“Oh, why you look so sad?
Tears are in your eyes
Come on and come to me now.
Don't be ashamed to cry
Let me see you through
'cause I've seen the dark side too.”
When we moved to a new state almost two years ago, I knew there would be challenging moments for my daughters, then eleven and eight years old. We’d gone from a school where they knew everyone to a school where they knew no one. Even swim team, which my older daughter excelled in for many years, was drastically different. She went from a family-friendly year-round program at the YMCA to a large, competitive program with the area’s most elite swimmers. I can vividly recall two moments during the first year in our new state when I saw my older daughter’s pain and wanted to spare her from it.
The first moment was when her beloved teacher abruptly left the classroom one day and never came back. For personal reasons, the teacher was not able to say goodbye to the students. I can still hear my daughter’s guttural cries wondering why her teacher left them.
The second moment was in the final championship of a divisional swim meet. Earlier that day, my daughter missed the cut off for finals by one spot in the 50-meter breaststroke event. We were informed that she could come back that evening as an alternate. This meant she’d warm up as if she was going to swim and report to the starting blocks when her event was called. When the first whistle sounded, she would quickly scan the blocks. If a block was empty, she was to quickly jump up on the block and swim the race.
Just the thought of this agonizing process made my palms sweat! As a cautious planner with the tendency to worry, I was surprised my daughter wanted to put herself in such an unpredictable situation. But she did. I’ll never forget standing next to her as her eyes frantically scanned the blocks, her hands clasped nervously in hopes of there being an empty spot.
When there wasn’t, I saw her shoulders fall. Her eyelids blinked in rapid succession as she fought back tears of disappointment.
My child’s inner turmoil was palpable. Just like the day her teacher abruptly left her classroom, my daughter’s pain was my pain, and it felt unbearable to watch her go through it.
When we got in the car, I immediately told her how proud I was of her courage. I grappled with what to say next. This is what came out: “Although the result was not what you hoped for, you gained valuable experience that will help you get through the next challenge you face. When something feels familiar, even something painful or disappointing, it helps you overcome the next obstacle.”
I gave her a few examples that personified uncomfortable feelings and how experience helps us deal with them. It sounded like this:
“Hey disappointment, I know you. And I know you eventually pass.”
“Hey frustration, I’ve dealt with you before. You didn’t stop me then, and you won’t stop me now.”
“Hey obstacle, you tried to stop me, but I made it to the other side. That’s what I am going to do today.”
I reminded my child that pain and disappointment can be like walking into a familiar place. They don’t feel as scary if you’ve been there before.
As my daughter sat silent in the backseat, I drove home wondering if I was cut out for parenting an adolescent. I knew full well that as she grew, her pains, disappointments, and struggles would cut deeper and she’d fall harder. It would be so difficult to stand by during these moments. What is my role in her pain? I wondered.
As I struggled with this question, I was connected with a man named John O’Leary. When John was nine years old, he watched his older brother and friends lighting matches to drops of gasoline on the sidewalk. One cold morning in 1987, he went out to his garage, grabbed the can of gasoline and a match, and gave it a try. The explosion burned 100% of his body. Although he was given no chance of living, he lived. In fact, he thrived. Through his remarkable triumph and the people who came into his life throughout his healing process, his story has become an inspiration to people worldwide.
When John began interviewing me about my work, it didn’t take long to recognize what a blessing it was to hear this man’s perspective, wisdom, and heart. When he graciously asked me to consider endorsing his forthcoming book, On Fire, there was no question. I could not wait for the book to arrive.
Over the past seven months, I've read John’s book three times. Aside from my children’s favorite books, I've read never any book three times. The first time I read it was to provide an endorsement. The second time I read it was when I was in the midst of unresolved health issues. As I packed my hospital bag for my third surgery in six months, I grabbed John’s book knowing it would comfort and strengthen me before surgery.
I read John’s book a third time just weeks ago as I recovered from an intense writing period. I knew John’s wisdom would enlighten me as I grappled with tough questions about my life’s purpose and direction. And it just so happened that I brought John’s book to pass time at my daughter’s all-day swim meet—the same meet that brought her pain and disappointment exactly one year ago.
