Lucky to Be Alive: A True Story

Picture a nine year old boy in his family garage—so curious!—toying around with a bit of gasoline and the enticement of fire. I can see your face; you know what happened next in this story, don’t you?

This kid was John O’Leary, who unwittingly created an explosion that burned 100% of his body. Odds were placed at less than 1% that he’d live—odds no gambler would take.

But John lived to tell the tale, and then some.

John O'LearyThese days John helps people live inspired lives by speaking, writing bestselling books, and hosting the top-rated Live Inspired Podcast. John’s story has been turned into a full-length feature film called On Fire, scheduled for theatrical release in Fall 2024 starring William H. Macy and John Corbin, among others.

I had the great fortune of meeting John as a recent guest on his podcast, and something he said in that conversation stopped me in my tracks. While speaking about memento mori (remembering that we are going to die), John shared how his scars provided a daily reminder about how temporary life is.

As someone who collects memento mori reminders like they’re going out of style (skull tchotchkes are multiplying exponentially over here, guys), John’s visual memento mori reminder was a tad more profound than anything I had heard about or could ever possibly collect.

I had to hear more, so I insisted we meet again … and because he’s such a class act, John graciously agreed to chat about all things life and near-death. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation.

Jodi: Do you mind expanding on your “scars in the mirror” comment?

John: Every single time I look in the mirror closely, it’s impossible to ignore. So I’m burned, third degree from my neck to my toes. And what that means is anywhere that you are burned at that level, your natural skin is not going to come back. And so everything that is third degree burned on me is now scarred. So I everywhere I glance, I see brokenness, and rather than seeing only that, what it serves for me are two things: Number one is a reminder of how fortunate I am to have survived an unsurvivable experience. It’s like a profound sense of gratitude that what should not have been endured, was, and that’s now a lifetime ago—34 years ago—and I came out of this thing. So that’s remarkable. The second thing it does, and it’s equally important, is it reminds me of how finite life is. I think most of us look in the mirror and we might see wrinkles, but we don’t see finiteness. We don’t see life slowly fading away from us, we see who we wish we were because we remember what that looked like before the wrinkle. And I don’t see that. I see how gifted we are to have this moment. So I not only am grateful for yesterday and the years I have had since the fire. I’m grateful for this day, because I know it’s not promised.

John elaborated on the events that unfolded to save his life …
So from the moment that I got burned, my brother saved my life—he’s the one that put out the fire. And the reason why my face is not burned is because my sister went into a burning house three times for water, throwing it directly into my face. And the reason why I have hair on top of my head is because that saved not only the scalp, but also the face. And the reason why that matters is because my donor site for my entire body is my scalp, meaning the only way they were able to save my life is because of my sister’s actions, and because my brother saved my life. And the doctor did his part. And the nurses did their part, and the janitors, like, on and on and on. I am so unimpressed by my life story, my story individually. But I’m overwhelmed at the goodness of others to show up and do life and support and encourage and equip me to take the next right step.

Jodi: Since you have a heightened sense that life is finite—in a very visceral way—how do you go about living?

John O'Leary on StageJohn: Everyone wants you to have an abundant mindset. And yet, there’s some wisdom in recognizing scarcity. And one way to recognize scarcity is through a scarcity of days, and breaths, and opportunity. That doesn’t mean you won’t have another opportunity to do tomorrow better than today. But if that’s true, why would you waste today? And as I look around [like when I’m on an airplane], oh my gosh, I look at everyone burning three hours until they can land and start living again. They’re on their movies, and they’re on their gaming, and they’re just kind of enduring the flight. And I think that’s emblematic in many regards of how we also live our lives—we’re just dropping the kids off at soccer practice, because in two hours, we’ve got to pick them back up. And it’s all just getting through the mundane misery of the state we’re in until we finally can live, then, whether it’s a vacation or upon retirement, or when we get the right job or the right girl or whatever the right thing is. And I’ve recognized the beauty of tracking your days, this is something you try to teach on. And what a gift it is to view scarcity, to view your days with scarcity.

John shared an early piece of advice that shaped his own life and message …
After we got married, about 20 years ago, my wife dragged me to a church service and the pastor was preaching on the gifts of talents, to multiply whatever you have. The advice from that pastor was that your life is a priceless, precious gift, so say yes to being used for good. And I don’t know why just I wrote it down in my journal that night, your life is a priceless, precious gift, say yes to being used for good.

Jodi: What is the message you most want to impart to people?

John: It’s probably in two parts. One is recognizing the miraculous nature that is their life. People don’t always like that word miracle, because they think it’s always going to be a faith-based bend. But the fact that you’re here is nothing less than shocking. I think the math is less than 1 to 4.2 trillion chances of your mother and father connecting at the moment when they did, when you just had the DNA from your dad and the DNA from your mother leading to you this moment. That’s the math—1 to 4.2 trillion. And that doesn’t even begin to say, what about their parents? And what about everything that can go wrong in the course of a life? And what about all the generations leading up to this one? And what about the Big Bang leading to this moment? Where do you want to stop the clock? But no matter where you decide to stop the clock, it ought to blow you away. Like your hair ought to feel like you’re in a convertible going 200mph down the highway that you are in this game. So part of my work is to remind people of the profound blessing that is their life. Full stop. And in doing that, the call to make that life about something bigger than themselves. So it’s not either/or, it’s not now go become a saint, like not at all. Your life’s awesome. That doesn’t make it perfect; I don’t think it ever will be this side of eternity. But like the fact that you’re here is stunning. And so the fact that you got to wake up and see a sunrise today and sip on hot coffee and maybe you hold a child’s hand or maybe go volunteer to hold a child’s hand at a hospital—either way, because a lot of people say, well, I didn’t get what I want, fine. I think go live a life that is worthy of becoming something that is ultimately worthy. So I didn’t get what I wanted either. But who does? It’s up to us to ultimately build out that life for ourselves and for those we’re called to encounter throughout the days.

*** *** ***

Many of us would agree that John is lucky to be alive today, given his astounding 1% survival odds … he’s lucky that his brother saved his life, lucky that his sister splashed water on his face and head, lucky that he had the right medical team. But is he lucky that he has built a career out of inspiring so many people to live with inspiration? No, that took effort.

Let's Have Some Lucky PopcornLuck is a lovely, magical thing, and we’ll welcome all the four-leaf clovers we can stumble upon, please and thank you! But it’s also a passive blessing, and we can’t bank on the lucky life if we really want to thrive. Let’s appreciate the shit out of the luck that’s staring at us in the face today: WE’RE LUCKY TO BE ALIVE. How about that? And now let’s exercise agency to Do Something with the miracle we’ve been granted. What do you want to do, feel, experience, share, create next? Let’s live wider and deeper—whatever that looks like for you. Let John’s story inspire you to live like you mean it. Oh, and we should all see On Fire when it comes out, right? I’ll get the Skittles and you can get the popcorn.

Jodi Wellman

P.S.: Thank you for preordering my book, You Only Die Once: How to Make It to the End with No Regrets!

P.P.S.: We can connect on Instagram; it’s true.

P.P.P.S.: Oh and just in case you missed it… I’d love you forever if you took 16 minutes out of your life to watch my TEDx talk!


Related articles you just might love...

Do You Know Your 20,000th Birthday?
I Will Never Eat at Golden Corral Buffet. Grief or Relief?
How’s 2024 Going ... 100 Days In?