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Author John O'Leary on Living An Aspirational Life

Drawing on his experiences as a childhood burn survivor, John O’Leary discusses being an overcomer and how he inspires others to live aspirational lives. Read Transcript


Well every adult can remember being told as a kid,

don't play with fire.

John O'Leary is no exception, except John didn't listen.


NARRATOR: John O'Leary was just 9 years old

when he suffered severe burns to 100% of his body.

He had seen some older kids playing with gas and fire,

so he tried it in his parents' garage.

Recovery was painful and demanding,

but he vowed to press on.

With little muscle tissue left in his legs

and all of his fingers amputated,

he learned again how to walk and write.

Now as a motivational speaker, John

inspires others to live life fully.

In his new book, On Fire, he shares

key choices we can make to positively transform our lives

and the lives of others.

And please welcome to the 700 Club for the very first time,

John O'Leary.

John it's good to see you.

Wendy, what an honor.

Thrilled to be with you.

Well John, you've lived every kid's nightmare,

every parent's worst nightmare.

You set yourself on fire.

Let's go back to that day when you

were 9 years old in your neighborhood.

What happened?

Yeah so I had seen little boys in my neighborhood playing

with fire and gasoline about a week earlier.

And I assumed if they could do it,

so could I. That's pretty typical male behavior,

by the way, at this young age.

So I went into my garage early on a Saturday morning.

My mom and dad were gone.

Walked over to a five gallon can of gasoline,

bent down next to it, lit a piece of cardboard on fire,

bear hugged the container--


--and very carefully tipped and poured.

Before the liquid even shows up, Wendy the fumes come out.

They grab the flame, pull it back in.

It creates this massive explosion,

splits the can in two, picks me up,

launches me 20 feet against the far side of the garage,

changes my life forever.

I mean you're lucky that just the impact,

the explosion didn't kill you.

But then you're-- so you're completely on fire from head

to toe.


WENDY GRIFFITH: You run into your house.


Your sisters, your two sisters scream.


And your brother, Jim, though he knew what to do.

Yeah, but he was not prepared--


--to do this.

He's 17, he's sleeping in the basement.

I remember standing on top of a rug in my mom

and dad's front hall, just screaming and praying,

God, I need a hero.

I will take anybody.


I'll take anybody.

And my brother Jim, 17, races toward me

and I remember thinking, God anybody else.

Not this guy.

I need someone who can do something massive here,

someone who can move mountains here, not a 17 year old boy.


And yet God can use us all.

I think Jim is proof of that.

He picks up a rug, beats down the flames, saves my life.

And it was winter, right?

So he took you outside and rolled you in the snow?


He carries on the outside like a baby, throws me on the grass,

jumps on top of me, and becomes my hero that day.

OK, so at this point you're probably still--

you're in shock, but you're alive.

You get-- your brother calls 911.

Your parents aren't home.


So now you're alone, in this ambulance,

on the way to the hospital.

You get to the hospital, your mom shows up.


You know, I remember laying in the hospital bed, Wendy,

by myself.

I have no clothes, I have no skin, I'm looking down

it's all a mess.

So, I shut my eyes and as a nine year

old the thought was, oh my gosh, my parents

are going to kill me.

They're going kill me.

And then I hear my mom's voice.

She walks in and she takes my right hand,

she pats my bald head, and she says, words I'll never forget,

I love you.


And I remember looking back and saying,

mom knock it off with the love.

Am I going to die?


You asked her, am I going to die?


And I assumed Wendy she would say, no honey.

You're fine.

We'll get you out here this afternoon,

we'll swing you through a drive-thru

and get you a milkshake on the way home.

You'll get a milkshake, right.

And instead she spoke truth into my life,

which I think we all need a heavy dose of politically,



--in all aspects of our life.

She took my right hand in hers, she patted my bald head,

she looked me in the eyes, and she says, do you want to die?


Your choice, not mine.

And I remember saying, Momma, I do not want to die.

And her response back was, good.

Baby, then look at me.

You take the hand of God, you walk this journey with him,

and you fight like you have never fought before.

And on this morning January 17th, day one of the journey,

we committed our lives to taking in the hand of God,

walking the journey with him, and fighting

like we've never fought before, and it's

a fight that continues.

Well John, that was the beginning of the fight, right?

You made a decision, I'm going to live.

But it was a painful fight.

I'm sure there were times you wondered, is it worth it?

I mean, you went through-- you were in the hospital

five months?

Yeah, exactly right.

And then after that, another excruciating eight months

at home just trying to recover after that.

You lost all of your fingers--


WENDY GRIFFITH: --in that fire and that explosion.

And I remember when the doctor amputated my fingers,

I thought that was the end of my life.

And the doctor came in that night and he said to me, John,

I have not taken your life.

I've given it to you.

