As we enter the holiday season, with the New Year on the horizon, faith and inspiration are excellent themes to explore — and they often come with incredible stories.
From war zones across the globe to the streets of New York, here are four speakers who overcame shocking adversity to emerge with first-hand accounts of faith, courage, and the value of perseverance.
Some are combat veterans. Some are everyday people who faced extreme adversity. All have extraordinary tales to share. If you plan events, these voices belong on your radar.
As a U.S. pilot operating over Bosnia, Scott O’Grady was shot down and forced to survive and evade capture for six days before being rescued by American forces. “During this trial, I had inspiration,” O’Grady says. “The inspiration that carried me through this difficulty came through the things I cherish the most in life. It came through the love I have for God, the love I have for my family and the love I have for my country. I look at my entire combat experience through my faith.”
O’Grady has written two books, including Return With Honor. Incredibly, he now calls his ordeal “the most positive six days I ever had in my life,” and he explains why. “The reason why it was such a positive experience in my life was solely because of my faith,” he says.
2. Liz Murray
Raised by parents who were addicted to drugs, Liz Murray found herself homeless and chronically truant in Brooklyn as her family came apart. Murray turned her life around, graduating from high school in just two years and earning a degree from Harvard University in a story so unique that it was made into a movie, Homeless to Harvard.
Murray, author of the book Breaking Night, says she began her transformation after her mother passed away. “I got this powerful wake-up call,” she says. “I had just turned 16 and I got to look mortality right in the eyes. She had dreams that she wanted to accomplish. When she passed away, it was so clear to me that you could go your whole life saying you are going to do it later. For me, that was a wake-up call to be passionate about my life — now.”
Murray speaks of attempting to re-enter high school at a time when most her age were entering college. She was rejected again and again. “I summoned all the will in me that I had to just keep trying one more time,” she says. “I’m a big believer in that.” As Murray puts it, “You make the road by walking. You are defined by what you do next.”
When he lost his eyesight while serving in Iraq, Scotty Smiley became the U.S. Army’s first blind active-duty officer. He wrote about it in his book, Hope Unseen. Today, he conveys the lessons he learned with everyday stories, like the time he got lost returning from the gym after hours.
“I knew that this is truly my life,” he says. “Yeah, I had asked for forgiveness. Yeah, I had accepted blindness. But life isn’t just nice softball pitches that you can crank over the fence every day. You have struggles, you have trials, you have tribulations no matter what.”
Smiley critiques his own response, which was to angrily throw his walking stick. “Why? Why me? Why this life? I truly don’t think those are the right questions I should have asked. It should have been, what am I going to do now and how am I going to do it, because I know I can’t do it on my own.”
As a young teenager, Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her home and held by her captors for the better part of a year. Raised in a religious household, multiple assaults left the young girl “broken.” In her own words, “my world turned from day to night.” Yet Smart made a conscious decision to survive.
Today, her perspective on the ordeal is nothing short of incredible. “I am grateful for what has happened to me, because if what it has taught me, because of the perspective it has given me and the empathy that I have felt for other survivors,” she says. “I am grateful that I can make a difference. I am grateful that I can speak out.”
Smart has written a book about her experience, My Story, and now leads the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which works to prevent crimes against women and children and to empower victims. “When you are faced with a trial, don’t give up,” she says. “Don’t surrender. Move forward, because you never know what you’ll be able to do with it. You’ll never know the lives you’ll be able to touch.”
Author Glen Justice is a content strategist and the founder of Outside Voice, a custom content firm. He has been writing about advocacy in various forms for almost two decades.