Life, Pain, Fear, and the Whole Wide World: Breathe In, Breathe Out

Breathe in. Breathe out.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
A close friend of mine observed recently that he felt guilty about bringing kids into this world—this world being full of nightmares, and pain, and threats, and disasters.

I told him the gift he gave them was the choice to be who they wanted to be, and to make the time they had matter to themselves. I told him that was a precious thing.

But I kept thinking about the basic premise of his worry—that the world is a terrible place, and that bringing new life into it is cruel, or bad, or terrible.

And I came to a life-changing realization.

Where any individual is concerned, there is no world.

(I acknowledge that from someone who writes science fiction, this is not a reassuring statement, but please bear with me.)

Pain is real—and I have experienced all kinds. Long-term, constant pain from scoliosis undiagnosed until I was 53, fixed by a half-inch lift in my left shoe last year.

Recurring short-term pain, from icepick migraines and regular migraines.

Childbirth three times, and the last time without so much as a Tylenol to take the edge off. That was my go-to example of BIG pain until the several days following surgery on my tongue last month.

New winner: Tongue surgery. Worst pain I’ve ever experienced.

Gonna do it again next Monday. Yippee.

So, okay. Pain is real.

Tragedy is real—I’ve lost people I’ve loved, and I know I’ll lose more. No one gets out of this alive (yet), and the anguish of thinking I’ll just call… followed by the shock of No. I won’t ever heard that voice again, is terrible.

And fear is real. The whole wide world is a scary place, full of earthquakes, wars, riots, madness, anger, hate, destruction, and death.

But stop.

You don’t live in the whole wide world, and neither do I.

Each adult human being takes up an area of somewhere between 1.5 and 5 cubic feet. If we hold our arms out, we can span an average five-ish to seven-ish feet from side to side.

Our bare feet on the floor or the grass or the rocky surface beneath us touch—on average—less than one square foot of surface at any time.

Our fingers touch and sense areas measured in millimeters.

Our eyes can see maybe a couple of miles in any direction outdoors from a good vantage point on a clear day. Usually, we see only the few feet around us enclosed by walls, or the slightly larger area blocked by buildings, streets, hills, forests—whatever your view is when you’re outdoors.

We are small. We have fairly limited senses. And most of us live in small areas and range only short distances from our home base most of the time.

Your world is the space you fill and the area you move through. That’s it.

Which is not to say the world inhabited by any one individual is pure sunshine and roses.

I have been through moments of sheer horror.

The big Guatemala earthquake when I was fifteen.

One moment on a road between Fayetteville and Laurinburg where, for just an instant, I gave the wrong answer to Hamlet’s soliloquy, and chose “not to be.”

Discovering what my first ex had been doing to our children.

All added together, those moments when my mind damn near shut down and I couldn’t breathe comprised maybe sixty to eighty seconds total in my life—now standing at 54 years.

Because after the brief disorientation when I woke up, heard the screaming of every human being and every animal in the area around me, and tried to comprehend the sound of a train rushing down on me, and realized that my bed was sliding from one side of the room to the other, slamming first into a wall, then into my sister’s bed, then into the wall again, I started thinking.

I managed to get to my sister’s bed across the bucking, rippling floor, wake her up, drag her to the screen door that the earthquake locked—external spin-the-block windlocks in a breezeway turn out do be a dangerous thing—and I screamed to my parents for help. My mother unlocked the door and Julie and I got out, and ran from beneath the heavy hand-made tiles that roofed our quarters in the mission to the slightly safer walled courtyard beneath an open sky. (Tall walls, adobe construction—not safe, but safer than those huge, deadly tiles.)

Because in the instant after I decided that the only way I could solve the long misery of my first marriage without shaming my parents with a divorce was to end myself, a little voice in the back of my mind whispered, “Maybe divorce wouldn’t be so bad,” and I swerved and avoided the tree I’d been aiming at.

