By John O'Leary. This was originally posted on JohnOLearyInspires.com. When John O'Leary was 9 years old, he suffered burns over 100% of his body and was expected to die. He is now an inspirational speaker and bestselling author, teaching more than 50,000 people around the world each year how to live inspired. John's first book, ON FIRE: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life was published March 15, 2016. John is a contributing writer for Huff Post and Parade.com. John is a proud husband and father of four and resides in St. Louis, MO. Order John’s book today anywhere books are sold.
Recently, I had the pleasure of spending a morning with a group of children from all over the country galvanized by a single, unifying commonality.
It was not that their families all leaned politically Republican or Democrat. It wasn’t that they all came from broken homes or perfect families. It wasn’t that they were all Black or White; all affluent or impoverished; all male or female.
No, what coalesced these wonderful kids was something both painful and empowering: They all had been burned, bore the scars of that event, and longed for a place where they could simply be themselves and feel completely accepted. They found that love at camp.
After a couple days getting to know one another, becoming comfortable with the surroundings, trusting the camp counselors and generally having fun as kids, they experienced a remarkably powerful activity.
Because one of the most difficult aspects of being burned – other than the indescribable physical pain of recovery – is the reminder of that time that remains embossed on the survivor’s skin, it’s essential to learn to fully accept ourselves. The scars serve as a constant reminder not only of the agonizing struggle endured, but of how different we remain from others because of it. For burn survivors, the scars can make us feel less than, set apart, totally isolated.
This painting activity from a burn camp will help you see the beauty within your own scars and past traumas.
With that in mind, these kids are encouraged to view their scars differently. Vibrant water-color paints are provided to the kids. They are then encouraged to paint over the scars. Brushstroke by brushstroke, they paint over all the parts of their body that they often try to cover up with makeup or long sleeves or pants. These kids are encouraged to take their time and paint something beautiful where previously they’d seen only brokenness. When they’re finished, they’re encouraged to look at the vibrant colors and rejoice in the new beauty of what they see.
And then the most powerful aspect of the activity occurs.
As beautiful as whatever they painted on their body might be, the kids are encouraged to recognize the true beauty hiding just below it.
Clean rags are soaked in warm water and distributed. The kids are encouraged to take their time slowly revealing something far more beautiful than what they had just painted. Gradually, messily, wipe by wipe, they gently remove the paint revealing the unmitigated splendor of what was already there… and all it represents.
We then talk about real beauty, real courage and real vulnerability. We talk about overcoming, enduring, and authentically living forward. We talk about the scars existing because the wounds are now healed.
Don’t wish away your scars and past traumas, do this instead.
This is a powerful exercise for these brave kids at camp. It’s also a necessary reminder we must all embrace.
The mistakes, missteps, bumps, bruises, brokenness, ugliness, and scars from our past are simply one part of the story.
Rather than wishing them away or covering them up, why not begin seeing the beauty of compassion, faithfulness, and courage they reveal? Rather than desiring to be different than we are or angry at the past, why not celebrate the splendor of the life we have today and the limitless possibility that remains for tomorrow?
It is true that in order to truly give light, we must endure the burning.
And it is in that burning experience that the freedom exists to choose between two opposite outcomes: A life muted by pain, rejection, and challenge or one radiantly on fire with hope, perspective, and the conviction that even better days are yet to come.
My friends, it’s okay to get out the paint, cover it all up and strive to make things beautiful. Just recognize true, real freedom is found in grabbing the rags, cleaning off the paint and learning to embrace what is already there.
This is your day. Live Inspired.
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