The Power Of Gratitude To Inflict Hope

A Conversation With On Fire and In Awe Author, John O’Leary.

By Barry Engelhardt

To best understand John O’Leary is to first establish two separate, but interrelated facts:

When John was nine years old, he suffered accidental, but self-inflicted third degree burns across 100% of his body and was given a 1% chance of survival.

John O’Leary is, without question, the most positive and optimistic man I’ve ever met. 

In an anxious world fueled by the stress of a global pandemic, as well as conflicting, partisan responses, O’Leary counters with a uniting message of gratitude.  O’Leary has authored two books—On Fire and In Awe—travels the globe as a motivational speaker and hosts the Live Inspired Podcast. 

Before his successes, he spent months in hospitals, endured dozens of surgeries and lost his fingers.  John has physical scars across the majority of his body and overcame mental demons.   He has hid from and endured darkness.  And through the process, he fully appreciates the light. 

‘I’m frequently asked what it was like when my life was changed at age nine.  The real turning point for me was actually at age twenty-seven when I began to embrace that story,’ stated O’Leary.  

He adds that one’s truth comes, ‘When we embrace the things we thought of as evil, damning and the end of our journey.  Those very things that stole from us what made us beautiful and full of potential.  And realize that instead of stealing, they allowed us to pivot and rediscover our true worth.  Then we grow in character, faith and meaning.  We connect more with those around us.  That’s when a painful experience goes from tragic to redemptive.’ 

At the age of twenty-seven, O’Leary was asked to openly talk about his experiences for the first time.  Forced out of the shadows by his parents’ memoir, his scars were on public display.  While he could have hid, he embraced who he was to share his story.  Not despite, but because of adversity, O’Leary reflected upon his life and crafted a message of positivity. 

One can correctly assume O’Leary has struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress, a victim mindset and explored unhealthy coping mechanisms.  But when he was asked to speak about his experiences, he made a simple, yet difficult choice – to show up.

WHEN  discussing what our world needs, both in general and especially in a current, COVID-19 filled climate, O’Leary doesn’t hesitate, stating that gratitude is the first thing that comes to mind.

‘Gratitude is the foundation of emotional resilience.  It transforms the negative into a positive & ensures the best days are in front of us, not behind us.  I am grateful every single day.  We all carry scars.  Some of us have them on the outside of our body.’

WHILE On Fire is a memoir focused on triumphing over adversity, In Awe intertwines John’s first-person narrative with reflections on his five children, conversations he’s had as a public speaker and countless research articles.  It focuses on the journey from childhood innocence to adult responsibilities.  It asks what was potentially misplaced along the way.

‘I had been on a three day speaking tour in front of all these world class organizations, speaking to all these successful leaders.  I watched and they had their shoulders bent, were on their phones, and seemed bored by what was in front of them,’ stated O’Leary.   

He adds, ‘But then I would leave these organizations and go into schoolhouses.  Children sat with their shoulders back, paying full attention with smiles on their faces.  They were skipping into classrooms.  The dichotomy between how a child sees life and how an adult goes through it could not have been more clear.  I asked myself what is it that children have that we’ve lost and how do we return to it.  How might that change our lives?’

In Awe remains optimistic, touching on such subjects as creativity, the wonder of experiencing even the most novel experience for the first time and being open to the future as instead of applying preconceived judgement.  While the story is told by someone who lost his childhood innocence far too quickly, the tone reflects careful reflection as opposed to victimhood.   

When asked to reflect on his life, John concluded by stating that, ‘I’ve made mistakes up and down my life.  Mistakes in my marriage, parenting and finances.  Words and actions, things I have or haven’t said or done.  Specifically, blowing myself up as a nine year old child by accident.  Would I do it all over again?  Yes.’ 

‘Those scars are painful, but they led to the best aspects of my life and led me to realize what does and what doesn’t matter.’    

Barry Engelhardt is the Program Manager for OSD’s Boots to Books Program and recently retired from the Illinois Army National Guard after twenty years in combat arms.  He is currently trying to lead a life of childlike creativity, and Lego adventures with his wife and two boys.

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