Almost 10 years ago, when I was working at a retirement home as a dishwasher, my co-workers and I were given a piece of advice from a man named Ernie on his 103rd birthday. I didn’t know Ernie very well. He was quiet. A large piece of his jaw had been replaced in an operation several years before.
Speaking was a challenge, but he was always smiling. He’d be laughing at his table during dinner time, as one of his friends spun a joke. Before his birthday, I’d probably exchanged no more than five words with him.
It was a beautiful occasion. Ernie was a great-great-grandparent, so five generations of people sat around his table, with Ernie at the head of all he’d helped create. Once the celebratory roast had been eaten, it was time for dessert and a song. The retirement home manager brought him a cupcake with one candle (though she made a half-hearted joke at the time about how 103 candles would be too expensive, it was a good thing Ernie didn’t get a whole cake because he extinguished the candle with spit).
Right after he doused the candle, my manager asked:
“Do you have any advice?”
To which Ernie (who was hard of hearing) said “heh?!”
“DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE!” She repeated.
“Yeah!” Ernie slurred. “Just keep on breathin’”.
At the time, I was disappointed. Even at the age of 18, words were my lifeblood. I had been on the edge of my seat when my manager asked him for advice, so ready to receive his wisdom that it hurt. That answer seemed like a cop-out.
It took me years of travel, heartbreak, obsession, mistakes, and forgiveness before I realized how elementally profound that statement was.
Ernie was born in 1908, which means he lived through:
- World War I (as a small child)
- The Great Depression
- The Korean War
- The Vietnam War
- The Watergate Scandal
- The Persian Gulf War
- The Dotcom crash
- The Y2K Panic
- The 2008 housing market crisis
- Occupy Wall Street
Those are just the major events, the tip of the iceberg against the backdrop of 103 years of life. By the time I met him, he’d outlived three wives, without being divorced once. And looking back on all of that, he told us “just keep on breathin’”.
Taken out of context, ‘just keep on breathin’ could lead you to believe that Ernie lived a boring life, as a passive observer, just letting things happen to him. He did not. From conversations with his daughter, I found out that Ernie had been a barnstormer in the early 1900s. He’d been a trick pilot when planes were held together with little more than hope, then went on to serve as a pilot in World War II.
Quotes don’t need to be cryptic Zen koans to change your life. They just have to mean something to you. “Just keep on breathin’” reminds me of “this too shall pass.” It reminds us that most of the world is outside our control. That we must take care of ourselves. “Just keep on breathin’” is something to keep in mind as the chaos remains chaotic.
In the age of information, the world feels overwhelming. Many people feel paralyzed by the scope of the problems we have to face (I’m often included in that group). Just keep on breathin’ brings us back to basics. it reminds us that we are not responsible for the world. We are responsible for our corner of it.
Don’t let life take your breath. Just keep on breathin’, through the anxiety, through the chaos, through the world’s frustrations. You can’t fight a warrior’s battles without your breath.
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