At Palm Beach Atlantic University, often the tables are turned as we educators learn from our students and alumni. On the Monday before Thanksgiving, we honored alumnus Carter Viss, who by his actions has taught us much about perseverance, forgiveness and letting God bring good out of tragedy.
On Thanksgiving Day 2019, Carter was snorkeling near The Breakers resort on Palm Beach when a boat bore down on him. Its three propellers sliced into all four of his limbs, and Carter saw his severed right arm fall onto the reef below. He would have drowned, bled to death or died in the hospital had not God provided the right people at the right time to save him. And then he faced a painful two months hospitalized, wondering if he ever could put his life back together.
Fast forward to March of 2022. The photo accompanying this column shows Carter and his fiancée, Emily Forgan, at the International Boating and Water Safety Summit in the nation’s capital. There Carter told the crowd about his accident, his lengthy recovery and his new calling as a boating safety advocate. That story included Carter’s worry about whether he’d ever again play the piano, which had been a great pleasure before his accident.
Peg Phillips, executive director of the National Safe Boating Council, had invited Carter to speak at the summit. She arranged a piano hidden just off stage, and after Carter spoke, she asked him to play.
“He went over and just played the piano beautifully with his one arm,” said Peg. “We had this standing ovation afterwards, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. It was just an inspirational way to close off the conference, and everybody really became a Carter Viss fan.”
I can well imagine. He has fans aplenty here at PBA, where we were excited to give him our Alumni Achievement Award. And in an interview before that presentation, to help us learn further from this remarkable young man, we asked Carter some questions:
After a personal tragedy or great disappointment, how can a person avoid being trapped in bitterness?
“You can’t control bad things happening to you,” Carter replied. “But once something bad happens, you have a choice: you can let it define your life either in a positive or a negative way. I chose a positive way, to look for the goodness in what has happened. I know the appearance looked horrible, but good things have happened, like a friend of mine becoming a Christian because of this, and the opportunity for me to make big changes in water and boating safety.
“If you hold on to bitterness and resentment, that’s just going to be a downward spiral toward other negative things happening. But you can choose the positive response. It’s not an easy choice to make, especially right after something happens to you. But you’ve got to trust in God and know that God’s plan is the right way, and He has control over everything.”
You forgave the driver of the boat that hit you, and even worked with him on a video about boating safety. What have you learned about forgiveness? (View video at go.pba.edu/carterviss)
“Forgiveness isn’t in our nature, initially,” Carter said. “We want this immediate satisfaction, like an eye-for-an-eye. But forgiveness can be accomplished, through time and prayer and seeing the bigger picture. In my case, the driver of the boat was very remorseful about what happened, so that helped me reach forgiveness a little faster. He was hurt also, in a way. And I’d rather fix brokenness in this world than create more.”
What can you tell us about supporting someone who is going through a terrible time?
“Prayer is crucial,” Carter said. “And it’s very important for the person to know he has a community that supports him. It was incredibly moving to hear how on Thanksgiving, when people heard about my accident, so many dropped everything and went straight to the hospital or reached out to help my family.” (Carter cited especially his coworkers from the Loggerhead Marinelife Center and friends from Truth Point Church.) “It really illustrates the beauty of what God wants in His kingdom, to see all these people coming together to help.”
On November 21, as we looked forward to Thanksgiving, I saw more of this beauty Carter referred to: “what God wants in His kingdom.” After Carter received PBA’s Alumni Achievement Award in our chapel service, he shared his redemptive story before a packed crowd of students, faculty, staff and visitors. He then went to the piano and played a flowing rendition of the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.”
We all rose to our feet as Carter finished. When the applause finally ended, Carter prayed, thanking God for our time together, and for “all the people who have supported me in this journey.” He continued, “And I pray that You’ll give everyone in this room strength to know that You are always there. You’re always on their side working toward the best.”
Amen. And on Carter’s behalf, I extend that prayer, with thanksgiving, to every reader of this column.
Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, a physician, researcher and innovator, is president of Palm Beach Atlantic University. (www.pba.edu)
For more articles by Dr. Schwinn, visit goodnewsfl.org/author/dr-debra-a-schwinn/