once referred to as "complainers, whiners, and soft"-people who demanded rigid routines of eating or sleeping or high maintenance comfort levels-galled me. Now, I'm one of them.

As an adventurous college student, I once slept overnight in the dank hold of a ferry crossing Cook Inlet in Alaska; now I scrutinize five-star hotels to determine if I can breathe freely in one of their rooms. As a journalist, I once braved shotgun warnings from an irate, corrupt business owner; now a mucous plug in my chest shoots panic through me. For decades, I was a globetrotting retreat leader; now I examine venues for air quality and proximity to emergency rooms. Asthma has knocked the Stoic clean out of me.

For another, I'm more sympathetic. I believe another person when they tell me their persnickety needs. "Oh, so you can't eat raw onions, but when cooked they are tolerable? Fine, I won't put them in your tuna salad. Instead, I'll whip up some la soupe à l'oignon when you come for lunch today." Nothing is too bizarre for me to accommodate--not when I have to vacuum a library book prior to reading it because a bazillion dust mites have taken residence in its paper folds.

"I'm less of a know-it-all."

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  • Third, I'm less of a know-it-all. I've stopped giving advice to people with chronic ailments. I realize it's irritating to claim we know the cure for someone else's disease. Well-meaning friends have suggested various medications, holistic treatments, and even breeds of dogs I "really could have as pets" (because they have hair, not fur); one even suggested using me as a barometer to test out which sort of non-allergen dog she could buy--if I snuggled Rover and didn't die, eureka!

    Having read about every FDA-approved asthma medication, explored everything from yoga to Chinese herbs, and paid exorbitant amounts of cash for Park Avenue homeopathy, I realize most people have probably already done their research and made their own choices about treating their ailments. I've come to respect how my fellow human beings deal with their maladies.