Maybe it was the number of eager young people milling around, but this time, I was struck by something in John’s book I hadn’t noticed before: John’s perspective as a child. My favorite parts of the book were John’s flashbacks. To hear what went on in the mind of a child facing a monumental trial and the way his parents responded to his trial felt like an answer to prayer. Each time John’s parents, nurses, and mentors did not rescue John from impending struggle, frustration, and challenge, it became an opportunity for growth, wisdom, strengthened faith, and greater independence for John. These challenging opportunities shaped him into who he is today—a man who plays piano without fingers … a man who inspires prison inmates to look around and see blessings inside concrete walls … a man who could have let fear suffocate his life, but he chose to live.
As I waited for my daughter to swim, I found myself starring and highlighting one particular passage with vigor. Nine-year-old John had just come home from the hospital. He’d spent five months in the hospital, endured a couple dozen surgeries, and lost his fingers to amputation. That night, his mom made his favorite meal: au gratin potatoes. After taking in the moment of family, home, and the delicious smell of dinner, John realized he could not hold a fork. He writes:
“My sister Amy saw me struggling. So she thoughtfully grabbed my fork, speared a few potatoes, and elevated them toward my mouth.
Then I heard it.
‘Put down that fork, Amy. If John is hungry, he’ll feed himself.’
I turned my head toward my mom.
What did she say?
Put that fork down?
He’ll feed himself?
What the heck, Mom? Haven’t I already been through enough? Are you kidding me? I am hungry and I can’t eat!
That night I cried at the table. I got mad at my mom. I told her I could not do it, that it wasn’t fair, and I’d been through enough. The night quickly shifted from celebration and laughter to upheaval and contention.
The party was over.
Mom ruined it all.
Yet that night also created another inflection point for a nine-year-old boy. As my siblings cleared their plates and my hunger mounted, I wedged the fork between what remained of my two hands. My fingers had been amputated just above the bottom knuckles. Because the skin had not entirely healed, my hands were wrapped in thick gauze. I looked like a boxer fighting to get a fork between two boxing gloves.
It was painstakingly slow.
The fork repeatedly fell out of my grasp.
But eventually, I awkwardly stabbed at the potatoes, brought them to my mouth, and chewed them.
And I stared angrily at my mom.
I was mad.
My hands throbbed.
She’d ruined my night.
I hated her.
But I was eating.
Looking back on it, I see what a courageous stand my mom took. It must have been extremely painful for her to sit with the entire family watching her little guy. How much easier and seemingly more loving it would have been to just feed me those potatoes and bring out the ice-cream cake.
How much easier it is in life to not do—or to make others do—the hard stuff.
Easier to take a picture of the family with everybody smiling at the dinner table, a little kid in a wheelchair at the end, post on Facebook, and write, ‘Back to normal!! We’re all home and doing great!’
Mom wasn’t worried about what others thought.
She wasn’t concerned about Photoshopping the moment.
Mom utilized this moment as a reminder that others would be there to encourage, to serve, to love me. But this was still my fight, this was still my life. It might be ripe with challenges, but it was also my opportunity to realize that none of those obstacles would be surmountable.
This moment was just the beginning of many times when I would have to find my way. She forced me to pick up my fork. And I am completely convinced I would not be living the life I am living today if she hadn’t.”
John’s powerful passage reminded of what my friend Glennon Doyle Melton said the other night when I heard her speak. A question was raised regarding parents who are going through difficult life experiences like job loss, divorce, trauma, relocation, and health woes. The audience member described being overwhelmed with guilt when her children experience hardship, struggle, and pain because of her life circumstances.
Glennon made the enlightening point that the characteristics we most want to develop in our children—like resiliency, strength, tenacity, determination, independence, and compassion—come from enduring adverse and challenging situations. Her profound words and John’s life story confirmed my role in my daughter’s pain and struggle; it is not to rescue, minimize, or abandon my child during her time of need, but instead to listen, support, encourage, and believe in her ability to overcome.