Because after the minute in which I understood what my son was telling me about what his father had been doing to him and his sister, and in the instants after I choked back my gag reflex and my urge to go kill the bastard right that minute, my brain kicked in, and I was able to think about how I could fix what had happened. Call a lawyer. Call my friend in Social Services. Call the police. Keep the kids away from the monster.

The worst horrors we imagine sometimes come true, but in the scale of a lifetime, they end quickly.

And most of the worst horrors we imagine come not from what we experience, but from what others want us to experience, and will never touch us or those we love or any part of our existence.

Most horror is borrowed, experienced third hand, and can be put down as quickly as it was picked up.

Meanwhile, joy is real, too.

Your life is tiny, and within the scope of the space and time you inhabit, it is livable and can be meaningful, and wonderful, and joyful. No matter who you are, no matter where you are, no matter what your life was like yesterday or what it will be like tomorrow.

Horrible things happen all around the world every minute. They always have. They always will.

But your life is not bound to all the horrors in the whole wide world.

Your world is not bound to the strife and conflict thrown at you by the guilt-mongers who want you to feel shame for not being in the middle of a war, not being starving, not being some other race or some other nationality or some other thing that someone else thinks you should be, or wishes you were.

You are not living in yesterday. You are not living in tomorrow.

Your life will have its share of pain, of grief, of fear, of loss, and someday it will end.

But you are here now.

You are in your tiny body, in your tiny space, where you can see what is real in this moment. Where you can hear and taste and touch the things that actually affect you. Where you can do what matters to you, and where you can choose to make the space that is your world better.

You are, right this instant, where you can bring goodness and joy into the places you can touch.

Or where you can choose to adopt the guilt and weight of the whole wide world until your time runs out, leaving nothing of you that matters behind.

Tomorrow or the next day, you may face terrible pain. I know I will on Monday. This is my reality, and with it comes the reality that this pain will last for days, and will be at times almost unbearable.

But I bore it once. I will bear it again. And it will pass.

I know that in a week, I may not get the news I want regarding the lesion that will be removed. If that happens, I will experience a sense of grief and loss. I will go through another kind of pain.

But I faced up to that pain while waiting for my last results, and managed to let go of the fear. To find joy in those moments I had while waiting.

If I don’t get good news, though, I will breathe in. Breathe out. Everyone gets one last good moment. If I can, I want my last good moment to be my last moment.

I have the same instant you have. The same single inhalation, the same single exhalation. The same microscopic now.

And from where I am standing right now, I can honestly say this—joy can grow in the strangest of situations, in the thinnest of soil, simply because you choose to plant the seed. Joy is a tough, beautiful thing.

And it grows in the space of a breath.

It grows when you realize that your life matters, and if right in this instant your life only matters to you, that’s okay. You get to find joy in that—that you care about yourself, that you love the way it feels to inhale. To exhale.

That being able to touch a keyboard or a flower or a friend’s hand is wonderful.

That smiling at a stranger, and having that stranger smile back makes you happy.

That standing in the hot sun feels good against your skin, and drinking a glass of cold water feels good, too.

That thinking your thoughts—knowing no one else can touch them or take them—is perfect freedom, no matter your circumstances.

That this instant, however imperfect, is yours for this breath, and it will be what you choose to make of it in this breath.

You are not the whole world, and you do not carry the guilt for the whole world, or even a tiny subset of it.

You are small. Light. You have ideas that are beautiful. Your thoughts are unchained, no matter where you are.

All you have to do is figure out how to make your life and the tiny portion of the world that you touch better for you and whoever matters to you, in just this moment.

To be joyful, you only have to create the life you love.

And you only have to do it one breath at a time.

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83 responses to “Life, Pain, Fear, and the Whole Wide World: Breathe In, Breathe Out”

  1. melinda (justmel) Avatar

    Beautifully said, Holly. Wishing you good news, less pain than you’re expecting, and a full and complete (and quick) recovery. So glad you caught this so early! ((Many hugs coming your way!))

