Nick Vujicic, who was born without arms or legs, shifts our perceptions of what it means to be happy.
The beaches of Waikīkī were crowded as normal the day that Nick Vujicic went out for a surf. It was the first time he would attempt the sport. He remained flat on his stomach the first few times, “but soon as I achieve something,” the Australian-native says, “there’s something in my brain that questions, ‘OK, what now?’”
So Nick did what anyone would do: He attempted to stand up. “They taped a whole pile of towels on the board,” he says, recalling the moment. “I was lying down, trying to get up, but it’s amazing how much the g-forces hindered me. I tried 15 times before I finally go up. But I finally did it, and I was like, ‘Yeahhhhhh!’ It was so cool, man.”
Standing up for Nick is no simple feat. Simply because, 27 years ago, Nick was born with no arms and no legs. It’s a birth defect known as phocomelia and is what left doctors and Nick’s parents baffled in the delivery room. Despite ultrasounds at week 20 and 32, Nick’s parents were given no warning that their son was to be born without limbs.
Today the disability that once hindered him enables and affords Nick the opportunity to speak into the lives of thousands of people around the globe as a motivational speaker and evangelist. It’s estimated that one in ten people know who Nick is – that’s nearly 700 million people. His organization, Life Without Limbs, has taken him to 17 countries, including Egypt, Kuwait, South Korea, India and Colombia, where he shares his inspirational life story with some of the world’s most dejected and broken. He’s had the opportunity to address congresses around the world and presidents of nations. Later this year, he’ll speak to 135,000 people in Mexico City, in what will be his largest crowd to date.
Spend even a minute with the impassioned speaker, and his disability fades from view. He recounts a prank he once played on a passerby – his friends put him up in the overhead compartment of an airplane and closed the door, and he lay in wait for the next unsuspecting passenger – and he bursts out in laughter thinking of what came next, his blue eyes twinkling. I can’t help but laugh too. His features are ruggedly handsome, neatly-trimmed hair, a ruddy beard. But it’s his eyes that are what is most striking. They flicker with emotion and reflect pain and joy all at once: the pain he’s seen of the world around him, the joy that exudes from his heart.
His eyes grow serious when he talks of the brokenness he’s seen first hand. “There’s a lot of pain around the world,” he says. “Slums. Prostitution. Ten-year-old girls being kidnapped and sold to become sex slaves. What do you tell her? Have a positive attitude? … People always ask me, ‘Nick, why do you smile?’ Well, the joy of the Lord is my strength.”
The strength of Nick’s spirit, regardless of where it comes from, is undeniable. Nick is fully independent, able to dress, shave, shower, cook, brush his teeth, comb his hair, all on his own. He enjoys golfing, swimming, playing soccer, and he can type 43 words per minute on the computer. He has a double major in finance and accounting. And for a while, he was utterly determined to remain independent, but recently, because of his whirlwind schedule, he’s realized having a caretaker helps him to be more efficient, freeing up his time to do even more.
On average Nick has spoken 250 times per year for the last six years; in 2008 he spoke 330 times. He’s personally met and hugged 350,000 people. “Am I tired?” he asks. “Yes. But you know what? If I died today, I wouldn’t regret one bit of it. People are my passion. Sharing with them a message of hope is what I’m about. And if I can touch the life of just one person, I wouldn’t trade a thing. I wouldn’t trade having arms and legs.”
In 2007, Nick met a little boy named Daniel Martinez while speaking in Southern California, where Life Without Limbs is also headquartered. Nick says he’ll never forget meeting Daniel. “Altogether I’ve met 17 children, teens, young adults with no arms and no legs. Daniel, he was the first one. Now I’m going to be an older brother to that boy. When he gets teased and depressed, angry at God, I can look him in the eye and say, ‘Hey, everything is going to be OK.’
“I’ve seen miracles, you know. I’ve seen blind people see, deaf people hear, lame people walk – I have a pair of shoes in my closet, just in case God says ‘yes’ to me – but I know that when you don’t get a miracle, you get to be a miracle for someone else.”
“SOME SEASONS PROLONG, SOME PAINS NEVER GO AWAY, AND SOMETIMES WE FEEL LIKE THERE IS NO HOPE, LIKE WE’RE GOING TO BE HERE FOREVER, BUT I’M HERE TO TELL YOU THAT WE’RE NOT.”
Nick, the firstborn son of Serbian immigrants, Boris and Duska Vujicic, was born on December 4, 1982 in Melbourne, Australia. What was supposed to be a celebration of life, quickly turned into bewilderment and shock. “My dad was by my mum’s side,” Nick says of his birth, “and he saw my shoulder. He couldn’t believe what he saw. He saw no arm. And he got sick to the stomach and walked out. The nurses, they were crying. They didn’t know what to do. The doctor goes out to my dad, and my dad says, ‘My son – he has no arm.’ And the doctor says, ‘No, actually he has no arms or legs.’ And he just fell down.”
Nick’s birth was even harder for his mom. “The nurses put me next to my her, and she couldn’t – she didn’t want to touch me. She just said, ‘No I don’t want to see him.’ Shock. Tragedy. … They put me in the nursery, and my dad came to see me. He unwrapped the blankets, and he couldn’t believe it. But he went back to my mum, and he said, ‘He’s beautiful.’ Still, it took about four months for my parents to come to terms with my condition.”
