When the newspaper wrote about my rare cancer, many people took me aside to tell me how inspiring I was. I felt vaguely fraudulent each time this happened. “Shucks,” I felt like saying, “there are plenty of people who are more inspiring than I am.” Consider the case of Stephen Hawking, recently the subject of an excellent film, “The Theory of Everything,” who was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease in his early 20s. His doctor told him he’d be dead in two years. Today he’s 73 and still hanging in there (see his excellent home page here). My situation with carcinosarcoma is like having a head-cold when compared against the pain, inconvenience and emotional wear-and-tear that Hawking has experienced over the past half-century.
But what do we really look for when we look for inspiration? It’s surely not related to how much another person has suffered during the illness. I learned today that there is a homeless woman here in Bloomington who has ovarian cancer. My heart goes out to her because she cannot hope to receive adequate medical care since she has no address, no money and no advocates. She will suffer, and she will eventually die, but how many people will hail her example and call her experience of cancer “inspiring?” Yet she spends each night on a cot in a shelter, and undoubtedly does what she can to get through each day despite being cold, hungry, bedraggled and frightened. Her experience is certainly worthy of respect and compassion, in my book.
It’s obviously not so inspiring to see someone wallowing in the depths of despair and depression while ill. So is optimism a chief component of what we characterize as “inspirational”? Optimism is good, but it can easily lead to a Pollyanna-like tendency to try to negate a very dark reality by being falsely bright and cheery all the time. One doesn’t want to be The Queen of Denial, after all, because it really doesn’t help the situation. A sense of optimism, and the degree of suffering experienced, are both factors that can contribute towards being “inspiring,” but they’re obviously not the entire formula.
So what do we mean when we label someone as “inspiring”?
I have a disease that will eventually prove fatal. I wrote about how I’m dealing with that fact on my other blog, “War as a Metaphor for Cancer.” My way of dealing with cancer is to calmly accept the cards I was dealt and go forward with as much courage and with as little stress and struggle as possible. But that’s just me. I’m definitely not seeking praise from others, nor am I trying to set some kind of example. I would never presume to tell other cancer patients how they ought to run their lives, or how they should react to their diagnosis. We are all different, and we all must come up with our own ways of dealing with life-altering stressors. I have chosen the way that works for me.
And that’s the heart of the matter, to me. The sheer ingenuity and creativity of the myriads of other human beings who share this planet with us, the way they come up with endless inventive solutions for the problems that beset them, solutions that are as different as they are—now, that’s what I call inspiring.