Some years ago, a woman who was attending my Quaker meeting at the time approached me after meeting for worship one Sunday. She told me that she kept a picture of me on her refrigerator and that looking at it always made her feel better. I just smiled and looked at her, not knowing how to react.
I was a bit freaked out. It was a weird thing to say – even creepy. For one thing, why did this woman, who I wasn’t close to, keep a picture of me on her fridge? (This must be how film stars feel – and I’m not a film star!) And why did seeing me make her feel better? Was it because it reminded her that at least she wasn’t disabled, not to mention severely disabled?
Or was she just being nice saying this?
Or could it be I was being negative and cynical?
For most of my life, I have had pretty much that attitude when people said things like this to me. I have had real problems with the i-word. For years and years, when people told me that I’m inspiring, that I’m brave, courageous, determined, etc., I would cringe, to say the least. Really, I hated it. I thought these people were just being nice. I thought they were being patronizing.
It was like they were taking an air-brush to me, glossing over what I was saying, not seeing what my life is really like.
In recent years, though, my thoughts on all this, on the i-word, have been changing (or trying to change). I am seeing that when people say I’m inspiring, it’s because, for the most part, I really do inspire them. I see that when they see me out there, being brave, determined, it makes them feel more like getting out there and being brave, determined, etc. I see that it’s not about me, that it’s not about being nice to me and trying to make me feel good. It’s about them and what they get out of me.
I see it when a gay man thanks me for giving him the courage to get out, to be out and be himself.
I see it when I meet disabled people and feel energized seeing the different, sometimes better ways they do things and also seeing that I’m not alone. Yes, I’ve come to realize, I find disabled people inspiring!
Sure, this being inspiring is still weird. It feels odd and phony that what I just do to live my life is so admired, held up to such a high esteem. It is like a responsibility, a weight, that can be a pain. On the other hand, if I can help people by giving them strength and courage, by moving them and empowering them, by, yes, making them feel better, cool. I kind of like it. At least it’s better than being angry and cynical and always suspicious of people.
Now the question is how do I deal with this responsibility, which really can get to be a weight and be quite draining? How do I handle being inspiring when I don’t feel inspired or inspiring? And what about when it’s hard to tell whether someone loves me because of me or because of how I inspire them? Or where is the line – or is there a line?