I was burned over 90 percent of my body and kept asking ‘why me’ -- then this happened

Why me?

From minor inconveniences like flight delays and traffic jams, to massive challenges like a health crisis or a broken relationship, it’s the most frequent question we ask.

But there is another, better question that must be answered after enduring hardship. And the importance of asking the right question, through the proper lens, in order to arrive at the correct answer is crucial both during times of adversity and afterwards. Let me explain.

At age nine I was burned on 100% of my body and expected to die. Modeling the example of older kids in my neighborhood, I tried to pour a splash of gasoline onto a burning piece of cardboard in my parents’ garage. The fumes from the 5-gallon barrel of gasoline sparked a massive explosion and lit my whole world on fire.

And, as we often see in the aftermath of tragedies that hit the news cycle, the world community responded and got behind this little boy and his family. Friends and strangers alike around our hometown of St. Louis opened their doors and hearts to support us in our time of need. Letters flooded in from everywhere; including from the President of the United States and the Pope in Rome.

(Courtesy of John O'Leary)

Then, five months later, my homecoming hit the news cycle again. A little boy with seemingly no chance to live, was released from the hospital and liberated to return home. Fire trucks lined the streets. Cameras flashed. Friends wept. The impossible miracle became a reality. A long line snaked around our neighborhood as individuals came to congratulate me and celebrate with our family.

Then the cars left. The lights faded. And we were left wondering how to make sense of not only all we endured, but what to do with our lives next.

Between physical therapy, occupational therapy and bandage changes, a question would creep into my mind. Dealing with never-ending stares from strangers and never ceasing pain physically, the question demanded an answer. By the time I was getting ready to lay my head down at night, taking a final look at my scars and hands that no longer had fingers, the question was loudly echoing in my head.

‘Why me?’

Each night I’d ask my dad why this happened. Why was I the one burned? Why did I have to go through all this pain? Why did I live? Why do others die? Why me?

Eventually my dad, an incredibly loving and supportive man, but tired of fielding the same question nightly for months responded with words I’ll never forget:

“John, darn it, why not you? This terrible thing has happened. Your life will never be the same and neither will any of ours. But you are still here, you still have your life. What matters now is not what happened, but what you choose to do with it.”

John and his wife on their wedding day.

John and his wife on their wedding day. (Courtesy of John O'Leary)

It turns out he was right.

Now more than ever I believe this to be true. We aren’t defined by what happens to us in life. Accidents will happen, houses will burn, unwanted diagnosis will arrive. Whether that story, that event, that past experience is triumphant or tragic is defined less by what happened, and more by how we respond to it.

With more than three decades since my own tragedy, I still ask the question, ‘Why me?’

O'Leary family photo

O'Leary family photo (Susie Gaal SPG Photography)

Today, though, I answer it from a place of profound gratitude. Gratitude for all who risked their lives for mine, for all who served during my time of recovery, for all who offered thoughts and prayers and support and gestures and love. I also ask it to take inventory of the gifts, opportunities, and blessings ripe within each day. Gratitude for my life, my health, my freedoms, for my wife and our children. And out of appreciation for the unfathomable and unearned gift of each day.

‘Why me?’

And rather than being reserved simply for a nine-year-old burn victim, what might happen if you applied it in your life, too? What if instead of looking at all you lost or wish you had, you boldly took inventory of all you possess? By asking this great question through the lens of gratitude, you may see that you grew in compassion and courage, and now have an opportunity to lead your best life going forward:

‘Why me?’

It informs how we feel about our past, what we do with our present, and how we create a better future. It reminds us that the tragedies of yesterday can be transformed into the foundation for a life more significant, and it leads to a life filled with more vibrant joy than we could previously have imagined.

In a world where so many feel buried by the challenges of the day or entombed by past mistakes, let today be your day to climb out of the dark, back into the light and see the gift that is your life.