“Real growth is often unwanted, extremely painful, and ultimately completely worth it.” — John O’Leary
Recently, I randomly stumbled on a book at the library called On Fire by John O’Leary. I didn’t know anything about the book when I started reading, but I quickly discovered that John’s story is both heart-wrenching and inspiring. His book absolutely changed my perspective on life and helped me reignite my passion for living.
Not to give too much away, because I strongly recommend the book, but let’s just say that from a very young age John had to overcome some near-death challenges in life. Although there were many times when he could have given up and stopped fighting, he not only kept pushing through but he challenged himself to grow to new heights along the way.
As I read his story, I connected with his advice and found new meaning to my own life circumstances. This past year I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. I was only 29 at the time and now I’m 30 years old, but there are days I deal with debilitating pain in my hands, feet and knees. Sometimes my wrist gets so swollen that I have to hide it with my clothes or a brace, because just the sight of it would freak people out.
The physical pain is one problem, but the emotional pain might be even worse. First, there was the stress of the initial pain coupled with the unknown source of the problem. Then there was the stress of going from one doctor to another, getting test after test with negative results, waiting six months to get an appointment with a rheumatologist, trying out one medication to then switch to another medication and continue with follow-up appointments every two months.
Now, there is the stress of trying to maintain my normal life and job, but in a body that won’t let me. I’ve felt as though I can’t do my job, because my body is limiting me and I’ve already had to use accommodations just to get through my daily routine. For example, some days I have to sit down because I can’t stand on my feet for too long. Other days, I can barely erase the white board in my room because my wrist is so swollen, so I ask students to do it for me instead. Even worse is that I lose my voice almost every time I get even slightly exhausted or sick. It’s almost impossible to lead a classroom of twenty-five high school students without a voice.
And finally, there’s the stress of what this diagnosis means for me and the rest of my life. In the beginning of this process, I couldn’t control the downward spiral of negative thoughts in my mind as I pictured what my future life would look like. Would I have to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of my life? Would this mean physical limitations in the not-too-distant future? Will my quality of life be such that at some point my body won’t work anymore? And how am I supposed to live like that?
These are all scary realities. So in trying to handle all of these things — and as a symptom of the disease itself — I’ve experienced depression for the first time in my life. I’m normally such a morning person. I jump out of bed and I greet the day cheerily, but this year has been the complete opposite. I’ve been battling to get out of bed, to get to my job and keep a smile on my face in front of my students all day long. My mind has been plagued by the prognosis, the pain, and the problems.
But my point in writing this is not to sound down and defeated. Life has been challenging this past year, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean it’s over by any means. Everybody has to manage difficulties in life. Everyone at some point faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Yet what I realized reading John O’Leary’s story is that this fact alone — that life will always throw some new challenge your way — is exactly why it’s important to live a life on fire.
That is, live your life full of passion and excitement, enjoying all that you have and not worrying about any the struggles that may disrupt your existence.
And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing since I finished the book. For the last few weeks, I have had a completely new perspective on managing my daily struggles while choosing to focus instead on the amazing gifts that each day bestows on me.
So how do you do it? How do you choose to live a life on fire, energized to make the most of every day and live life to the absolute fullest?
1. Own Your Life.
When faced with any adversity in life, it’s easy to ask “Why me?”. I felt this same way when the doctor first diagnosed me. I wanted to throw a pity party and kept denying that someone as young and as healthy as me could suddenly become powerless to a chronic, incurable disease.
But thoughts like these only produce a victim mentality — life is simply unfair to me and there’s nothing I can do about it. Instead, I had to remind myself that no what circumstances life may throw my life, I am in control of my reaction and next steps. I can choose to lie down and give up or I can choose a different path and find a way to overcome the obstacle.
So, hold yourself accountable every day for your actions and your choices to live the life you desire.
“Accountability means you take ownership of your own life. Realize that you hold the keys to changing things, solving your problems, improving your life, and making a difference. And it’s not just about action and fixing. Accountability also provides the power to let things go, to surrender things you can’t change, to forgive events and people that have burned you in the past. It demands that we stop shrugging our shoulders, throwing up our hands, thinking we can do nothing.”
2. Go “All In” Every Day.
In dealing with the pain and stress, I had become so focused on the future uncertainty that I forgot about my current purpose. I am so much more than an arthritis patient. I am a husband, a teacher, a son, a friend, a colleague, a neighbor, and many other things.
In life, it’s easy to get distracted by the problems and get bogged down by the daily to-do list. That’s why every day it’s important to remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. I had to stop dwelling on the pain of arthritis and instead focus on the joy I got from helping my students learn, or from making my husband a delicious meal, or from catching up with a friend on the phone. I went all in on making the most of my day and suddenly the pain and stress disappeared.
So, what gets you out of bed in the morning?
“When we know our why, it keeps us focused, on point, moving forward. So how do you catch fire for life when the days get long and the going gets difficult and it feels easier to just quietly get by? To stop caring and let indifference take residence in your life? You find a way to keep your why in front of you.”
3. Challenge Yourself to Grow.
At first, I saw rheumatoid arthritis as a death sentence, but what if really it’s a sentence to live again? I had a comfortable life before this. I have taught in the same school for almost a decade. I have a house. I have a husband. Things are going well. But living a life on fire shouldn’t be comfortable. Who wants to look back at the end of their life and say, “I sure lived comfortably!”
Instead of seeing challenges as negative events, we can choose to see them as inflection points, as John O’Leary calls them. Now, I try to find the new and exciting in life. I take advantage of time throughout the day to do more, give more, try more, and say “yes” to more people, all because arthritis reminded me that life is finite.
“You know life is made up of peaks and valleys and lots and lots of times of uncertainty, of living in between. You also know that the painful moments can propel you forward or pull you back. They are inflection points creating the life you lead.”
4. Live Graciously and Gratefully.
In focusing solely on my own problems in life, I had forgotten to be thankful for the wonderful gifts I still had. In celebrating my pity party, I had distanced myself from the wonderful people around me, choosing to believe that my struggle was greater than theirs.
But then I realized that being alone in life is far more miserable a condition than any disease. The true meaning of life is found in the relationships we have with other people on this Earth. The best way to build relationships with people is to be gracious and grateful. Reach out to others, offer to help them, give thanks for the joy they bring, and celebrate the small victories that happen every day.
I started doing this and I completely forgot about the negative things in life. Not only this, but living graciously and gratefully instills life with a renewed sense of purpose that further fuels you to go own life, go “all in”, and challenge yourself to grow.
“The individuals who attain the highest forms of achievement in life don’t sprint toward success, but significance. They don’t run races, build businesses, raise kids, and live lives for themselves; they do these things to make a difference for others. They hold hands, move hearts, give love, and impact lives. Through these actions, achieving this kind of victory, the fire burns long after they are gone.”
By taking John’s simple advice, I have started to lead a much richer and happier life. There’s a reason that life presents us with challenges and difficulties, to remind us that there’s more to life than a comfortable existence. Now, I welcome these inflection points and that mentality shift has made all the difference in my life. I hope this advice can help you now too.