As I entered the Alliant Energy Center for the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin Business Conference in mid-March, I was a little nervous. This was likely the largest gathering I’d been to since beginning my journey at The Country Today, and I was certainly surrounded by people who knew a lot more about the industry than I did.
I picked up my name badge and wandered the halls, flipping through my booklet for some guidance. I sat in on a couple morning sessions and browsed through the exhibition hall, lined with rows and rows of dairy industry professionals, companies and products.
Shortly before noon, I headed to the large ballroom to get ready to listen to two keynote speakers. I spotted a young lady sitting alone toward the back with her laptop and a notepad — and without even reading her “MEDIA” badge, I knew she was a fellow journalist.
“Do you mind if I join you?” I asked her.
She smiled and we introduced ourselves. We exchanged a few comments back and forth about our jobs — deadlines, topics we’ve covered, etc. Then it was time to get to work.
First we listened to Mike Boehlje from Purdue University speak about opportunities that arise out of challenging times. But it was the second keynote speaker that truly blew me away.
From way in the back of the ballroom, my eyes focused on John O’Leary. Flipping through the booklet, I gathered that he had survived an unbelievable feat. When he was just 9 years old, an explosion in his parents’ garage completely covered his body with burns, and doctors told him he had less than a 1 percent chance of survival.
I listened as he explained that yes, there are opportunities ahead and major challenges that we need to face right now. But there are no victims gathered in the room today — only victors.
Three questions flashed on the screens in the front of the room. These are the three questions we need to stop asking ourselves, O’Leary said. Why me? Who cares? What more can I do?
Many people, dairy farmers included, can fall into a cycle of these questions during tough times. We ask ourselves “why me?” Why do I struggle? Why was I chosen to be on the receiving end of negative impacts to our industry? Does anyone really care? Why should I care if no one else does? What can I do? I’m only one person.
As photographs of O’Leary projected onto the screen, it was easy to understand why a badly burned little boy would have asked “why me?” It was easy to understand “who cares?” when everyone had told him he had very little chance of recovery. And it was even easier to understand why O’Leary would ask himself “what more can I do?” as he lay in a hospital bed for months and months on end.
Another set of questions flashed on the screen. Ironically, they were the same three questions, but as O’Leary explained, the mind-set had changed. Instead, we should ask ourselves “why me?” As in, why am I so lucky? Why am I this blessed? As a farmer, I get to feed the world; I get to collaborate with others and care for the land and animals.
“It’s a beautiful, worthy question to ask,” O’Leary said.
Who cares? We care — the hundreds of us gathered together in this room. We do something that matters; we have the passion that keeps us going. And it’s not always about doing more but thinking differently about the work we are all doing, O’Leary said.
Make a list of all the things we are grateful for, he recommended. Think of all the people that have influenced us today. We sit on the shoulders of giants, he said, recalling how Jack Buck, a baseball broadcaster, visited him often in the hospital and encouraged him to pull through during his own challenging time.
He told a story of how his piano teacher came to visit him after he was allowed to return home from the hospital. Even though his fingers had been amputated as a result of the explosion, his mother insisted he continue playing piano. They may have taken your fingers, but they didn’t take your life, so quit acting like it, he said his mother had told him.
Then, in front of hundreds of dairy producers, farmers, professionals and supporters, he sat down at the bench of a keyboard, laid his hands on the keys and played his mother’s favorite song. The large ballroom was silent. As he played, tears welled in the corners of my eyes. In that moment, I don’t think a single person in that room was asking “why me?”
I really do believe we are strong, we are resilient and there are opportunities in the challenges that we all face. We just have to stop asking ourselves “why me?”
Brooke Bechen is The Country Today regional editor in southern Wisconsin. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.