How do you respond when your life is painfully changed forever?
“Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph..” -Viktor Frankl
What’s your date?
You know, the date when the phone rang, a friend moved, a partner walked out, the unexpected and unwanted became the new reality? What’s the date when the life you planned dramatically and painfully changed forever?
We all have one. What’s yours?
One such date for me is January 17, 1987.
It marks the date at age nine I was burned on 100% of my body. It is the date I should have lost my life and that I was forever changed dramatically and physically. And it’s the date of an anniversary I celebrate tomorrow.
A year into recovery, still in and out of doctors’ appointments, therapy sessions and surgeries, I wasn’t celebrating it, though. I was still hoping my fingers might magically grow back. I still wasn’t back in school and I still was very concerned about how others might respond to the new me.
As the first anniversary of that date approached, I just hoped no one would notice. I hoped the date would pass. I still wished life would return to how it was before being burned.
Surprisingly to me, my family treated it more as a birthday than as a date to mourn.
There were balloons in the morning, cards on the table, a few gifts and my favorite breakfast.
Later that day, there was a larger family celebration. After dinner, my grandfather guided me away from the commotion and love of the family. I shuffled next to him through the front hall and into the living room. He helped me sit down, then pulled up a chair so we could sit, as he liked to say, “man to man.”
Me, a t-shirt wearing, scarred-up and bandaged little boy trying to figure out what life might look like going forward. Him, a stately man, wearing a suit, who served in the Pacific during World War II, married, became a father and relished his role as a grandfather.
He asked me if I understood why everyone had gathered that night?
After responding that it was about the fire, he compassionately put his arm around me, looked me in the eyes and said, “It’s not just the fire, John. We are celebrating you, your life and the fact that the fire may have hurt and changed you, but it didn’t break you.”
He told me, as only a grandfather of that generation could, that I have a choice. To view this date as a painful reminder of what I lost or as a magnificent gift of all I still had. He then handed me a gold chain with a simple cross on it. On the back, were the words: “Bravest of the family.”
Below the words, a date: “January 17, 1987.”
I was ten.
I didn’t feel very brave at all. And that date still confused me.
My wise grandfather provided me a simple truth we all must be reminded of from time to time: life happens, tragedies strike, bad things occur. And then, in our very next breath, the next moment, we get to determine what we do with it.
This was a very hard truth to understand as a child. It’s a difficult reality to embrace 36 years later. But the journey to where we are now began with an important gift a wise man shared with me on that very first anniversary.
Not just a gold cross or kind words, but the underlying fact they represented: The collection of all events in our life forge and form us perfectly into the individuals we are today. And perhaps none of those dates have the power of truly transforming our life stories as radically, and surprisingly, as positively as the difficult ones.
My friends, tragedy is certain to make its way into your life. Here’s the good news, borrowed from my favorite writer, Viktor Frankl: It turns out that even helpless victims of seemingly hopeless situations, facing fates they cannot change, may rise above it, may grow beyond it, and in doing so, may change not only themselves, but those lucky enough to know us.
It’s not easy. But it’s possible.
This is your date. Live Inspired.