Uplifting stories are the true source of inspiration and courage, writes Joanna Moorhead
It’s tempting, when you’re a journalist, to name-drop the famous people you’ve met. I’ve worked in newspapers for three decades, so there have been a few. Martin Sheen was gorgeous; Geri Halliwell was interesting. Damian Lewis was the best lunch date ever, and Hugh Grant’s voice down the line put shivers down my spine.
My favourite-ever famous interviewee was Emma Thompson: of course, she’s a luvvie, but what a grounded, caring, sane human being she is too. When I mentioned during our conversation that I was hoping to do a story about exploited children in Asia, she immediately offered to fund it.
So she’s a superstar, and the others are A-listers too: but the people I’m more interested in boasting about having met aren’t household names. They’re ordinary people whose lives met with extraordinary events. And it was the way each of these individuals reacted to those events that marks them out for greatness.
I’m thinking of people like Jessica Cox from Arizona. She’s in her 30s, friendly, engaging, accomplished and fun. She flies a plane and tours the world as a motivational speaker: which is pretty amazing considering she was born without arms.
At first, Jessica told me, she had prosthetic arms. But she hated them: eventually, she realised they weighed her down, and that she could do everything she needed to do with her feet.
She ditched the false arms and set her sights on bigger and bigger goals – including learning to fly a plane. It was certainly daunting, and many doubted she would ever be able to do it. But she discovered that all she needed was faith – in God, and in herself – and anything would be possible.
I heard something similar from Fr Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest and South African anti-apartheid campaigner who was targeted by pro-apartheid activists and lost both his hands and an eye after he was sent a letter bomb.
A loss like that brings a grief that never entirely disappears. In time, though, he came to see his own woundedness as emblematic of the suffering in his country. “The way we respond to our own wounds can enable us to walk beside others,” he told me.
Then there are people like Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle, whom I met on a windy day in Galway. We had lunch together: they looked like any other later-life couple in the restaurant that day, but their story is truly amazing.
Sunny, who’s now in her 60s, spent 17 years on death row in the US, before being exonerated of the crime for which she was convicted. Peter, meanwhile, was one of the last people ever to be sentenced to death in Ireland, and he spent many years in jail before being cleared and released. The two met at an Amnesty International meeting and fell in love; what are the chances?
There have been many other ‘ordinary’ interviewees who were anything but”
But what’s truly remarkable about them, is that, despite having been through so much and surely deserving of a quiet life, they’re now dedicating their lives to supporting others who have also been wrongly convicted of serious crime.
Another ‘ordinary’ person who turned her own desperate difficulties into a better life for others is Christina Noble, whom I interviewed is 2016. She grew up in the ‘The Liberties’ in the 1940s, one of a family of eight children squeezed into a one-bedroomed flat. After her mother died when she was 10 she became a carer for her younger siblings: eventually, though, they were all placed into care, and she was separated from them.
But from all this came not bitterness or despair, but a determination to help other children. Her charity, the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation, now works with marginalised and disadvantaged children in many parts of Asia.
Then there’s a guy called Joseph Luzzi, who used his Italian mother and the poet Dante to help him out of an unthinkable tragedy. On a November morning 10 years ago, Joseph said goodbye to his pregnant wife Katherine and headed off to his university teaching job. A couple of hours later Katherine, out on a shopping trip, was killed in a car crash; doctors delivered the couple’s daughter by emergency c-section.
Bringing his new baby home was light years from the way Joseph had imagined it would be. Instead of his wife, the other person in the car was his elderly mother: and though he is eternally grateful for all she did for him and his daughter, he fell into despair at his new situation.
It was Dante, in whose work he specialised as an academic, who rescued him. Like Joseph, Dante had found himself in a “dark wood” after the death of his muse; and re-reading his work helped Joseph start to see the light through the branches.
Today, he has a new wife and two more children. He is out of the woods, and he knows the value of every day in the sunshine.
There have been many other ‘ordinary’ interviewees who were anything but: the woman whose 15-year-old daughter died after an accidental ecstasy overdose, and who now campaigns for a better approach to drugs for youngsters; the Catholic priest who decided to keep his church open round-the-clock as a haven for his city’s homeless; and the young man who battled depression by walking hundreds of miles across Europe. All these and many more have inspired me because, although they’ve met with extreme situations, their response to those situations has been truly uplifting. One thing we all know about life, after all, is that we will come up against hardship and difficulties; so it’s not the rocky rides of our existence that show our mettle, it’s what we do next when they happen.
If you act according to the truths in your heart, others will take their lead from you”
I have no idea whether I could rise to the plate the way any of these people did if I found myself in as difficult a situation as they have: but when I have been up against it, as I was when I was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, it was stories like these that gave me courage.
Celebrities, after all, are ‘different’; they might be interesting and impressive, but they also often distant, and it’s hard to imagine being like them. So, the joy of meeting ordinary people who have found themselves up against the toughest of times, and made it through, is that they make us realise that perhaps, just perhaps, we can do it too.
Keeping on going; refusing to be cowed; following what our hearts tell us is the right way forward for us – these are just some of the lessons I’ve learned. So too is that sheer bloody mindedness can get you an awfully long way; and also, that if you act according to the truths in your heart, others will take their lead from you. The greatest thing to fear is fear itself; and to be brave, we must all know fear, and move through it boldly.
Joanna Moorhead’s Inspired: Twenty Amazing Real Life stories that will Touch your Heart, Rekindle your Faith and even Change your Life is published by Alive Publishing.