Greg J. Matthews is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Anti-terrorism Officer and a former emergency medical and special operations rescue technician who served as a first responder during the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. In his debut memoir, Wild Awakening (Howard, June), he describes how he survived a vicious attack from a grizzly bear in the Alaskan wilderness in the fall of 2015 and its impact on his idea of what it means to be a man and a Christian.
Why did you want to write a book about the attack as well as its spiritual ramifications?
The lessons I have learned as a result of going through this experience have profoundly re-shaped my life in all areas, including work, relationships, and faith. I began to write in order to better understand what had happened to me. I realized I had to share my story with others who may be living as I once had been, with a deep-seated fear of never being good enough and therefore seeking achievement and societal recognition as a way of measuring self-worth. In the moments of the grizzly bear attack, when I finally realized I could not do anything to save myself and surrendered to this reality, I felt God’s presence around me, protecting me. The bear stopped her attack and I was saved both physically and spiritually.
How did the experience change you?
It has significantly changed the way I now live my life and I can truly say that I am happier and more at peace than I ever thought I could be. I now structure my days in a healthier way that honors my true values and priorities. My relationships are better and deeper than ever before.
You write about growing up as a child of divorce: can you talk more about these stories and why you included them?
As I was writing, I clearly saw for the first time the root of woundedness that had taken place when I was child, and the lies I had told myself during my formative years. I recall vividly standing on the sidewalk and watching my father leave our family home forever. Somehow, I felt that his leaving was my fault—that I had done something wrong and clearly, I wasn’t good enough to make him stay. I developed the following foundational belief (that I now recognize as false) that I began to live by: I must constantly prove that I am worthy of being loved. I became a firefighter and EMT, risking my life and performing heroic acts to rescue others, but I never addressed my own pain, brokenness, and need for salvation.
What did your near-death experience teach you about fatherhood?
As a father, my experience has helped deepen my understanding and application of grace. I allow myself now to be more open with my children, to show them who I really am. I want to teach them how to be compassionate towards themselves and others, how to accept forgiveness and know they are loved unconditionally.