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. Katharina Gerlach Avatar

    “Joy is a tough, beautiful thing.”
    Joy is my daughter (name and character).

    I hope you got good news and are already feeling a little better.

  2. Fitch Avatar

    Well said.

    I’m a two time cancer survivor. I arrived at the same place you articulate in late November 2001, I was sitting in my family room studying my cancer data, wondering if I needed a 5 year plan. I’d been diagnosed with cancer. It was aggressive. I’d chosen the only treatment that gave me a chance for a cure. The TV was on, Christmas Carols were playing already, people were talking about the new year, life was going on, and would go on.

    I decided right then that what mattered was the next minute, the joy I could get out of whatever time I had remaining, which turned out to be at least 14 years, and hopefully a few more. The surgery was successful. Ten years later I again had symptoms, and had radiation. It was successful. There is no chemo for it, which is in many ways a feature, I’ve watched loved ones go through chemo and it sucks.

    I retired two years after the first surgery after a 35 year dream career in aerospace engineering (never worked on the same thing twice, spent most of the time working to do what had never been done before). My rules for retirement:

    Having fun is Job 1.

    Nothing is urgent.

    At the moment I’m having fun teaching myself to write fiction.

  3. Lani Avatar


    I pray that you will heal quickly and be pain-free. Don’t apologize for any inconvenience, your health is the top priority. Please cut your workload – you don’t need to have such a long to-do list at this time. Take the time to rest and heal.

  4. Adam Scott Campbell Avatar

    It’s untrue to say I know exactly what you’re going through, Holly. I’ve had two brain surgeries for tumors, six surgeries above the neck to date. I love your outlook. Life is very painful at times. Life is also very GOOD. I’m grateful for the things that I experience; they help me realize that I’m stronger than I know, and of greater worth than I believed. I pray for you. May God bless and preserve you, Holly.

  5. Susan Flemming Avatar

    Beautifully written and so obviously from the heart. Sending you warm thoughts filled with the spirit and it’s deepest meaning… Aloha.

  6. Sivasubramanian Avatar

    Dear Holly Lisle,
    I fervently pray to God, you quickly recover from pain and gain good health.

  7. Murky Master Avatar

    And this is why I read Holly Lisle.

  8. Joan MacReynolds Avatar
    Joan MacReynolds

    I am wishing you excellent luck and perfect work by your medical team and your own healing body. You offer hope and love to us all.

  9. Ramble Avatar

    Thinking good thoughts for you during this tough time, Holly! I’m inspired by all that you do and how you tackle the tough stuff. I think every one of your students wants you to take all the time you need to heal and we will all be keeping you in our hearts and minds over the next few weeks!

  10. Andrea Avatar

    Thanks a lot. I really needed these words.

    May God bless you and give you lots of health and happiness.

    ¡Muchísimas gracias por compartir esto!

    Un cálido abrazo y muchas bendiciones.

  11. John B Avatar
    John B

    Dear Holly,
    I’m so sorry you are going through this. Your fiction has given me more than a little enjoyment. That’s why I originally subscribed to emails from you. I did a little writing in college, but I found it agonizing. Ever word on the page was written not in blood, but in bits of flesh. I failed not 1 nor 2 but 3 college English classes because of this. Each one was a few years apart and allowed me forget/suppress the difficulty these courses imposed on me. I was 28 by the time I took my last one. Married, with a two year old. I had survived the draft and changed thousands of dressings on young men who had come much closer to death than I had. It was only this perspective that allowed me to write down my thoughts and feelings in a sufficiently coherent manner to finally pass that stupid course. I hope this gives a little impression of my admiration for writers and people who help writers to develop and grow. Thank you. You are and have been in my thoughts more than you may ever know.

  12. Cat Weaver Avatar
    Cat Weaver

    Thank you for your courage, love and generous spirit–even in the midst of this pain.

    Blessings, Holly. You inspire and move me to find and keep joy, to keep writing, and to cherish those around me and the life I live.

    Carole, age 71, a breast cancer survivor weeping as I type this.

  13. Lee Avatar

    Hugs Holly. Keeping you in my prayers.

  14. Cassie Bentley Avatar
    Cassie Bentley

    Best wishes for a speedy recovery and good lab results. I’ll miss you, but know that you need this time to heal and recover. Take all the time you need.

  15. Barbara Avatar

    What an amazing take on life!! Thanks so much for the gift of that perspective.

    Here’s wishing you a speedy recovery and news that this surgery is only a speed bump along the way.

    Be well!

  16. Judith Wilson Avatar
    Judith Wilson

    Beautiful and thoughtful post, Holly. Thoughts and prayers of many people are with you.

  17. Sivasubramani Avatar

    I pray to God, you’re relieved of your pain and lead a healthy and happy life.
    Your friend.

