Unintended Inspiration

Jason Dutton

August 1, 2005

Should we be rewarded for doing the right thing?

Initially, the answer to this question seems to be an unqualified "yes." In the wake of September 11, the stories of firefighters, policemen, and passengers on those fateful airline flights were broadcast to the country. Songs and bumper stickers support American troops, and it seems that every year brings with it a new motion picture telling the tale of a real person triumphing over incredible adversity. We as human beings need to be inspired, and the heroes we discover more often than not seem to deserve the praise we heap upon them. Clearly, then, rewarding heroes for their accomplishments is a good thing.

But how many heroes reach their place of fame by seeking recognition? How many feel that their recognition is deserved?

My limited experience as an inspirational figure is a result of my disability. Ironically, the cerebral palsy that creates a deficiency in my body earns incredible, and unexpected, recognition. Regularly, I am approached by people seeking conversation, and their words are always similar. "Excuse me," they say, "but I just wanted to let you know what an inspiration you are to me. I really admire how you deal with your condition."

I am always grateful for these remarks. Even when my modesty prompts me to quietly accept the praise I’ve been offered, a grudging sense of pride eventually emerges. I simply cannot help but feel better about myself when I am told that I can make the lives of others better simply by being available for observation. My pride, however, never survives serious contemplation. I am not praised for writing a great novel, or finding a cure for a disease. I am praised, apparently, because I try to live my life as best I can while dealing with a disability. I am praised for surviving.

In one sense, I can see how my behavior must be uncommon. Inspiration has to spring from the abnormal; people are not motivated or transformed by the common. Inspiration comes from a glimpse, however brief, of something worthy of aspiration. There must then be something notable about the way I live. People are inspired by someone who lives with a disability because they believe they could not do so themselves.

However, because I have somehow risen above the common, it stands to reason that I could sink downward. The alternative to fighting adversity would be to submit to it. The alternative to intentional optimism is pessimistic depression and complaint; instead of choosing to live life to the fullest, one could choose to end one’s life.

Praise then says the following: I am inspirational because I have been found uncommonly good. That distinction comes from living as I do, because a normal person would give up on life were he in my position. I can then assume that it would even be understandable to do so. Because one would expect me to give up, my perseverance is inspirational.

This, as far as I can determine, is the logical origin of praise in the mind of those who do so. My logical conclusion, then, is that people who praise me are not telling the entire truth, to me or even to themselves.

If I were to decide not to be inspirational, would my admirers truly understand? If I were to start complaining, or cease to get up in the morning to avoid dealing with the problems of life, would they support me because I would be acting as they would? I have to conclude that they would not. Faced with such behavior, sadness and disappointment would appear. One would wonder how life got the better of a good person, and perhaps hope that I would rise above my circumstances. While my friends may understand my actions, I hardly think they would consider those actions to be right.

I detail this seemingly trivial conundrum of a disabled college student to reveal that this problem is much more common than it may appear. We praise the firefighter for running into a burning building, but we would frown on him for refusing to do so. We praise the soldier for fighting, the policeman for risking his life, and the father for working to support his family. We praise our fellow man for doing the uncommon, and for doing that which we ourselves feel we are incapable of. But it is vitally important that we realize we praise our fellow man for doing what we believe to be the right thing. This is why our favorite heroes accept their awards with humility and sometimes even with disbelief. Our heroes believe they were simply doing what should be done.

The truth is that we do praise our heroes for being uncommonly good, and we may in fact believe that we ourselves are not capable of doing what they did. But in no way are we content to be below them. We praise our heroes because they pull us from apathy, and show us how to do what is right. Then the belief is born that we, too, can be like our heroes. We are stirred to action because we dare to believe that there is something in us that is inspirational. We feel called to find the courage to run into a burning building and the strength to face adversity because we hope that it can be found within us. In short, we praise our heroes only in part because of their courageous actions. I think that our heroes are praised because they remind us of what we could be.

As for my own "inspirational" status, I admit it still catches me off guard. But I am appreciative of praise. I am appreciative because I am reminded of my responsibility to strive for excellence. More importantly, I hope that I have stirred an urge within those who praise me to find the courage that they believe I possess, and to surpass me in excellence.

Jason Dutton is a senior from Pickerington, Ohio, majoring in Creative Writing and Political Science.