I am going to get a bit personal here. I am a pretty sensitive person. It doesn’t take much to make me cry. Even commercials on television can do that. But today, I am sincerely moved by the opening ceremonies of “The Invictus Games” taking place in my beloved Canada and specifically, the awesome city of Toronto. The incredible Prince Harry is credited for this event happening at all and not as a cheap publicity stunt that is so common in pop culture, but as a salute to military personal damaged and disabled by conflict and war around the world. Prince Harry himself spoke at the opening and emotionally reflected on the impact his own military service had on him. Remember, he was in the “real” armed forces, not the pretend one so many young men in particular claim to play on their gaming platforms. He spoke of being profoundly affected by his fellow soldiers who experienced critical injuries leading to life altering disabilities. Sounds pretty warm and fuzzy, huh? Except, it’s painfully true.
I don’t know about you but my first exposure to the word “Invictus” came from the major motion picture of the same name about the inspiring real life Nelson Mandela, played by actor, Morgan Freeman. The word itself comes from a Victorian poem written by British poet, William Ernest Henley in 1875 and published in 1878. Like the term for recording artists who are known as “one hit wonders” in reference to becoming famous for their one and only hit, Henley is known for his singular prose. He wrote it while recovering in the infirmary after having his leg amputated caused by Tuberculosis. A surgeon was able to save his remaining leg which inspired Henley to write about how recovering from such a loss was going to require the requisite “stiff upper lip” as it was called in England, along with “Fortitude Through Adversity” and evoking a Latin word whose meaning is “unconquerable or undefeated”; Invictus!
You know, I attempt some humility when I’m given credit for my own “Invictus” because that’s what I was taught growing up. Most importantly, what I encountered being born without arms is truly in a different category than the experience of the military heroes honoured by the Invictus Games. First, I’m not a soldier so I have no concept of the reality of war. Second, I was born without my arms so never had to alter my reality to a “new truth” not to mention the terrifying truth of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Having said that, I also do not want to “downplay” what I have lived through either. In fact, as I was watching the ceremonies from Toronto’s Air Canada Center today, I needed tissues because a rare dejavu rush came over me with a combination of gratitude and raw pain.
I am truly full of gratitude every single day. Why wouldn’t i be? I have a remarkable life. I have a wife and soul mate in Darlene, who I could never have dreamed up in a million fantasies. I am a dad to our son, Vance, now 32 years old, and for several years before Darlene was a single dad. I am a successful professional speaker who is in Canada’s Professional Speaker’s Hall of Fame! I could keep boasting but I won’t because that’s not my point. Let’s be clear; I was born without arms. Overcoming that was really, really hard! Period! I have profoundly clear memories of the obstacles, the frustrations, the pain, and the tears. Gallons of tears! And guess what? All of it was worth it. I won my own battle. And let’s not mince words here…it was a personal war!
But I didn’t emerge victorious because of violence or conflict or weaponry. I won because even with all of the heartaches, I always saw the light. Exactly like the “light at the end of the tunnel”…exactly. Hope is a powerful tool. But hope without the work is like math without numbers. It is just a word. And make no mistake. It was hard work…and I didn’t do it alone. In fact, that element is what struck me when listening to the guest speakers like Rick Hansen, Prince Harry and the not so famous, Trevor Greene. I can’t lie. I would love to have been on that stage in Toronto. Part of its ego, of course. But sincerely, the bigger part of what drives me these days is the opportunity to give my audiences my own take on hope, attitude and yes…Invictus. But of course, I wasn’t there and I wasn’t the least bit jealous. I was profoundly proud…of Trevor Greene.
Captain Trevor Green (Retired) was a member of the Canadian Military serving in Afghanistan. Though fully armed, his duty on March 4, 2006 wasn’t to kill the enemy, but to meet with local Afgahni leaders in a tent in the conflict zone. As a sign of respect, Captain Greene laid down his weapons and removed his helmet. A short time later and a complete surprise to even the Afghani leaders in the tent (supposedly), an Afghan soldier snuck into the tent and then up behind Captain Greene and buried an axe into his skull. Pardon the pun, really, but let that sink in. It wasn’t a steak knife, it was an axe! Miraculously, Greene didn’t die. Canadian and American medical personnel saved his life in Afghanistan, then in Germany then in Canada. By the way, I find it personally fascinating how people throw around the term “miracle” as if divine intervention alone is involved. Sorry but human beings are most often involved and “make the miracle”, it doesn’t just “happen”. But that’s also true of Greene’s story and if I may be so bold, mine too. It takes really, really, really hard work and indeed, that ever luminescent flicker of light in that so dark tunnel.
Captain Greene spoke eloquently even with the obvious signs of a brain injury. He’s in a wheelchair as he’s unable to walk. His motor skills are weak and his expressions are not sparkling but it’s the eyes I was watching. There is a look in his eyes that can only emerge from the power of Invictus. But to me, what really resonated for me were the eyes of those in the crowd, the athletes of the 2017 Invictus Games. Their eyes spoke to me as well. It wasn’t just one expression but an intensity. As these soldiers and now athletes focused on Captain Greene’s words it seemed one line got to them and frankly, me too! I’m paraphrasing but he said…”We fought like soldiers and to recover from our injuries we have fought like soldiers again. We share that common bond so while we are here in the spirit of competition, we are all brothers and sisters in the battle of life…together. That may not have been his exact words but that’s what I heard. And that’s what I felt.
On my main page of my website is some “Masthead Branding” as we call it. My latest is…”Beyond Limits…Raising The Bar To Achieve The Impossible”! I believe it because I’ve lived it! But it’s truly more than just words. Captain Greene proved it as will every single participant of the 2017 Invictus Games. Indeed, there will be medals awarded and “winners” declared but apologies for one more cliche…they are all “winners” and unlike eight year olds who get “participation awards” for just showing up (truly pathetic practice), these survivors all deserve the ultimate medal for what they have overcome but even more for what brought them to their current lives…service. I know what some people say; “They knew what they were getting when they signed up!”, or; “They got paid so it was their job!”, etc, etc. This is one of those subjects that is complicated. But here is my closing point.
I grew up living in a stigma that being “crippled” meant you were sub-human. I saw the stares, the looks of disgust and revulsion. I heard the names I was called, the laughs at my expense and the constant exclusion. It was also real. But my difference makers were my parents and a handful of teachers and friends who refused to accept the status quo and most vital, encouraged me not to just “survive” but to understand something that at the time sounded like patronizing. “If you can overcome this, you can overcome anything and the only limits will be self-imposed”!
We all have something that gets in the way of our lives. My armless salute to all of the “athletes” of the 2017 Invictus Games and the spirit of competition for the next week but gold medals to all of you for “Raising Your Own Bar To Achieve The Impossible!” You are “Invictus”!
P.S. It was the same poem referred to in this blog that the inspiring Nelson Mandela recited while in prison to give him the strength to never give up.