“You really inspire me.”
I hear this phrase regularly. It always makes me a little bit uncomfortable for a wide variety of reasons. Though I can sometimes hog a conversation, I really don’t like having attention drawn to me, and phrases like this make me blush. As an disabled introvert, my desire for anonymity is frequently at odds with the fact that I am highly visible because of my terrific – if sassy – guide dog.
But my own discomfort with being viewed as “inspirational” goes deeper than my desire to blend in, to go about my day, to enjoy my hobbies or go to work or meet friends for coffee.
And it wasn’t until very recently that I started to figure out why.
Inspiration: What it Means
Until writing this post, I had no idea there were so many meanings for the word “inspire.” Merriam-Webster includes phrases such as “spur on, motivate” and “to influence, move, or guide by divine or supernatural inspiration.” The Cambridge English Dictionary has a definition I particularly like: “to make someone feel that they want to do something and can do it.” There are other definitions, too. Some are archaic and are not used anymore – to “breathe upon”, for example. But others – such as Oxford English Dictionary‘s “Animate someone with (a feeling)” – make me think that this is what the general public means when they say I inspire them.
But if that’s the case… what feeling do I animate in them?
And is that all there is?
I argue that there’s more.
So very much more.
There are people who inspire me. Some are famous people – who made things or did things that changed the world. Some are everyday people, who show great commitment to their interests, sacrificial love to their families, and generosity to their communities. All of these people inspire me to dream big, to work hard, to learn from others and from myself, to love freely and live courageously. These are people who have made a tangible, quantifiable difference in my life. I don’t throw the word “inspiration” around much, because so often it’s been cheapened when directed at me – for no other reason than I’m a person with a disability getting out there and living my life. I refuse to devalue it – and the people I’m pairing it with – by using it in place of “I’m feeling charitable towards this person” or “this story gives me the warm fuzzies” or “this person makes me smile because they’re them.” These are nice things, in their own way, but not inspirational, especially if they wouldn’t even be talked about if there was no disability in the equation. The late comedian Stella Young put this better than I ever could.
Apologies for Speaking Truth
It appears I’m not the only one who has complicated feelings about telling someone they inspire them. A new old friend of mine just started training for a triathlon, and I recently commented on their Facebook post about how awesome and inspiring it’s been to read their journey and cheer them on through their successes. I waffled about the use of the word “inspiring”, but after some soul-searching I realized it was apt. Their story spurred me on to keep training on days when I just didn’t feel like it (which I found out last week inspired a neighbor to get out there and start her own fitness journey, so around and around it goes). In my friend’s response back to me, they told me that I inspired them by posting updates on my own running journey – even when my time and pace and distance all sucked. I can’t find the comment now, but there was something in there about “sorry to use this phrase, but…”
Just yesterday, a very close friend told me that my way of looking at the world inspired them to look at the world differently – not in a passing-glance kind of way, but in a true, worldview shifting sort of way. “I hope you’ll forgive this wording,” she wrote, “it inspires me every day.”
It broke my heart that such a lovely compliment – a true compliment from a good friend – had to be qualified like this.
And yet, I understand why.
Taking Inspiration Back
Let’s be inspired by true inspirational feats and figures. Let’s stand up and tell our friends and families how they encourage us to make a greater difference in the world and ourselves. Whether fighting injustice, raising a family, providing thoughtful commentary, training for a race, blazing new trails through employment or education or innovation, there may come a time that someone needs to hear that they are truly making a lasting difference in their little corner of the world.
If a stranger inspires us, let’s take a moment to discern why: is what they do and who they are making a difference in their world and/or our lives? If the person standing beside them did that same task or feat, would we view them as inspirational? If the answer is yes, great! If not, it’s time to examine our own thoughts and expectations – are we inspired because who this person is is truly someone to emulate, or are we placing our own limitations on them and they just happen to jump high enough to “overcome” them?
There’s a place in the world – and in our conversations – for inspirations. Let’s reserve them for people – some we know and some we’ve never met – whose example continually spurs us on, rather than brushes up against us and fades into the background.
Who Inspires You?
Since we’re talking about inspirations, who inspires you? Why? How? In what ways have they changed your life? I’d love to read your stories in the comments below!