  2. Amy Avatar


  3. Sherry Rentschler Avatar

    Even in your pain you chose to be uplifting and give hope. A finer example of goodness you cannot find.
    I pray for your recovery and remission. I will miss you. Feel the power of my hope for you.
    Bright Blessings, my virtual friend.

  4. KELECHI Avatar

    This is sending you prayers and I hope you recover fast and completely. God bless you for touching my life so much with your words.
    Thank you

  5. Judy French Avatar
    Judy French

    Beautifully written. Big hug!

  6. Aileen McLeod Avatar
    Aileen McLeod

    You are a talented and inspiring ‘special person’ God be with you Holly as we pray and hold you in our thoughts.

  7. Diane Avatar

    Thoughts, prayers, and good wishes for the best possible outcome. Bless you for your courage and your willingness to share your experience with others.

  8. Autumn Kalquist Avatar

    I loved this. Thank you for sharing it.

  9. Elaine Menendez Avatar
    Elaine Menendez

    Praying deep, fervent prayers from the very center of my heart for you…

  10. meham Avatar

    Joy thrives in sunlight and the showers of blessings. A saying: You can’t get wet from yesterday’s rain, you can’t get burned by tomorrow’s sun.

    and sending pillars of light for the best outcome.

  11. Ruth Avatar

    I hope – regardless of the outcome – you find recovery easier than you might be afraid it will be, and that you get to enjoy driving everyone around you batty during the ‘I’m better enough to enjoy being coddled’ stage.

  12. Kirsten Avatar

    As always, your words have stirred sparks in my mind, and brought tears to my eyes.
    Thank you for all that you do. You are proof that even though we each inhabit so small a space, the words and hopes and dreams that connect us make us larger than we can even imagine.

    My thoughts are with you in this difficult time. Take care of yourself, and let those who love you take care of you too.

  13. Cheryl Brown Avatar

    Wiping away the tears. Thank you for that, Holly. My cancer came back (again!!) about the same time your tongue exploded, so I’ve got some idea what you’re going through – emotionally, at least. Please accept my love and long distance Australian hugs. I hope it’s all over after this next surgery and your worst fears never have to be faced!
    I’m halfway through batch one of radiotherapy (again) and the only thing that works is to breathe and to laugh. That’s it. When it’s all done and dusted – the only way to survive is to BREATHE and LAUGH!
    Much love to you,

  14. Christine J Randall Avatar
    Christine J Randall

    Take care.

  15. LisaM Avatar

    Wishing you all the very best on Monday, Holly, and in the aftermath.

  16. tom toimaine Avatar
    tom toimaine

    you are alive with all the joy, pain, fear, hope and accomplishments that go with it. I would like to hug you right now

  17. Texanne Avatar

    Best wishes and good vibes for your good health and for your experiencing much less pain than you’re anticipating. :)TX

  18. Jacqueline Harris Avatar

    Thank you Holly, this is a wonderful message that reached right under my skin and hit where it belongs. Brought me to centre faster than anything. Wishing you all the very very best.

  19. Karen Giuseppe Avatar
    Karen Giuseppe

    Beautiful words! You teach us such valuable lessons. Thinking of you and hoping everything goes well for you on Monday.

  20. JT Avatar

    Thank you for the insight. Best wishes for your recovery.

  21. Wassilissa Fusari Avatar
    Wassilissa Fusari

    Sending love, and gratitude for all you are and all you’ve shared.

  22. kath unsworth Avatar

    Holly I wish you peace, going through this procedure and I pray everything will be good again. This is an amazingly powerful piece of writing. Sometimes the smallest moments are all we have. You are an inspiration.

  23. Sallie Avatar

    Thank you for your raw honesty and great reminder about what really matters in life! I’ll be sending you good energy on Monday and in the days that follow. Take care of you and don’t come back until you are ready. We will be waiting patiently, because you are worth waiting for. The individual’s world may be small, but you have touched many small worlds just by being you! Blessings to you!

