I recently spoke with Paul de Gelder, one of the main actors in Australia’s own Fighting Season. The mini-series is a dramatisation of the inner battles our diggers face upon returning from war. As an ex-paratrooper and an ex-Navy clearance diver, very few Australians understand the reality of war better than Paul.
But Paul de Gelder’s story isn’t just one about warfare. At many points through his life, Paul’s story could have been one of tragedy: he could have remained caught up in the hazy ‘fog’ he lived in during his early 20’s, with nothing but the taste of weed and two-minute noodles in his mouth. Or, after a considerably successful career with the armed forces, Paul de Gelder could have allowed the moment when a shark tore off his right hand and right leg be the defining tragedy in his life.
Instead, Paul’s story is one of the triumph over tragedy - the simple act of turning a negative into a positive. These were a few of the many words of wisdom I received from Aussie legend Paul de Gelder in our small yet dense conversation this week.
Fear Can Be Our Greatest Ally
After the shark attack that claimed two of Paul’s most crucial appendages, the first thing on his mind was getting back to health, getting back in the water, and getting his job back with the Navy:
‘The motivator that I had there was fear. And fear can be a very great strength. So I utilised that into a determination of trying to keep my job and trying to keep this dream alive that I fought tooth and nail to achieve. Because I did know what it was like to have nothing and I knew what it was like to struggle.’
Remember where you come from and make sure you never go back there.
Losing an arm and a leg in a shark fight is not a pleasant experience. In fact, it’s excruciatingly painful (as Paul would tell you). But Paul de Gelder faced a far mightier beast after the shark attack - morphine addiction. So what was the motivator?
‘All those years working behind the bars - we had no electricity, we were showering at the public showers at Southbank in Brisbane. Eating two-minute noodles on toast and I smoked weed and lived in a fog. I was so absolutely determined not to return to that and get back into my career.’
Winning battles wins wars.
Once Paul had been fitted with his new hand and leg, the road to rehabilitation literally and figuratively required baby steps - simply putting one foot in front of the other.
‘That fact that I had the laser-like focus. That was it, that was all I did. Tiny little steps - get up earlier, get off the drugs, eat healthier, get to the gym, learn to use my body, get a leg, learn to walk. And all those little goals and challenges helped so much that within 6 months I got to go back to work.’
Dying isn’t scary, dying with regret is scary.
As a man who had been deployed overseas to fight in a war, and as a man who faced death in its ugliest, most menacing form, Paul de Gelder has plenty of reasons to fear death. However, the experiences in his life taught him a new perspective; a perspective that allowed no room for fear.
‘Believe me when I say, dying is not scary. I’ve faced it in the most horrific and violent ways - most people’s worst nightmare. The dying part is not scary. The bit where you’re dying and you have regrets is scary. And I didn’t have any regrets. Because I’d achieved so much more than what I thought was possible in my life. And now it’s come to the point where I’m on bonus time, I’ve got my second chance, so there’s absolutely no way I’m going to waste that now.’
‘Strength is vulnerability’
This is the advice surfing legend Layne Beachley gave to Paul de Gelder as his career in public speaking began to blossom. We all have a story to share and when we can begin to relate our own experiences to that of others, that’s when it can become truly valuable.
‘What I thought I was supposed to be doing was just telling a story. Little did I realise that people couldn’t relate to that story if I didn’t give some of my human side. Over the months and years, I had to delve into that side of my personality and give it an even balance of every aspect of who I am and what the story involves.’
Do not live in the world of 'what if's'
Paul de Gelder has taken a situation that would mentally and physically break your average man and turned it into an overwhelming positive - not just for himself but for society. With a life like his, there can be no room for regret.
‘My life is ridiculous. I can’t even believe the life that I live. It’s something that I dreamed about. You know, it’s hard - the first thing I do in the morning is, I’ve got to put my leg on. I’ve nearly died half a dozen times jumping into the shower on one leg and nearly breaking my spine.’
‘I wouldn’t go back and have my leg and my hand back. Because I don’t know who that guy would be. But I know who I am now, and I’m happy. I embrace it and I’m just trying to keep the growth of this career going that I’ve accidentally fallen into going’
Paul de Gelder is a living legend.
Fighting Season is out on DVD now.