I was recently on a 6-hour flight and my travel nightmare came true. The seat to my left was occupied by a talker, and not just any talker, but a marathon talker! I had work to do for the conference I was attending and had planned to do reading, but after an hour, it was clear he was not going to stop. Ironically, I was reading about leadership and “being” a leader so I finally decided to put my work aside and just engage in the conversation that was going to happen, with or without me.
Then a funny thing happened. It was an amazing conversation with an amazing man named Dennis. Once I let go of all of my “stuff,” – impatience, judgments, frames of reference, stories, etc.- that were clouding my mind about the situation I could listen. This man had fallen off a ladder from 25ft up about 25 years ago and was given up for dead. After he “refused to die,” they got to work on fixing him and through 2 years of surgeries on his back and brain, he recovered. He was never able to do construction again, however, because he was such an inspiration to all his fellow patients at the VA rehab facility, he was encouraged to consider becoming a vocational rehab specialist. He did and long story short, he ended up getting both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s while doing vocational rehab work full-time. He has since retired and was on a trip to Cancun with his wife for a couple of weeks.
As someone who has also experienced a serious fall from a ladder, I knew exactly what he was talking about with the recovery, although what he went through makes mine look like a cake walk! We both realized two things during the process that someone who hasn’t had a bad accident would know. First, that moment when you are falling and everything goes in slow motion, you consciously try to minimize the damage you know is coming. Second, that at some point in your recovery, you will want to give up. It’s just too hard.
What he also so eloquently explained was that if he had not lived, he would not have known the joy of helping others in similar circumstances, helping them through that “dark night of the soul” when you aren’t sure you will make it to the other side. I know exactly what he’s talking about because each of us, regardless of having an accident, affect so many lives without ever knowing it. Each and every day, someone’s life is better because we were in it – sometimes doing nothing more than being there.
Dennis is a hero in my mind and I am so thankful he was sitting next to me on that plane. And I’m grateful that I put everything away, (especially the stories in my mind), and was present for an amazing conversation. He left me with the motto he lives by – “If you’re not having fun, you only have yourself to blame”. I immediately looked in the mirror and realized he was right.