  24. Susan Avatar

    Godspeed, Holly.

  25. Sunwolfe Avatar

    Thank you for this serious reminder, Holly, and for givin’ it to us raw and full of truth. We humans…what a silly self-absorbed lot we are ๐Ÿ™‚ ! All the best on Monday; you’re in my thoughts, prayers and meditations.

  26. EKCarmel Avatar

    Thank you, Holly, for your sensible, thoughtful words. Good luck and best wishes for your successful surgery and an easy recovery, but, please, take all the time your body needs.

  27. Linda Avatar

    Let’s make a pact Holly, you and I are facing surgery and uncertainty over the next three weeks. Let us convene somehow and take our 53years of skills and life experience, and say hello to a world where we have a voice, not just a tongue to convey it, , and say hello to the next 30years without health incident, alive and truly kicking on Eart!! Whaddya say? Pain be damned, this has to be done, let’s do it and get it over with, we have the rest of our lives and a tough schedule to keep! Let’s do it together, Holly. It’s scary, we’re small, but by golly, we’re strong as the ant with his rubber tree plant!

  28. Peter Ditzel Avatar

    Thank you for sharing this. I’ll be passing it on to others. My prayers are with you.

  29. Valerie Coupland Avatar
    Valerie Coupland

    Such a moving post, Holly. I do hope you’ll be fine and the pain will be over quickly. Please, take care of you. When it is over and if you can afford it, have a little vacation, even in your own house or overnight camping somewhere in a calm, beautiful, natural place.You deserve it and you need it.

  30. Ken Casey Avatar
    Ken Casey

    We love you, Holly. May you heal quickly and well. When you’re ready, we will be here for you. ๐Ÿ™‚

  31. Robert Avatar

    My outlook has changed. You article is so REAL!!!

    I feel for you Holly, and truly wish for you a very long, very healthy, very happy future.

  32. Pat Marinelli Avatar

    Great post. One I also needed to hear today. My thoughts and prayers are with you. Wishing you a speedy recover from your surgery and a good outcome.

  33. Marshall Avatar

    The important thing now is for you to take good care of yourself and get well. The work will still be here when you are ready and so will we.

  34. Janet Avatar

    What a wonderful article. Best of wishes go with you next week and for a healthy healing afterward.

  35. Walter Avatar

    Oh, I forgot to comment on the issue of putting children into this world. Who else than we, who are trying hard to feel, understand and reflect what happens around us should be better equipped to raise children? Many terrible things happen in this world because of parents who do not give a flying sh… of what happens around them and who just think about themselves. I encourage any couple to create a counterweight to that. In this way, the world can actually become a better place.

  36. Walter Avatar

    You touched the feeling of being in the present, in the now, in spite of pain and unpleasant experiences. Right now, you even remember the joy in your life. That is wonderful. That is a blessing. Understand it as a compensation of all the terrible things you need to go through now and during the coming days. Make good use of your presence in the now. Keep it as long as you can. Joy will come by it self again, and you will forget all the pain and you loose your presence in now – or may be not…?

    You told me in one of your workshops, it is good to focus on candies in my writing process. Candies appear all the time. That is yours now. Enjoy! – and stay strong.

  37. Renee Avatar

    Hello Holly,

    Thank you for sharing this. I can tell it is from the bottom of your heart. I appreciate your putting life in perspective…that we don’t inhabit the whole world, nor do we need to feel guilty because we aren’t something other than what we are. It also helps to remember that we cannot do everything about all the trouble in the whole world. We inhabit our space and that is where we can make a difference. Thank you so much for your was such an encouragement to me.

  38. Lewinna Avatar

    It is excellent to bring children into the world simply BECAUSE it is a world full of pain and misery. Human beings are the only creatures with the consciousness, the awareness, and not to mention the power and creativity and will, to make a difference, to live virtuously, and to really change things for the better.

