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← The beautiful balance between courage and fear

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Showing Revision 6 created 12/23/2019 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. When we're young, we're innocently brave,
  2. and we fearlessly dream
    about what our lives might be like.
  3. Maybe you wanted to be an astronaut
    or a rocket scientist.
  4. Maybe you dreamed
    of traveling to every continent.
  5. Since I was very young,
  6. I dreamed of working
    for the United Nations
  7. in some of the most difficult
    countries in the world.
  8. And thanks to a lot of courage
  9. that dream came true.
  10. But here's the thing about courage:

  11. it doesn't just appear
    whenever we need it.
  12. It's the result of tough
    reflection and real work,
  13. involving the balance
    between fear and bravery.
  14. Without fear, we'll do foolish things.
  15. And without courage,
    we'll never step into the unknown.
  16. The balance of the two
    is where the magic lies,
  17. and it's a balance
    we all deal with every day.
  18. First, a word about my fancy wheels.

  19. I haven't always used a wheelchair.
  20. I grew up like many of you,
  21. running, jumping and dancing.
  22. I love to dance.
  23. However, in my mid-twenties,
  24. I began to experience
    a series of inexplicable falls.
  25. And a few years later,
  26. I was diagnosed with a recessive
    genetic condition
  27. called hereditary inclusion body myopathy,
  28. or HIBM.
  29. It's a progressive muscle wasting disease
  30. that affects all of my muscles
    from head to toe.
  31. HIBM is very rare.
  32. In the United States there are
    less than 200 people diagnosed.
  33. To date, there is
    no proved treatment or cure,
  34. and within 10 to 15 years of its onset,
  35. HIBM typically leads to quadriplegia,
  36. which is why I now use a wheelchair.
  37. When I was first diagnosed,
    everything changed.

  38. It was frightening news
  39. because I had no experience
    with chronic illness or disabilities.
  40. And I had no idea
    how the disease might progress.
  41. But what was most disheartening
  42. was to listen to other people advise me
  43. to limit my ambitions and dreams,
  44. and to change my expectations
    of what to expect from life.
  45. "You should quit
    your international career."
  46. "No one will marry you this way."
  47. "You would be selfish to have children."
  48. The fact that someone who wasn't me
  49. was putting limitations
    on my dreams and ambitions
  50. was preposterous.
  51. And unacceptable.
  52. So I ignored them.
  53. (Cheers and applause)

  54. I did get married.

  55. And I decided for myself
    not to have children.
  56. And I continued my career
    with the United Nations
  57. after my diagnosis,
  58. going to work for two years in Angola,
  59. a country recovering
    from 27 years of brutal civil war.
  60. However, it would be another five years
  61. until I officially declared
    my diagnosis to my employer.
  62. Because I was afraid
  63. that they would question my capacity
    to manage and I'd lose my job.
  64. I was working in countries
    where polio had been common,
  65. so when I overheard someone say
  66. that they thought
    I might have survived polio,
  67. I thought my secret was safe.
  68. No one asked why I was limping.
  69. So I didn't say anything.
  70. It took me over a decade

  71. to internalize the severity of HIBM,
  72. even as basic tasks and functions
    became increasingly difficult.
  73. Yet, I continued to pursue my dream
    of working all over the world,
  74. and was even appointed
    as a disability focal point
  75. for UNICEF in Haiti,
  76. where I served for two years
    after the devastating 2010 earthquake.
  77. And then my work brought me
    to the United States.
  78. And even as the disease
    progressed significantly
  79. and I needed leg braces
    and a walker to get around,
  80. I still longed for adventure.
  81. And this time,
  82. I started dreaming
    of a grand outdoor adventure.
  83. And what's more grand
    than the Grand Canyon?
  84. Did you know that for every
    five million people who visit the Rim

  85. only one percent go down
    to the canyon's base?
  86. I wanted to be a part of that one percent.
  87. The only thing is --
  88. (Applause)

  89. The only thing is that the Grand Canyon
    isn't exactly accessible.

  90. I was going to need some assistance
  91. to get down the 5,000-foot descent
    of vertical loose terrain.
  92. Now, when I face obstacles,
  93. fear doesn't necessarily
    immediately set in
  94. because I assume that one way or another,
  95. I'll figure it out.
  96. And in this case, my thought was,
  97. well, if I can't walk down,
  98. I could learn to ride a horse.
  99. So that's what I did.
  100. And with that fateful decision

