Life is dangerous. We don’t always feel it, cocooned in our first world comforts, but each of us has known or will know pain, disease, and loss. Suffering is universal, so it’s how a person responds to suffering that reveals their character. Make no mistake – bouncing back from tragedy is one of the hardest things a person can do – but it is possible.
From the story of Alan Charles, author of Walking Out the Other Side, who lost his family and career to a decades-long cocaine addiction only to conquer his addiction and win back his family, to noted consultant Aaron Walker’s shocking brush with mortality after hitting a pedestrian on his commute to work, the world is full of strong, kind people who lost everything or had their lives altered in one tragic moment, only to pick themselves up and start over.
We know Michael McGreevy of McGreevy Leadership as a leader, an entrepreneur, and an inspiring figure in the world of accountability and self-improvement. But he wasn’t always that person. As a child, Michael suffered with severe anxiety, sometimes so severe that he couldn’t return to class after a panic attack. He struggled with this anxiety through college, and after, until one day, working on a construction crew, when he saw a friend take a step backward and fall two stories onto the basement floor. The experience itself scarred him, but it paled in comparison to his attempts to explain what had happened to his friend’s parents.
A few months later while vacationing with another family, and still recovering from his friend’s death, Michael retreated to the calm of the ocean – just himself and his board, far from his usual anxiety triggers. When the tide grew treacherous, he pulled himself back to the beach, only to look back and see two young girls – who were his close family friends and no older than fourteen – trapped beyond the surfline. Michael was already tired from getting himself to safety, but the beach was empty. No life guard. No family. The memory of his friend’s parents, weeping on the hospital floor, took over his mind. He suddenly knew that he had two choices: either explain their deaths to the girl’s parents, or drown himself in the attempt to save them. “And honestly, drowning sounded okay,” he says, “I wouldn't have to deal with anxiety anymore.” So he jumped back in the water and started swimming.
They fought through the waves and the undertow, the three of them, until they reached the shore and collapsed in the sand, alive. That was the moment when Michael realized he had something to offer the world. He realized he had a strength that would justify confidence, and he knew he was obliged to offer that confidence to anyone who needed it. His friend’s death had devastated him, but without it, Michael wouldn’t have had the power to save those girls’ lives.
But true change takes more than a sudden realization and a thrilling rescue. Life is made up of peaks and valleys, and we spend much of our time in the valleys. Michael knew he had something to offer, but none of the tools he needed to make a difference. The key to his transformation was the willingness to put himself out there. He had to think differently about the world, especially now that he was committed to being a part of it. But job after job, nothing felt quite right. He knew that he wanted to help young men find their own confidence, no matter what their past struggles had been, but none of his opportunities truly clicked until he met Dan Miller, a coaching expert, and it was like seeing the lights come on. Michael’s hard-won confidence, the strength he knew he had to contribute, is finally of use in his leadership coaching. What was once a directionless desire to help others has now evolved into a full-time passion to help leaders come alive and lead with confidence.
No one would have blamed Michael if he’d curled into a ball after his friend’s death and never come out. The devastation wrought by tragedy is familiar to anyone who has felt grief. But if there is a way out of that despair, self-discovery and transformation seem like the most productive paths. It is up to each of us to summon the strength to walk those paths and emerge from the tall grass at the end, whole once more to live a purpose-filled life.