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John O’Leary shares how a burn-camp counselor’s message to him about belonging is one we all need to live by during the 2020 election season and beyond.

“You belong here.”

Although the election is just a day away, the tense divisiveness within the country will require far more time to heal.  Regardless of which candidate wins, the general unrest, social injustice and personal anxiety will continue to be felt.

In the midst of this fractious season, I’m reminded of witnessing an alternative possibility at a burn camp for children decades ago. While there, I was reminded of the transformational possibility of coming together to heal wounds, unify differences and aspire to true greatness.

As painful as physical recovery from a severe burn is, the assimilation into your “old life” can be even more difficult; having a strong community helps.

As excruciatingly painful as burns, bandage changes, or therapy might be, physical pain can be masked with drugs, endured with grit, or overcome with time. The far greater challenge for a survivor is the emotional pain of the trauma.

It’s the agony of completely losing who we thought we were and what physically defined us, and the challenge of accepting the scars we now bear and the person we’ve unwillingly become.

It’s the affliction of entering rooms and feeling the stares from others, hearing whispers from curious children and the inevitable shushing afterwards from their parents, quieting them and telling them not to point. The pain is being observed by others as different, less-than, broken.

And it’s the anguish of finally leaving that hospital room and returning to the safety of our own home. Only to be met by a mirror in the hallway, bathroom, bedroom in which we see our new scarred reflection and realize the painful truth  that they might be right. Even though we are back to “normal”… perhaps we are now different, less-than, broken.

Many survivors wrestle with this type of pain, but I was fortunate at a burn camp for children to experience something that helped change my life. Children from every single walk of life, every racial background, every social-economic level came together and found acceptance in this community. Rather than being differentiated because of our scars, we were celebrated and unified by them.

Away from my family and close friends for the first time, I tried to stay to myself, remain relatively quiet and felt rather uneasy. I didn’t know anyone else there and wasn’t sure I fit in with the group. One of the camp counselors, a larger than life firefighter named Charlie positively changed my perspective.

This advice offered to a camper by a burn-camp counselor changed his life and is what you need to hear during American Presidential Election 2020 week.

Seeing me off by myself he walked over, knelt in front of me and shared something that made me feel incredibly special as a child. “John, out of every kid in this entire camp, out of every firefighter, every nurse and every camp counselor here, I’m most glad that you are here.”

He then put his massive hands on my shoulders and told me to look around. Charlie asked, “Do you see all these different kids? Do you see all these different adults? Do you notice they’re all getting along, they’re having fun, they’re happy?”

I looked around, saw the smiles, heard the laughter and nodded back at him.

“John, we’re one here. It’s not in spite of our difference, but because of them. In this sacred place, we don’t use stories or scars to belittle, but to elevate. We accept our differences. We embrace them. We belong here. All of us. And no one more so than you.”

This conversation occurred 30 years ago. It changed the way I interacted over a weekend with other kids, how I viewed my scars when I got home, and continues to guide me forward to connect with others as a man.

My friends, in a season when we have come to define ourselves more by political leanings than by our humanity, we need this reminder.

In a society that is breaking itself down to the least common denominators by focusing on our difference, we need the reminder.

And in a culture that is fracturing based upon sexual orientation, gender identification, skin pigmentation, or a litany of other superficial differences, we need to not only hear, but to live out, the reminder.

Let’s commit to becoming the type of people who make room for disagreements.

“In this sacred place, we don’t use stories or scars to belittle, but to elevate. We accept our differences. We embrace them. We belong here. All of us. And no one more so than you.”

Regardless of our personal politics or the results of tomorrow’s election, let’s commit to becoming the type of people who make room for disagreements.

In a season of elevated emotions, let’s choose to be the type of individuals who feel so strongly about what we vote for and what beliefs guide our lives, that we can actually accept, learn from and be made better because of someone with a differing opinion.

And in a season of discord, disgruntlement and anxiety, let’s be reminded that rather than becoming overly animated by outcomes politically, it’s far more important to become the kind of person within that country who strive faithfully to make their community, their family and their life great.

For it not truly politicians who make a country great.

It’s the people.

We belong here.  All of us. No one more so than you. And the best is yet to come.

This is your day.  Live Inspired.

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