In our first article about Paralympian and artist, Gregory Burns, I wrote about how he embarked on his life journey which took him around the world. It was a story of remarkable persistence, providence and courage. Part two of the series describes how art and sports came together to allow him to fulfil his dream of ‘living a big life.’
By any standard, you could say Gregory has achieved success. I asked if there was anything that bugged him and this gave him pause.
“Taking it for granted” he says finally. “I also find it hard to slow down, to relax.”
Is Our Journey of Consequence?
When we think of epic journeys, some notable personalities may come to mind. My brain lights up like a Christmas tree when I think about some of my adventure heroes: spunky Marco Polo started travelling on the Silk Road with his uncle when he was just 17. Jack Kerouac, a member of the Beat Generation wrote about his road-trip adventures across America and precipitated the hippie culture. The unwavering Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who not only survived a desert plane crash but used his experience to write one of his most iconic books, The Little Prince. Photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans, who, armed with their Leicas, captured emotions and created historic moments.
When we look at the accomplishments of others, we sometimes forget that each one of us also undergoes a unique journey. Our journeys may not be Homeric, but they are certainly not less significant.
As we get to our mid-life transition, some of us start to slow down or start pondering about our inner journey. We not only take stock of how outwardly successful we are, we reflect on how happy we are with our evolution as a person.
Sometimes a crisis erupts. Is slowing down equivalent to giving up? Is despair inevitable as time surges onwards? If these thoughts have crossed your mind, you are not alone. At some point, we start to consider what legacy we will leave behind.
A Pivotal Moment Can Change Your Life
Gregory is not new to fighting for what he wants and overcoming obstacles. Having contracted polio when he was a year old, doctors told him would never walk. He insisted anyway and learnt to walk, albeit with crutches. In this way, he won his independence. Even though he could not run or play tag as his friends did, he adapted and made the most of what he could.
When he was 12, a teacher passed him in the corridor one day and remarked, “ You are strong”.
These words stuck in his head. He had never considered himself ‘strong’. It was a pivotal moment. This affirmation steered him on his path towards becoming an athlete and artist.
The most minuscule things can make a big difference. Perhaps this is where Gregory realized that he too could inspire and influence others.
Gregory holds a university degree in communications and worked for KFC in Asia for many years before becoming a full-time artist. His accomplishments in the Paralympics, art and travel experiences provide ample content for TedX talks, corporate keynote presentations, as well as motivational talks at schools and charities. He has delivered more than 100 talks and presentations. Who’s counting? Somewhere, he may have created a few sparks, just like the one that set him off on his life journey.
Life is a Series of Mountains. Keep Walking, Step by Step
Gregory is usually the lone physical challenged person when he sets out on his innumerable travels.
On this particular occasion, he encourages and shares an extraordinary journey with Paul Fairhurst, a quadriplegic whom he met serendipitously at a party.
Paul had suffered a partial spinal cord injury from a bicycle accident and was paralysed from the shoulder down. He was given a 10 per cent chance of ever walking again. Although he has impaired mobility and lives with chronic pain, he was lucky enough to get back on his feet.
Together, they decided to spur each other on with a challenge: to climb the Himalayas.
Their venture caught the attention of Paul’s employer at the time, Diageo. They not only agreed to sponsor the trip but also sent a film crew to record the endeavour. You can watch it here. Any additional sponsorships they acquired went towards Paul’s cause of choice – spinal cord injury awareness and research.
After almost a year of planning and training, they set off to Ladakh on the Tibetan plateau. The challenge — a gruelling trek of 35km trek culminating at 3,900m altitude. A feat, even for most of us average folk, for them there were incomprehensible challenges to overcome. Where paths were narrow, it became arduous to move forward as Gregory’s crutches sank into the gravel with every step. At some point, he was forced to make his way sideways.
Realization dawned on him at this point.
“We all need to find something hard to push against to make progress. That rock must be within us and is called inner strength. It helps us to overcome challenges.”
Gregory has many colours on his palette. Drawing is his way of making sense of life.
Adversity can become a blessing. Overcoming challenges stimulate personal growth. Without shedding the comfortable skin that protects us, we don’t know if we can grow beyond the roles dished out to us.
Paul tells us of his experience, “Many things are tougher. Every movement requires focussed effort and is painful. That’s mentally and physically tiring. But many things are richer. I’m clear now on my purpose and values and strengths. My relationships with family and friends are more honest, authentic and deeper. Whilst I’ve lost many things, the losses are considerably outweighed by the gains. “
Legacy is not just about wealth, reputation or the grandchildren you leave behind.
One of the greatest joy is knowing that you have made an impact on someone. Because at some point in your life, somebody had influenced how you perceive the world. Like in the story of ‘The Little Match Girl, the warmth of a memory stays with you for eternity.
Not every life event goes the way we imagine or makes us happy. But if you can step back and look at the bigger picture, you may see a beautiful painting. So if you fall, get up. And keep getting up.
It seems Gregory is not slowing down just yet. He joins five other five Olympians in exhibiting at the Noren Curtains Project during the Olympics in Tokyo.
He is, in every sense, a man to be reckoned with.