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The Power of Owning Your Story

“In our woundedness, we can become sources of life for others.” – Henri J. M. Nouwen [Tweet this.] | [Share on Facebook.]

In honor of the crisp fall air and the newly present sweater weather – I thought we’d get inspired with an excerpt from my book ON FIRE called “The Red Jacket.”

This vignette will have less to do with the changing of seasons and layering up and much more to do with owning your story and your life. Enjoy:


On Fire Book by John O'Leary

The Red Jacket
Excerpt from #1 National Bestselling Book ON FIRE [p.40]

I trained to be a hospital chaplain when I was twenty-seven… I went through the classes. Worked the overnight shifts. Completed the intense workload… After each visit with a patient in the hospital, we would meet with an adviser to debrief our effectiveness. These meetings would help improve our focus, communication, and impact. Being invited to sit, speak, and listen to grieving, ill, anxious, lonely, or dying patients was a massive honor; it was totally humbling. But those visits were frequently challenging and exhausting to me as well.

After one particularly difficult session with a patient, I was talking about what happened with my adviser, Dr. Davis. He sat patiently and listened. He leaned back in his chair. He put his hands behind his head. He asked a few clarifying questions.

Then he said, “John, do you know what your story is?” I looked at him briefly, puzzled.

This wasn’t about me. This was about the person I was trying to help!

Plus, hadn’t he listened to anything I’d said these past few months? He knew I’d grown up in the area and had attended SLU as an undergrad.

He looked at me. “Seriously, John, tell me your story.”

Um, well, I grew up here in St. Louis. I work as a real estate developer—

He interrupted me. “No, John. Do you know what your story is?” I paused, still confused as to what he was after.

Okay, I’ll go further back. I’m one of six kids, my parents met in high school and are still married—

This time he interrupted me by getting up from his chair, walking over to a cabinet, and paging through the files.

I stopped talking and crossed my arms in frustration. Finally, he found what he was looking for, pulled out a sheet of paper, and handed it to me. “Read this.”

I took the sheet of paper and begrudgingly began to read. Though it’s been over ten years since I read it, I will never forget the story.

The article was about a little girl who walked into a classroom, took off the bright red jacket she had been wearing, threw it on the floor, then sat down at her desk. The teacher saw what she did and asked the girl, Mary, if she could please go hang her jacket up.

The little girl looked at the jacket, back at the teacher, and said, “That’s not my jacket.”

What are you hiding?

The teacher explained that it wasn’t a big deal, Mary wasn’t in trouble, but that she saw the little girl drop the jacket and she needed to go hang it up in the back of the room.

The little girl argued back, “That’s not my jacket. I told you, it’s not mine.”

A classmate piped in, “But I saw you drop it. It’s the jacket you wear every single day, Mary.”

The little girl crossed her arms, stomped her feet, and yelled back, “That’s not my jacket. That’s not my jacket!”

I finished the article, handed it back, and looked up blankly at Dr. Davis.

“Do you understand what that story is saying?”

Um, that this little girl needs to hang up her freaking jacket?

Dr. Davis shook his head. “John, we all have a story. We all have unique experiences that make us who we are. Those experiences create the gift that you, specifically, and only you, can share with others.” He paused. “John, I don’t know why you decided to start this program, or what your gift is, but just know that you can’t possibly help those people lying in the hospital beds identify what matters most to them if you don’t first know your story, what you’ve been through and what matters most to you.”

Although I graduated from the chaplaincy program, I still had no clue what that red-jacket story or that little girl had to do with me.

I am a slow learner.

Fortunately, the people who knew me best were about to rock my world by putting my red jacket in a place where I could no longer cross my arms in denial. Whether I liked it or not, my red jacket was about to be forced on, zipped up, glued on, and broadcast loudly to the whole classroom and the entire world.


Find out what happened when I put on my red jacket and what it means in your life by reading ON FIRE. Order your copy here.

1 reply on “Put on Your Jacket”

I heard John O’Leary speak at the NASPA conference in Seattle WA. He was fantastic, it was hard to focus on the other speakers as his presence was still very strong.

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