  18. Amy Keeley Avatar

    Thank you for writing this fantastic post. I’m sharing it.

    I hope all goes well on Monday and that the pain passes quickly so that you can get back to the better parts of life.

  19. Victoria Evangelina Avatar
    Victoria Evangelina

    Dear Holly,

    May God bless you with good health, and quick and speedy recovery. May Archaengel Raphael surrounds you with his healing emerald light and guides your doctors to bring you the best treatment. I hope you are going to have a healthy, happy, joyful life and we will be following your successes and learning from the wisdom and craft, that you generously share with us, for many, many decades to come!!!

  20. Claudette Avatar

    Holly, your words and thoughts have touched each of us in our little patch of Earth and impacted our lives. Each time you share one of your epiphanies, we benefit from it. That is one of your many gifts to us.

    As you say, fear can push us forward or stop us in our tracks, according to how we choose to live.Our choices make us who we are, I think, more than the experiences which require those choices. With each, we present the world with our character and fortitude, our attitude and our philosophy.

    Each of us have our trials, some medical, some emotional, some social. Yet for us all, the decisions, choices, responses within each moment of existence are strictly our own, as you say. No one is responsible for them any more than we are responsible for those of others.

    Having lived long with the talent taking on the responsibility for the world, I can testify to its weight. That personal choice is also a killer. Giving it up isn’t the easiest choice to make or to practice, either.

    My prayers and thoughts are with you in the coming week and beyond. I can sympathize with your inhalation/exhalation reality. Sometimes that act alone is the only choice to make that preserves us in the now.

    An old NA proverb says, In all, there is what was, what is, and what will be. It means, we are what we’ve experienced, what we experience, and what we carry forward to guide us in experience. In your case, the fight continues, for you’ve learned that you can fight and push through, regardless of circumstance. You have that power, for you’ve given yourself that power.

    Be well, Holly, and be at peace.

  21. Sherry Avatar

    Thank you, Holly. You’ve got the best looking big-girl-panties ever seen. Get healthy. You’ve got more people to inspire and more false walls to bring down. I’m off to find my own pair of panties because you really rock that style. Seriously, though, I wish I could give back in return what this article has granted me – hope. Candle lighting commencing now.

  22. Mignon Avatar

    Thanks for everything you do! Prayers and hugs to you for a smooth recovery.

  23. Aleta Kay Avatar

    Beautifully stated, Holly. I’m praying that the results will be good and that you will recover quickly, not so you can get back to wearing yourself out, but just because I care. I know everyone else who reads your blog loves you, too. We just want you well because we love you.

  24. Bev Avatar

    Love and best wishes for a quick recovery – every human being is important to someone. Some human beings are more important to more people.
    Be well Holly, many people love you <3

  25. Varina Suellen Plonski Avatar
    Varina Suellen Plonski

    Beautifully said, Holly. What you’ve written shows you have hope, and you have a good soul. Yes, perhaps this world is full of “grimdark,” but it is also full of bright hope as well. People like you understand that, if nothing else, we can reach out to each other. We can touch each other, and when we do, when we give a smile to someone who has none, we both shine a little brighter. You never know when that one brief smile that cost you nothing could be the one thing that saves someone. It’s happened before, and will happen again.

    Best of luck to you on Monday and afterward. I’ll keep a good thought for you and yours!

  26. Penelope Avatar

    Hi Holly,

    Your words have been such an inspiration, such a solace in times of self doubt, and such inspiring motivation as I worked to publication of my novels. Best wishes in the weeks ahead. In New Zealand we have a phrase: ‘Kia Kaha’. In Maori it means “be strong”. So, Kia Kaha, Holly,

    Best wishes,


  27. Laurel Avatar

    Your message today has opened up doors. Remember you have so many strong vibes of healing coming your way in the weeks which follow.

  28. Avril Sabine Avatar

    All the best for your surgery and wishing you good results and a quick recovery.

  29. Trish Avatar

    All the best, Holly, from Australia – thinking of you and sending good deep breaths in your direction. Wishing you a good outcome, and not too much pain to cope with after the op. Thanks for taking the time to write this lovely piece.

  30. Grace V. Robinette Avatar
    Grace V. Robinette

    Your words – To be joyful, you only have to create the life you love.
    And you only have to do it one breath at a time.
    Have so much value. Thank you Holly.
    Your blog reminds me of a recent happening. I was in the library, doing serious writing. Was vaguely aware that others had come to sit at this large round table. Was sort of aware of a vigorous conversation being enacted around me. finally looked up to see that they were signing.
    Fortunately, you will return to our oral world. One breath at a time. Amazingrace

  31. Ro Avatar

    Cogito ergo sum. Everything else is just gravy.

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