Often when speaking to groups I talk about the strength that lies in each and every one of us. The groups I speak to vary in age, abilities and life experiences. I’ve had the privilege of talking to soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, college students, as well as students in both high school and elementary school. At times, particularly with public school students, they don’t believe that they have much control over the events and challenges in their lives. One technique that I often employ is to talk about individuals, both famous and not so famous, who have triumphed and risen above almost overwhelming odds in their lives. I believe it is important to keep the topic current and so over the last 15 years I have changed the individuals that I have spoken about. The people discussed have ranged from Helen Keller, Christopher and Dana Reeve, John McCain who was tortured for five years in the North Vietnamese prison camp, JR Martinez and Bob Woodruff who received major injuries in Iraq from IED’s, Jaycee Dugard who was kidnapped at age 11 and held captive for over 18 years, Michael J Fox, who struggles daily with Parkinson’s disease and Gabby Giffords, who was shot in 2011. More recently the Wounded Warriors from Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and the US, who along with Prince Harry cross- country skied to the South Pole. Despite their challenges all of these individuals not only survived but have risen above their circumstances to inspire others.
After finishing the discussion of these individuals and what they have done I ask the audience if they believe the people facing these mega-challenges had received something special at birth that none of the rest of us had been given. If not, then the same inner strength they possessed lies within each and every one of us, we only have to believe it is there and find a way to tap into it.
How would it be possible to discuss the challenges these individuals overcame and their inner strength and ignore the passing of Nelson Mandela. I don’t know any more about Mandela than the average individual who pays attention to the news. I do think it is very significant that as a youth his name was Rolihlahla, meaning “troublemaker”, and in later years he became known as Madiba, Father of the Country. When thinking about Mandela’s life many questions come to mind. How is it that a man, who was singled out by others to be broken, triumphed over such unbelievable adversity? The 27 years in a prison camp, much of it in isolation, only seemed to make him stronger. He won over many of the guards who hated him, his race and all he represented. Eventually, he gained his freedom, became the president of South Africa and one of the most highly respected people in the world. What allows someone to triumph over such tremendous adversity? What gave this man the ability to forgive those who had spent a large part of their lives trying to punish and destroy him? I saw one of his white bodyguards interviewed and he talked about the anger that existed inside Mandela and that he prided himself on his ability to control these emotions.
How can we look at people like these and fail to observe the parts of their character that gave them such extraordinary abilities. It would do all of us good to look at the inner strength these people summoned in order to rise above tremendous challenges that developed in their lives. Christopher Reeve stated “I refused to allow a disability to determine how I will live my life” and during the Apollo 13 catastrophe the saying “Failure is not an option” became part of our vernacular. With beliefs and commitments like these how could the individuals not succeed.