This time, things turned out differently at the divisional swim meet. This time, my daughter earned a spot in the finals. When came time for her event, she asked me to walk to the starting block area with her. I immediately noticed the absence of nerves. Unlike most minutes pre-event, my child was smiling—glowing actually. She turned to me and said, “This is what I have been working for all year, Mama. I am so happy I am here.”
Wow. I thought. That moment of pain and disappointment one year ago had ignited a goal within this child’s heart. Over the course of the year, determination, focus, and strength were cultivated within her.
As she climbed up on the blocks, I was struck by her small stature compared to the other swimmers. It took a lot of hard work and belief in herself to earn that spot. Had either of us shielded her from that stressful experience as an alternate, I am not sure that inner fire would have been lit.
As my daughter propelled herself from one end of the pool to the other, I realized and celebrated these hope-filled truths:
On the other side of disappointment is desire—desire to create a different outcome next time.
On the other side of letdown is belief—belief that your story is far from over.
On the other side of pain is strength—strength you didn’t know you had until you had to dig deep to find it.
On the other side of hurt is gratitude—gratitude for those who love you and stand by you in your pain.
On the other side of despair is connection—connection that comes from recognizing a familiar look of pain in someone else’s eyes and reaching out your hand.
And this, the empathetic response, was perhaps the greatest gift that awaited my daughter on the other side of her struggle.
When my daughter climbed out of the pool, she didn’t walk straight over to her coach as she normally did. She walked over to the young lady standing poolside with tearful eyes. My daughter leaned in to whisper something to her as she gently touched her arm.
That girl was an alternate, just like my daughter had been last year.
“I remember how it felt,” she told me on the way home. “And I wanted her to know she wasn’t alone.”
My friends, shielding our loved ones from struggle, challenge, pain, and disappointment is tempting; I know. But let us remember the characteristics we most want our beloveds to develop are often born from a place of adversity. So that one day, when our beloveds come face to face with sadness, trauma, loss, or hopelessness, they will not be paralyzed with fear or give up because it's too hard. Instead they will say, “I know you. I’ve seen you before. You cannot take me down. In fact, I’ll face you and come out stronger than I was before.”
My friends, if it was not clear in my post how much I value John’s book, perhaps this will confirm it: As a bestselling author, I am privileged to receive many Advance Reader Copies of forthcoming books to consider endorsing. When I feel like the book fits with my work and would be of value to this community, I read it—every single page. I know you trust my opinion and so I always make sure the books I endorse are ones I’ve read completely and believe in whole-heartedly. When I was reading John’s book for the first time, a dear friend kept coming to mind. My friend was going through a prolonged period of challenge, and I felt certain he needed this book right that minute—not when the book was published six months later. I was not surprised when John allowed me to do what is typically unheard of—send my Advanced Reader Copy of ON FIRE to my friend. I was certain John’s words would enable my friend to keep believing and carrying on. That piece of John's message is only one aspect of the book that makes it so beneficial. John also emphasizes how to live with a perspective of gratitude and that component of the book is life changing. And, as I mentioned earlier, John enables us to see how supporting our loved ones through life’s challenges, rather than sparing them, can alter the course of their lives for the better. I celebrate the recent release of John’s incredible book and encourage you to read it over and over as a guidebook for a courageously lived life. Click here to purchase ON FIRE and the read glowing endorsements from Brené Brown, Dave Ramsey, Sean Covey, and myself.
Recommended resource: “Safe, Not Scared,” is an incredibly enlightening article related to today’s blog post. The author, Sandy Blackard, works behind the scenes here on my blog to help me answer the many messages I receive each day from readers facing challenging life events. Sandy's article provides actual dialogue examples for toddlers on up that develop a strong sense of self-trust and parental-trust to help your loved one stay safe, not scared, despite the world’s dangers. It also contains a letter I wrote to my older daughter several years ago that anyone is free to use to say critical words to a child or teen. Thank you for being part of The Hands Free Revolution community. I cherish you.