  101. began a four-year commitment,
  102. tossing back and forth
    between fear and courage
  103. to undertake a 12-day expedition.
  104. Four days on horseback
    to cross Grand Canyon rim to rim,
  105. and eight days rafting
    150 miles of the Colorado River,
  106. all with a film crew in tow.
  107. Spoiler alert -- we made it.
  108. But not without showing me
    how my deepest fear
  109. can somehow manifest
    a mirror response of equal courage.
  110. On April 13, 2018,
  111. sitting eight feet above the ground,
  112. riding a mustang horse named Sheriff,
  113. my first impression of Grand Canyon
  114. was one of shock and terror.
  115. Who knew I had a fear of heights.
  116. (Laughter)

  117. But there was no giving up now.

  118. I mustered up every ounce
    of courage inside me
  119. to not let my fear get the best of me.
  120. Embarking on the South Rim,
  121. all I could do to keep myself composed
  122. was to breathe deeply,
    stare up into the clouds
  123. and focus on my team's voices.
  124. But then, in the first hour,
    disaster struck.
  125. Unable to hold myself
    upright in the saddle,
  126. going down an oversized step,
  127. I flung forward and smacked my face
    on the back of the horse's head.
  128. There was panic,
  129. my head hurt fiercely,
  130. but the path was too narrow
    for us to dismount.
  131. Only at the halfway point at 2,300 feet,
  132. at least another two hours down,
  133. could we stop and remove my helmet
  134. and see the egg-sized bump
    protruding from my forehead.
  135. For all of that planning and gear,
  136. how is it that we didn't
    even have an ice pack?
  137. (Laughter)

  138. Luckily for all of us,
    the swelling came outwards,

  139. and would drain into my face
    as two fantastic black eyes
  140. which is an amazing way to look
    in a documentary film.
  141. (Laughter)

  142. (Applause and cheers)

  143. This was not an easy, peaceful journey,

  144. and yet, that was exactly the point.
  145. Even though I was afraid
    to get back into the saddle,
  146. I got back in.
  147. The descent alone to the canyon floor
  148. took a total of 10 hours
  149. and that was just day one of four riding.
  150. Next came the mighty rapids.

  151. The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon
  152. has some of the highest
    white water in the country.
  153. And just to be prepared
    in case we should capsize,
  154. we'd practice having me swim
    through a smaller rapid.
  155. And it's safe to say it wasn't glamorous.
  156. (Laughter)

  157. I took my breath
    in the wrong part of the wave,

  158. choked on river water
  159. and was unable to steer myself.
  160. Yes, it was scary,
  161. but it was also fantastic.
  162. Waterfalls, slick canyons
  163. and a couple billion years of bedrock
  164. that seemed to change color
    throughout the day.
  165. The Grand Canyon is true wilderness
  166. and worthy of all of its accolades.
  167. (Applause)

  168. The expedition,

  169. all that planning and the trip itself,
  170. showed me a level of fear
    I had never experienced before.
  171. But more importantly,
  172. it showed me how boldly
    courageous I can be.
  173. My Grand Canyon journey was not easy.
  174. This was not a vision
    of an Amazonian woman
  175. effortlessly making her way
    through epic scenery.
  176. This was me crying,
  177. exhausted and beat up with two black eyes.
  178. It was scary,
  179. it was stressful,
  180. it was exhilarating.
  181. Now that the trip is over,

  182. it's easy to be blasé
    about what we achieved.
  183. I know I want to raft the river again.
  184. This time, all 277 miles of it.
  185. (Applause)

  186. But I also know that I would never do
    the horseback-riding part again.

  187. (Laughter)

  188. It's just too dangerous.

  189. And that's my real point.
  190. I'm not just here
    to show you my film footage.
  191. I'm here to remind us all
  192. that life is really just a lesson
  193. in finding the balance
    between fear and courage.
  194. And understanding what is
    and what isn't a good idea.
  195. (Laughter)

  196. Life is already scary,

  197. so for our dreams to come true,
    we need to be brave.
  198. In facing my fears
  199. and finding the courage
    to push through them,
  200. I swear my life has been extraordinary.
  201. So live big
  202. and try to let your courage
    outweigh your fear.
  203. You never know where it might take you.
  204. Thank you.

  205. (Applause and cheers)