You Have Two Choices When Life Presents a Setback

I used to think I was the luckiest firefighter on the planet. I had fought more than 300 fires without a scratch until October 23, 1981. On that unusually warm October night, a flashover changed my life and my face forever. 

I know. You’re thinking, “You survived—that’s incredible!” You’re right. It is incredible, and you might be surprised to hear that I still think I’m a lucky son of a gun. The upside of a life-changing event is that it gets you asking and answering the tough questions—so tough that some people don’t bother. I had to bother with these questions because they helped me move forward.

As I look ahead this year, I can’t help but think about Frank. He was a patient in the St. Agnes burn center where I recovered. Though his injuries were sustained three years later than mine, we were the same age. Frank didn’t get burned because he was fighting a fire. Frank was filling a propane tank at the gas station when the tank exploded. He suffered bad burns on his torso. 

A staff member at St. Agnes asked if I would mentor Frank, so my visits began with chatting up his mother since she was at his bedside. His father had passed away a few years earlier, so Frank’s mom obviously struggled with what the future held. With each visit and phone call, Frank grew more attached to me. Now and then we’d get together. Sadly, his mom later passed away, so he moved in with his sister.

Even though Frank and I shared the same age and life-changing event with fire, we were dealt very different cards with our recovery. It’s not unlike how our country navigated 2020. Even though we watched it unfold at the same time, the year’s events prompted completely different outcomes for all of us. Some experienced a tremendous amount of upheaval due to the pandemic, politics, and social unrest, while others hunkered down, helped how we could, voiced our concerns, and waited. 

While we can’t control what happens to us, we can control how setbacks define us. In my book, I talk about the fact that you have two choices when a life-changing event takes place: (1) accept what happened, or (2) slowly be ruined by what happened. I choose to accept what happened and do the defining rather than let events define me. 

How will you choose to answer this question and move beyond the challenges you may have experienced last year? I hope you look back and see what can be learned. Maybe we can lead our lives this year a little bit wiser for having experienced all that we did. I feel grateful that life still presents the tough questions. I hope you join me in looking for the answers.

If you’re like me, you don’t want to see anyone become ruined by setbacks. I’m on a mission to share my story of resilience so that others can benefit from my experiences. Help me encourage more people by inviting a friend to sign up for my seven, powerful rules of resilience.

I’ve paired each rule with seven “highlights” from my new book, Beyond the Mask. These stories are all available by email.

Live beyond your mask,