On his ascent up Mount Kilimanjaro, Spencer West looked down at his dirt-stained hands and fingernails. He didn’t know how long it would take before they would be clean again. He had been walking for days.
He was tired. He was hungry. He was ready to move on. But he waited patiently and empathetically as his two traveling companions vomited uncontrollably onto the side of the mountain. The altitude sickness that crippled so many climbers had skipped him and gotten to them.
Spencer wanted to lift them up and carry them. He wanted to help his friends the way they had helped him during this trip. But he couldn’t.
It was the only time in Spencer’s life that he wished he had legs.
Spencer West was born with a rare bone disorder in his legs. From the moment he was born, doctors told Spencer and his family that he would not have any quality of life. He wouldn’t be able to enjoy or participate in any of the things “regular” kids did. They also didn’t believe he would live through his teen years.
Spencer and his family chose to believe otherwise.
Time and time again, Spencer West did things that his doctors would have never dreamed he could do. He learned to skateboard. He danced. He sang. He drove a car. He worked a retail job.
And he was able to do all those things because he never felt like he shouldn’t be able to .
Spencer enjoyed childhood just like any other kid.
Except for two times in his life where he was keenly aware that he was different.
Once when he had to have both of his legs cut off right above the knee when he was three.
And a second time when he had to have the remainder of his legs cut off right below his pelvis when he was five.
Other than that, Spencer got to be a regular kid. Spencer’s mom didn’t believe in babying him because he was different. She wanted to make sure he was responsible for his actions just like any other child his age.
Because of his mother’s unwillingness to coddle him, Spencer never accepted that he should be limited just because he was a little different than his peers. When he was a toddler, he dragged his dead legs behind him to get wherever he needed to go.
As he got older, his arms got stronger and Spencer made sure to get on with his life just like everyone else.
He went outside and got into mischief like other little boys do.
He played too close to the street and rode his skateboard too fast down hills. He didn’t worry about getting hurt any more than the other boys in the neighborhood who had legs to carry them.
But Spencer wasn’t under any impression that he was the same as everyone else. He was acutely aware of the way people looked at him when he came walking in on his hands or rolling in with his wheelchair.
And he didn’t care.
In elementary school, Spencer decided he would never, ever use the prosthetics that had been made for him. It was the prosthetic limbs that made Spencer feel like he was different. Like he was an outcast. They were awkward, gawky, and not natural looking at all.
Plus, Spencer got around just fine on his hands. Spencer navigated his way through middle and high school the same way his friends did.
At times it was great.
Other times, when he was being pushed out of his wheelchair onto the floor by the captain of the football team, it wasn’t so great. When everybody walked by him to go their classes instead of stopping to help Spencer back into his wheelchair, it wasn’t so great, but high school eventually ended. And so did the bullying.
Spencer applied to Westminster and got accepted. An hour from where he grew up, Spencer studied computer science.
His first year of college brought with it a storm of depression that even the strongest umbrella couldn’t withstand. Spencer was ready to quit and go home before Christmas break. He hated his computer class. He realized computers were not what he wanted to do. He spent a lot of his time alone. Sulking.
When he went home on Christmas break, he told his mother how he was feeling. His mother had always been very caring and loving toward him so he was sure that she was going to tell him that everything was going to be OK and that he could come home.
He was wrong.
Spencer’s mom told him the exact opposite. She told him he needed to quit sulking. She told him that anybody would be miserable if they sat around all day thinking about how miserable they were.
Instead of telling him to come home, she told him to come home less. To make some friends. To be a college student.
Spencer went back to college broken and just as depressed as before.
But it didn’t take long before he realized she was right. Spencer was making himself miserable. He wouldn’t allow himself to be happy. Until the day he woke up and looked outside and saw three fellow students throwing snowballs at each other.
Spencer sat at the window and watched for a long time. Taking in the sounds of their voices. Watching their breath as it escaped from their warm laughs. He wanted to join them. He wanted to be outside playing in the snow.
Why wasn’t he outside playing in the snow like he wanted?
And then it dawned on him. Nobody was stopping him from going outside. Nobody was forcing him to take the computer class. Nobody was causing his misery. Spencer realized that he was the one in his own way. He couldn’t get out of his head long enough to see his options.
He just kept spiraling down into the abyss of self-pity and aloneness.
In that moment, Spencer had to make a choice. He could choose to continue on his road of misery or he could change directions.
Spencer chose to change his direction. To change his mindset.
By his second year in college, Spencer had changed his major and chosen a communications path. He was able to take music classes, drama classes, broadcasting classes. All the things he loved and was missing by taking computer science.
He was back on the stage acting. He was back on the field cheering. He had made friends with similar interests. He had a job. He had a life.
He wasn’t missing out anymore.
But he still felt like he was missing something. Spencer felt like he had a calling. He just didn’t know what it was.
Spencer was offered an opportunity to go to Africa to help build a school the following summer. He didn’t think he would be able to afford it, so he declined.
But every night, when he was supposed to be sleeping, Spencer kept thinking about the trip. Every day that passed, the feeling just got stronger that he should go. Finally, he made up his mind. He would go.
When he got to Kenya, he was the talk of the village. The kids wanted to meet him. They wanted to see how he got around. They enjoyed watching him walk on his hands. They really enjoyed watching him do wheelies in his wheelchair.
Then a young girl said something to Spencer that change his life forever: “I didn’t think this happened to white people.”
In that moment, Spencer understood the powerful secret that had been driving him all these years.
Great tragedy unifies people. It drives focus. It accelerates progress.
It eliminates distractions. It enables massive change by bringing people together around a common cause.
But tragedy hurts.
It hurts to attempt a big dream and fail miserably.
It hurts to invest in new relationships that don’t work out.
It hurts to lose weight, save money, quit your job, ask for help, or do countless other things that would lead to breakthrough in your life right now.
It hurts to hurt. And so you avoid it.
Thinking that if you don’t hurt, your life will be a lot more fulfilled.
But you find out all too assuredly that “not hurting” isn’t as safe and rewarding as you thought it might be.
Your willingness to hurt in order to achieve your goals is directly related to how far you get from where you are to where you want to be.
The suffering in your life right now is there to accelerate your progress — not to hold you back.
It can make you better. But you have to let the lessons you learn make you better. Stronger. More resilient and committed.
Since that moment in Africa, Spencer West has done what many people with two legs wouldn’t even attempt. He helped build a school in Africa. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro — 80% of that climb was on his hands. He raised millions of dollars for clean water in Kenya.
What’s the lesson? Be willing to do the things that hurt until you get to the place where you can celebrate.