Then it was Nick’s turn to question. At age 8, Nick told his mom that he wanted to commit suicide. At age 10, he actually tried. He crawled into the bathtub and turned over three times. “I just felt I was never going to live a normal life. If I was going to be a burden to my parents, I’d rather be dead. I’d rather relieve them of me, their greatest burden.” He turned over twice and thought he was doing a good thing. The third time, he envisioned his parents looking at his grave, and Nick realized he was going to leave them with a lot more pain. So, he “decided to stick around.”
Nick’s struggle with accepting himself and believing in the purpose for his life was just beginning. Between ages 8 and 12 he struggled with bouts of depressions. He describes those years as his lowest points. “For my dad, as a preacher to say, ‘God’s got a plan for all people,’ yet his son was born without limbs – that hurt me. Singing, ‘Jesus loves all the children, all the children of the world …’ and all the children at school have arms and legs, but not me – Why? I don’t feel it, I don’t see it, I don’t understand it.
“I knew that I needed God for more than just arms and legs, and when I prayed for arms and legs as a child and he didn’t give it to me? That was my anger toward God. And I didn’t want to talk to him until he explained himself to me.” And eventually he did, Nick says, through the Bible verse found in John 9, where a man was born blind, and “it was done so that the works of God could be shown through him.”
Nick says that moment changed his life: “Faith came over me, and I said, ‘God you have a plan for me. If you give me arms and legs I trust you, if you don’t give me arms and legs, I trust you.’” Nick realized he had two options: choose to be angry or be thankful for what he did have. And what he had was his “chicken drumstick,” as he calls it, a tiny foot with two toes. “I had no idea what I had until it went,” he says after spraining his foot playing soccer. “I golf, I fish, I swim, I write, I type – [when I sprained it] I had no idea how it could hinder my mobility.”
Nick’s first speaking engagement (if you could call it that) came in 1999 when he was in eleventh grade. He’d wait afterschool for his cab to pick him up, and soon he became friends with the school janitor. After three months of pestering from the janitor to share his story at a devotional group that met on Fridays, Nick finally agreed. In front of ten people Nick shared a little of his life. Immediately people started crying. Soon he was getting invitations to speak at local youth groups around Melbourne, and he even got invited to speak at a church in South Africa. Three days after returning from Africa, Nick spoke at a high school in front of 300 sophomores, his biggest crowd at the time. “My palms were sweaty, my knees were shaking … and half the girls started crying within three minutes of me speaking,” he says.
In the middle of his talk, he noticed a girl weeping uncontrollably. Slowly, she raised her hand. “Can I give up a hug?” he recalls her saying. “And in front of everybody, she hugged me and cried on my shoulder, and she whispered in my ear, ‘Thank you, thank you. No one’s ever told me that they loved me. No one’s ever told me that I’m beautiful.’ Changed my life.”
From that moment on, Nick knew he was called to be a speaker for the rest of his life. He went from zero speaking invitations to currently 29,000 people waiting for Nick to speak at their school, in their city, in their country.
Waiting for a table at a local sushi restaurant near Nick’s home, we are talking about Trader Joes and what I was asked to bring home upon my return to Hawai‘i. Nick’s gasping in astonishment at the amount of nuts my mom wants, when a man walks up to our bench.
“Excuse me,” he says, “Hi Nick. I met you a while ago at [one of the local churches] you spoke at. I know you must meet so many people …”
“Oh no, man, how you doin?” Nick says.
Immediately: “Not so good. My father just passed away.”
Without hesitation Nick says, “Can I give you a hug, man?” He embraces Nick, and Nick offers a prayer of hope and comfort. A weight it seems is immediately lifted.
Stories like this one are not uncommon for speaker. People all over the world seem to find comfort not only in the purpose and hope he speaks about, but also just by being in his presence. “Many people compare their suffering to my suffering,” Nick says. “Some seasons prolong, some pains never go away, and sometimes we feel like there is no hope, like we’re going to be here forever, but I’m here to tell you that we’re not.”
He goes on in an interview with Greg Laurie, a pastor of a church in Southern California: “There is no difference in pain. I know a 16-year-old girl who would gladly give up her arms and legs if something in her life would change. … There is only hope in the name of the Lord because only he gives us the strength to be more than conquerors. To know that my circumstance doesn’t need to change for me to be happy. You can’t argue with this smile, this joy in my eye. You see my real pain, and you see my real strength.”
Nick’s not quite sure what the future holds for him. Someday he hopes to find a wife, have children, and start a family. But he’s not there yet. For now, it seems he’s found contentment, pure joy, because of what he does, because he’s doing the thing that he believes in with all his heart, the thing that he’s most passionate about. One thing, though, that he knows for sure, and that’s visiting Hawaii again. He has, after all, caught the surf bug. He recounts another of his epic waves at Waikīkī that day: “After I stood up – “Bethany [Hamilton] was on my right, the beach was going wild – and I’m like, ‘What now?’ So while the board’s going, I actually do a turn, and I did it three times! Forty-eight hours later I ended up in Surfer magazine.”
How he’ll top that one? It’s hard to say, but knowing Nick, he’ll find a way.