    So don’t raise monsters–don’t have children if you don’t have a stable, disciplined, loving environment to raise them well in, but if you have that, by all means, society is in great need of human beings. The treasure to the world and to society that one human being is, with all his or her potential, cannot be underestimated.

    Not to mention that, the first world is undergoing a bad crisis right now in terms of an increasingly aging population. Young people are not replacing our retiring population. Fertility rates and birth rates are plummeting. This is the slow societal suicide of contraception and abortion, but we definitely need more people in the world.

  39. Jenna Thornburg Avatar
    Jenna Thornburg

    What a wonderful read. Thank you for your honesty and your inspiring words. I wish you the best with your surgery. God bless you.

  40. Rohi Shetty Avatar

    Hi Holly,
    Thanks for this incredible article. Im going to share it with others who are going through a tough time. All my best to you, Holly. Thanks for teaching us not only how to write but also how to live. YOU ARE AWESOME.

  41. Judy Mitchell Rich Avatar

    This is beautiful, important, and wise. I am sending Peace and Joy your way in this moment and in moments to come. May God richly bless you and your work and all who love your life.

  42. Nicole Avatar

    That is beautiful and heartbreaking and inspiring all at the same time. My thoughts and prayers go out to you! Breathing…

  43. tina Avatar

    Good thoughts and hopes coming your way. As someone battling terminal cancer I really appreciate your thoughtful words. They were what I needed today. Thank you.

    1. Walter Daniels Avatar
      Walter Daniels

      Like Holly and you, I know pain, although not the same kinds. Since 1973, I’ve had _4_ serious knee injuries and a serious back injury. The back injury has me in a wheelchair and taking narcotics to control pain. Some days, I just (figuratively) “put one foot in front of the other.”
      In spite of all that, I have a Children’s/YA book published to Amazon, and three Recipes for Single And Handicapped cookbooks, waiting for cover art. I also have two other books in progress, even though I’m in a Nursing Home.
      DO NOT give up.

  44. Jean Avatar

    I’ve been discovering this as well. For a time, I wanted to be “responsible” — paying attention to what was happening in the world, trying to find a way to make a difference, but I’m slowly reaching the conclusion I can’t do that, nor should I even try. I can, however, affect the very small space around me, so maybe I should focus on that.

    Time to eliminate the things that don’t fit in my life anymore — some never did fit. Moving forward.

  45. Anna Avatar

    Way to go, Holly. Good health to you, and an end to pain. Your courage and persistence are an inspiration!

  46. Rez Avatar

    Come back well and with a reasonably whole mouth. We’ll wait. ๐Ÿ™‚

  47. Olive Avatar

    Prayers and well wishes to you, Holly. Your newsletters and courses are amazing, as are you. Take time to heal, we’ll be waiting through your recovery. Keep us posted so we can give back to you the inspiration you’ve given us in our writing worlds.

  48. Marie-Claire Allington Avatar

    Hugs to all of you – I am a lucky one right now and in no pain. I have noticed that it is like we are all on swingboats that go uo and down at dif’ times – in all the groups in which we exist we rarely have the same thing going on at any one time – may be that is so some can support and some be supported – don’t know but I know we will all be writing hard while you are feeling crook then if we can’t do anything else for you right now you can know you have inspired this big tough gang to get going. Best Wishes from down on the farm in sunny Dorset UK MC ๐Ÿ™‚

  49. Raven Oak Avatar

    I’m with Melinda. I really needed to hear this today as well.
    Stumbling through chronic pain myself right now and I needed the reminder. The pain is temporary–nothing but a moment.
    Thank you.

  50. Melinda Primrose Avatar
    Melinda Primrose

    Thank you! You have no idea how much I needed to hear this today.

    1. Nick O'Connor Avatar
      Nick O’Connor

      Thanks for doing what a writer does and putting yourself out there for the rest of us to tune into. I admire your tender toughness.

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