More About Disability and Inspiration and the Cramp in My Foot

When I think about inspiration I get a cramp in my foot, as if I’m swimming. Aside from it’s obvious and lengthy history as a central idea in art and religion, inspiration has become in modern times a strident and proprietary thing—the incitement for self help books and motivational speaking, pop psychology, and a thousand narratives in which people overcome tremendous obstacles to finally live in some kind of contentment or self acceptance. This mode of inspiration is a bourgeois figure, and it is a figure, as it becomes a metaphor with wings, angels, big puffy hearts, houses with tall windows facing the ocean. For the disabled inspiration is an ugly piñata. A piñata that looks like an eel. We were always supposed to inspire the non-disabled with our pluck, our optimism, our winning smiles, our earnestness. We were matchless representatives for the charities that served us. We were Disney, pure Goofy, always cuddly.

And if we weren’t, well we were guilty of not playing the game. We were “disability Debbie Downers” who simply cried out frequently, because there was much to decry, and we were insufficiently sportive, and we were bad cripples.

It is good I think to de-legitimize inspiration. It was always simply breath, the mystic breeze we take into ourselves, perhaps sent by the gods, or maybe just oxygen—it was about breathing and hence, about life itself. It’s the essential word you want if you’re discussing life.

If you live to be 80 you’ll take 672,768,000 breaths. Every last one will be about air. These breaths will primarily have zero to do with making others feel better about themselves. You’re breathing for you. You’re breathing for your children. You weren’t inspiring the Greeks on the beaches of Troy.

This is of course where metaphors of inspiration begin. Breathing is a private affair but in our formative years as a species we imagined breath was sent by the divine. The Greeks called this theopneustos—which means breath sent by God. Thus inspiration (breathing in) became a kind of mouth to mouth resuscitation by the “big guy” and it’s one of the oldest notions humans still hold. Or many do. Bob Marley sings “there’s a natural mystic blowing through the air” and he could just as well being singing for the cave painters. When St. Paul uses theopneustos he means that God’s breath is not only in him but that it blew across the pages of his holy writing. (God can even make the ink dry.)

One thinks of God manning a pump, leaning above the Earth, eternally pushing air into our lungs and hearts. God exhales oxygen and likely breathes in CO2. Either way he’s busy. We don’t know if the fish are inspired but some of us think so. All air is heavily laden with life’s possibilities. Whatever my spiritual inclinations may be, I have to believe this. Breath will be what you make of it. Perhaps you will live like a bird who moves from branch to branch but you will sing. Maybe you will never be free of assignments but you will build a neighborhood. If it is not possible to know what is up or down, it is possible to build a neighborhood. It’s done with breath, breath first.

Because the mouth to mouth resuscitation God image doesn’t matter, is irrelevant, is almost hilarious, you are allowed to own your own breath. You’re allowed to be someone who mends the narrow cracks in the house. Who builds houses for those who don’t have them. You’re allowed to feel the tameness or wildness in your every action. And this is inspiration.

So if you’re disabled you don’t have to inspire anyone. But you can make an art of the breath sent. God or no God; charity or none.