You may not become a courtroom reporter,

but you can become a judge.

You may be able to be a carpenter,

but you can become a general contractor.

And then he said, you may not any longer

play for the St. Louis Cardinals,

but you could become their manager,

or you could even become their owner.

The doctor said that to you?

Yes, just taking the time to love me where I was.

I love that.

What an amazing doc-- there's a lot of good doctors and nurses

out there that help us through times like that.

So tell us about some of the turning points in your recovery

because you learned to write again.


Which is amazing.

So tell us about some of the turning points.

So the first big turning point after coming home

from the hospital, was that night of celebration.

We had been through this miraculous story,

from death to life.

When you're burned on 100% of your body, Wendy,

you are going to die.

And sort of come home from that is-- hey it's a miracle.

So I'm at home.

My mom's over here, my father's over here,

and my five siblings are around me at this table.

They've rebuilt our house, the family has come back together.

My mom made my favorite meal, it's in front of me.

The problem was I can't eat it because I don't have hands.

And my favorite sister, Amy, I know she's watching right now,

she watches every day.

She scoops up some potatoes, brings it toward my mouth,

and then I mean mother looks at my sister

and says, Amy, you drop that fork.


If John's hungry, he'll feed himself.

Tough love, right there.

But that was what you needed, right?

It is exactly what I needed.

She ruined dinner.

The party was over.

But I think on day one, she taught me not to die.


When I came home from the hospital,

she taught me how to really live.

That is an amazing.

Well John you have really lived.

I mean, you are married to a beautiful wife,

you have four kids, you're a motivational speaker,

you're an author, you're teaching us how to live.

In fact your book is called, appropriately enough, On Fire.


The seven chronicles to ignite a radically inspired life.

And I love what someone said on the title.

Reading this book is like having a good friend look

you square in the eye and say, the time to be brave is now.

I love that.

What do you mean by that?

Most of us are going through life at best on cruise control.

We live a very accidentally.

We wake up, we do our thing, we go to bed,

and we're not even extraordinarily

intentional in our prayer life, in our faith life,

in our finances, in our relationships,

in our marriages.

This book is a cry out for people to wake

up, to realize the miracle in front of them

each day, to not take it for granted,

and to live their best today.

And if they're blessed with tomorrow,

awesome, but don't wait for it to come.

Live it right now.

You talk about seven choices to a radically inspired life.

Can you mention a couple of those for us?

So the first one is accountability, which

gets an ugly rap these days.

We love entitlement.

Give it to us, give it to us, give us hope.

But hope is not a strategy.

Accountability allows us to do our next best thing right now.

Don't wait for tomorrow, live it right now.

Do you mean accountability like to

your-- between-- to yourself, to-- between you and God,

or like having an accountability partner?

The answer is yes.


It is to get off the cross, to burn the wood,

and to realize that's already been taken care of for us.


So-- it yes.

We need accountability to God, we need accountability

for what we say so we actually do it,

and we did an accountability partner to do it with.

We can't do life well by ourselves.

So that's probably my favorite choice.

But then later on, I talk about this shift

from being a victim to life--


--to being a victor.

From asking the question, why me?

Why was I burned?

Why do I have these back pains?

Why do I always struggle?

To asking the question, why me?

Why am I so blessed?

Why did you die for my sins?

Why am I still alive?

Why can I show up today to see the sun rising in the east

and eventually setting in the west?

The cherry blossoms are blooming.

I have a lot to be grateful for and today I

choose to act like it.

And you have four kids and--


--I know are they watching?

Are they--

They are absolutely watching.

Mom has them out of school, I'm sure.

They're all sitting around saying,

what is dad doing on TV right now?

So I love you guys.

I have three boys and a little girl.

I married well above my level, her name

is Elizabeth Grace, my wife Beth.

She is gorgeous on the inside and out.

I have an awesome family and today I know it.

And the first time you met Elizabeth,

you said she took you by the hands?

Yeah, gosh, you read it all.

So, you know, one of my concerns growing up

was will any little girl ever be able to see

past the outer shell?


Will anybody ever be able to take these hands that

are obviously so broken?

And I met Beth that first night, we danced.

We were friends, but we danced.

We partied, we had a blast.

We were friends for years, but she kept taking my hands.

And eventually she took not only my hand as a friend,

but my hand as a partner, my hand as a spouse,

and she continues to take my hand today.

WENDY GRIFFITH: You've been dancing ever since.

We have been partying and dancing ever since.

Well we're-- I'm getting a wrap because I can't stop

interviewing you because it's so amazing and it is a fascinating


And I know you want to hear more about it,

so just pick up a copy of John's book.

It is called On Fire, seven choices

to ignite a radically inspired life.

John, you are a blessing.

God bless you.

Thank you so much.

Thank you.


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