A Motivating Urge
I have been recently reflecting on the “heroes” who have appeared throughout my life as significant influences. Some of these figures are far removed by distance and time, such as great saints and writers. However, there are other people in my life for whom the appellation of “hero” might seem misplaced or exaggerated, since we both live in the same time and there is not a legacy to speak of in the same way. A better word to use, perhaps, would be “inspiration,” and this label is frequently applicable to people I encounter in my everyday life, even if based only on one particular interaction during which a person behaved in an inspirational way.
What I want to reflect on in this post is what attitude we should adopt when faced with inspirations, in any sense of the word, whether they be a hero of great fame and repute, or an acquaintance we talk to briefly at a party. I think that there is both a negative mode of response and a positive mode of response, and which one we choose has great impact regarding our ability to stretch beyond ourselves and grow in the direction of whatever has inspired us.
In my own personal experience, there is often a tendency to approach an inspirational person from a perspective of inferiority. If I meet a person whom I perceive as better than me in some way, or who has accomplished more than I have in an area of interest, then I might take this as a reflection of my own inadequacy. Take, for example, someone you witness being extraordinarily kind to another person, or whom you note as being an excellent conversationalist. This, as it first appears to you, is only an observation, from which you are detached. But we so quickly cloud our observations with the personal, and from these muddied waters it becomes more difficult to see truth. Instead we become caught up in our insecurities and feelings of blame or shame. The goodness of another person is warped when we view it instead as our own lack of goodness.
In myself, I often experience an internal pressure or urge towards conformity, as if the fact of someone else’s being good at something means that I have fallen behind the pack in some way and need to catch up to maintain my respectability. But comparison of this sort is toxic and also has no discernible end; it continues on, tormenting the mind with speculation and regret, and lowering our sense of self-worth. Such comparisons might seem to embody humility and selflessness in the recognition that another is better than us in some regard. The more that I think about it though, the more it seems to me that this negative response to inspiration actually and primarily involves the ego.
When we use someone else’s goodness as a launching pad to think of our failings, we inflate our own selves and spend more time thinking of our personal faults and shortcomings rather than the act of goodness itself. Such a preoccupation is not concerned with what we are or can be; instead, it is concerned with what we are not. However, perhaps there is still too much we in this response, and the self needs to be subtracted from the equation to a certain extent, in order to properly appreciate and draw from inspiration.
Obviously we are limited by our personal perspectives, since we see from our own eyes and are formed by our own experiences, and can never fully enter into anyone else’s. And yet, if we agree that there is some measure of objective Truth (not even necessarily that we know what it is, but that it exists and it could be possible to find it), then we are capable of separating our own biases and baggage enough from entities like Goodness in order to see them for what they really are and to be truly inspired by the way they are exemplified before us. Seen in this light, an inspirational person or act can lead us not to an immediate self-comparison or condemnation, but to an affirmation. We are then neither denying nor exalting ourselves. Rather, we are affirming the virtue displayed through the inspirational experience and striving towards this virtue primarily. Under the positive response, we desire to be better because we desire the good, not because we feel we are not good enough.
I think the positive response truly inspires and lifts us towards something transcendent and beautiful, whereas the negative response might immediately inspire but then keeps us mired in guilt and shame. If we are overwhelmed by the distance between ourselves and the inspiring person, or if we are obsessed with the weight of our own supposed inadequacy, then inertia, fear and low self-esteem might keep us from actually trying to learn or grow. If, on the other hand, we can refrain from the negative commentary and simply experience the joy and radiance of something which is virtuous, then we are uplifted by the force of inspiration. We are free to change because we aspire to something which is greater than ourselves. Of course it is important to recognize our own sinfulness and lack of control in life; however, I believe that change is not only more likely but more meaningful when it involves a reaching towards something good and true, and ultimately enduring.