John O’Leary shares the redemptive story of how he learned to shake hands after losing his fingers to amputation.
At age 10 a painful experience revealed how broken, disabled, and imperfect I was. A conversation with my mother afterward, though, challenged me to never believe lies that cheapen the blessing of my life.
We could all benefit from that lesson I learned 30 years ago.
When I came home from the hospital after being burned, fitting in was a struggle. In the early days I was in a wheelchair. Bandages covered my entire body. Eventually, my bandages were removed and the wheelchair was no longer needed, but I was covered in scars from my neck to my toes.
Throughout my life, I have had many experiences being stared at, pointed at and whispered about in public. The most searing experience was one in church.
This church experience left a recently injured boy broken, until his mother stepped in with love and advice we all need to hear about confidence.
During the service, there is a moment where we turn to others, extend our hands, shake theirs, and offer one another peace. As a kid, this was a much-needed chance to burn off a little energy that had been stifled for the previous 30 minutes trapped in a pew. On one occasion I remember joyfully shaking hands with my siblings and parents. Then, with the family we knew in front of us. Afterward, turning around and extending my hand to the gentleman behind us. He extended his, looked down at mine, and realized he was about to shake hands with a little boy with no fingers and scarred arms. The gentleman withdrew his hand, crossed his arms and looked away.
Dejected, I pulled my hand back and turned around. I put my head down, tucked both scarred, fingerless hands deep into my pockets and tried to disappear.
It may seem relatively insignificant, but as a child with profound physical differences, already struggling to fit in, lacking confidence, and longing to be normal, this was a painful reminder of how obviously different and unwanted I was.
Hours later, through the power of a mother’s intuition, Mom could tell something was wrong. My typically joyful demeanor was absent. After denying anything was wrong several times, I finally, tearfully admitted what happened.
She knelt in front of me, took my hands in hers and asked if I fully knew how remarkable I was?
I nodded my head and told her I did. It was a lie.
Mom looked into my eyes and said in the tone that only a convicted, impassioned mother could muster: “John, listen to me. You are a remarkable gift; a walking miracle. And, you are perfect exactly as you are. Absolutely perfect. Never, ever, let your value be defined by someone who doesn’t realize that. Do you understand me?”
Your painful experiences are preparing you for something more beautiful than you can imagine.
She then talked about the agony we’d already survived. She celebrated the bravery that we’d revealed and shared how these painful experiences were preparing me for something more beautiful than we could imagine. She discussed how real peace, acceptance and joy will never come from someone else’s opinion of me, but by choosing to love myself. And she challenged me that, from now on when I met someone, I not extend my hand hoping they take it. Instead, I should extend both, take theirs and pull them toward me with love – showing them that I am confident in who I am.
Those I’ve had the honor of meeting after speaking engagements know that I do practice this way of shaking hands. It now usually ends with a big hug. And no, it wasn’t something I figured out as a man, successful speaker or published author.
I was challenged to do it during a time when I lacked confidence, didn’t believe in the power of my story and was unaware of the miracle of my life.
Over time this practice freed me to not only embrace the blessings of my own imperfections, but realize that everyone feels they, too, have scars that make them imperfect or unlovable. In authentically meeting others where they are and loving them as they are, they depart a bit more confident and joyful than they had previously felt.
Do this to find real acceptance, joy and love in your life.
We live in a marketplace that feels so isolated, stressed and divided. I invite you – like my mom invited me – to view your painful experiences as a gift preparing you for something bigger. You will not find peace, acceptance or joy in someone else’s opinion of you, but by choosing to love yourself. And finally my friend, today, approach friends, acquaintances and strangers with confidence, love and an open embrace.
Accepting this challenge is certain to elevate the way we feel about our own lives. It will also liberate us to extend our hands and hearts to those still desperately seeking acceptance in theirs.
Today is your day. Live Inspired.