Inspiration. What is it? According to Merriam -Webster, it is:
- 1. An inspiring agent or influence
- 2. The quality or state of being inspired
- 3. The act of drawing in – specifically the drawing of air into the lungs
- 4. The action or power of moving the intellect or emotions
People find inspiration or become inspired in many ways. For some, a sunrise can be inspiring. Others are inspired by observing an act of strength or sacrifice. Words inspire me. They have the power to move my emotions and influence my behavior.
This weekend I had the privilege to listen to several inspirational speakers as part of the Rotary Empire Multi-District President Elect Training Seminar (MD PETS). Social gathering restrictions meant this year’s seminar was held virtually rather than in-person. While this reduced the opportunity for spontaneous fellowship, it allowed the planning committee to invite amazing speakers from across the globe who would not have been able to attend if our event had not been virtual. At the end of the seminar yesterday, I made a list of the steps I can take to be a stronger leader in my Rotary club and professional life. I started to imagine how the words of inspiration could translate into new activities.
Whenever I feel inspired, I challenge myself to look deeper. I try to identify how I can convert my feelings into at least one new action. This activity was caused by my own emotional reaction to nondisabled strangers calling me inspirational. My automatic responses to what was intended to be a compliment were limiting my chances for meaningful discussions.
I am an open person, not shy about sharing my personal stories in my writing and public speaking. I want to be an accepting, humble, and grateful person. I am proud of my accomplishments but I don’t see myself as having done great things “in spite” of my disability. Rather, I have completed many tasks, activities and adventures as a woman who happens to be disabled, just like I happen to have brown hair. My disability has always just been a part of who I am, not something I have had to “overcome” in order to live.
But when nondisabled strangers labeled me as inspirational, I rushed to judgement without giving them the benefit of the doubt. I internally rolled my eyes, assuming they found me inspiring because of my disability rather than taking the time to question them about their statement. I closed myself off to a possible dialogue or the gift of connection because it was easier to group that stranger with people who gave compliments to make themselves feel better about themselves. After all, doesn’t everyone know disability is a fate worse than death? Instead of taking the time to learn why a stranger offered me what might be construed as praise, I would jump to cynicism.
Once I realized what I was doing, I began to examine the reasons why. If friends or family called me an inspiration, they often told me the reason. This meant I did not doubt their motive or intent. So, I started to ask a follow-up question whenever a stranger told me I was inspirational. Instead of automatically assuming intent, I began to smile and say, “What have I inspired you to do?” or “How have I inspired you?”
The responses to this question have been varied and revealing. Only a few people told me they were inspired because my own disability made them feel better about themselves. One brave person actually said, “If you can do everything you do being so disabled, I don’t have any excuse.” Some people are stunned, shocked at my response. A few people have felt challenged and become brusque, responding with comments such as, “Well, I was just trying to be nice!” or “Can’t take a compliment?”
Then there are the people who redeem my faith in others. They tell me they are going to advocate for inclusion. They are going to stop holding public events at venues that aren’t accessible for everyone. They are going to start captioning their YouTube videos. They are going to stop assuming all disabilities are visible.
When we rush to judgement, we lose the chance for meaningful discussion. If we act on our incorrect assumptions, we never have the opportunity to be blessed with insight about ourselves. My quick dismissal of the “inspirational” label applied to me by others robbed me of a gift. My own story could have an impact in meaningful ways, just like I am moved to action by the words of others. Some of these may be related to disability, but not always. Why did I continue to assume the worst for so long?
I continue to struggle when others call me inspirational. There are times I feel unworthy of the praise. But I am still doing my best to try not to rush to judgement and indignation. Asking questions has helped me understand I can be viewed as inspirational for non-disability related reasons, even by those who do not know me well. And when I offer the word to others as a compliment, I tell them why in case they are internally rolling their own eyes.