Ten real inspirations
By Claire Wolfe
Issue #116 • March/April, 2009
These are dark times; do I even need to say it? It’s been dark for freedom for too many years. Now economic shades loom. Even if spring has brought a “dead cat bounce” to the stock market by the time you read this, even if the sun is shining outside your windows, there’s a darkness beyond. And we all know it.
In days like these—years like these—we need inspiration to help us keep going.
Only…well, I hate inspiration. I can’t stand anything that bears the label, or even the vague stink, of being “inspirational.”
Each month, I exchange email movie reviews with Oliver Del Signore, this esteemed magazine’s esteemed webmaster. Through the years, Oliver and I have gotten to know each other’s tastes pretty well. I know he likes thoughtful dramas and romantic comedies. He knows I like good animation, quirky indies, Tim Burton, and Johnny Depp. But boy, he really, really, really knows never to recommend any film that might be either “heartwarming” or “inspirational.”
In fact, thanks to my…er, shall we say somewhat emphatic reactions, those two traits are now referred to in our exchanges merely as “the H word” and “the I word.”
Similarly, I gag at the “inspirational” stories that go around—and around and around—on the Internet. Several times a month, some “I-word” tale winds up in the email box. A lost child is saved by angels. A concentration-camp survivor is reunited with, and marries, the girl who secretly smuggled food to him. A well-known celebrity turns out to also be a secret war hero, but is too humble to blow his own horn.
The email pretends the story is true. But the urban-legend chasers at Snopes.com track the story to its origins and report that, sorry (but no surprise), somebody just sent you a pack of lies. The good folks at Snopes call this stuff glurge and define it as “chicken soup with several cups of sugar mixed in.” That is, it’s something intended to be nourishing, but instead gives you a nauseating glucose overdose.
Sugary lies. And that is the crux of the matter.
Tales intended to be “I-wording” nearly always replace the true grit of human experience with comforting clichés. They strip away normal human flaws and replace them with garishly painted faux goodness. They bring in angels where angels don’t actually go. They tidy up life’s inevitable loose ends. They buff away life’s inevitable jagged edges. They tell us that struggle will always be neatly rewarded—when in the real world, struggle is sometimes the work of a lifetime. They tell us perseverance will always lead to victory, when in fact life has no happy endings and even the greatest victories are fleeting.
Seems to me that such tales are tacitly admitting that nothing in the real world is good enough to be truly inspiring. And that’s depressing.
Let’s draw a distinction: Well-crafted fiction can be wonderfully inspiring—and loaded with emotional truths even when every word is made-up. But “I-wording” glurge, whether it’s overt fiction or covert deception, is a betrayal of trust.
At least that’s my not-so-humble opinion of the matter.
Still…life desperately needs real inspiration, especially in these parlous times. Even an anti “I-word” curmudgeon like me can see that.
We who have chosen to live the backwoods life may need inspiration to help us persevere when the basement floods and the money runs out. Inspiration to help us deal with city friends and relatives who think we’re just a little crazy. Inspiration to help us be true to ourselves and our goals when the world pushes and tugs us in other directions. Inspiration to continue seeking freedom, even when door after door slams in our faces. Inspiration to believe that we can achieve our goals even when those goals seem to be receding, rather than growing closer.
To me, genuine inspiration comes from people and events as they actually exist. What’s really inspirational is knowing that people with hosts of human failings, people who were as depressed or trapped as perhaps we feel, people who were no better, stronger, smarter, or more angel-touched than we…still forged onward, even without hope of tidy little endings—people who were, or are, a lot like us, but who rose above themselves or who simply followed their own path…and prevailed.
So herewith are ten real-world inspirational people and their stories, unvarnished and honest-to-gosh true, to the best of my ability to tell.
We begin way back in the past…
St. Francis of Assisi
Now, there has been much “inspirational” glurge spread about this man. He bore the stigmata (not true; he probably bore sores from liver disease or leprosy; the stigmata story was promoted by his followers to give the Franciscans a trump card over their rivals, the Dominicans). He preached sermons to birds (maybe, but if so his messages were more sociological than ornithological; in medieval Italian literary tradition, different strata of society were symbolized by different types of birds). He was a happy, carefree, harmless holy vagrant. Well, sort of.
But Francis, without any shoe-polishing, was an extraordinary soul. Spoiled, playboy son of a wealthy merchant, troubadour, and failed soldier, he abruptly creates a public scandal by giving away so many of his earthly goods (and his father’s earthly goods) that he’s down to bare skin and in trouble with the law.
Another case of a superstar brat needing rehab? No, this time it’s the real thing. Francis goes on from there to lead a life of joyful goodness, gathering bands of brothers around him, living as a holy itinerant, rebuilding dilapidated churches, and serving the poor with love. Eventually there were sisters, too, brought in by the lovely Claire Offreduccio, who became a saint herself. In all, Francis founded three religious orders that still exist today, 800 years later.
Furthermore, he accomplished all this in a very short life while enduring a host of painful, nauseating, crippling diseases.
Sadly, by the end of his days, he was already seeing his hopes and dreams falling apart. Francis never wanted to found any religious orders. He just wanted informal bands of brothers, governed only by love, scripture, and their own common interests, not by rules or authority. But human beings are human beings, and right away bureaucracy and bickering began; he had to make the orders “official” or face chaos and accusations of heresy. And even after that, the bickering went on. So Francis went to the end of his life believing himself to be a failure. Yet he persevered because he had to follow his inner truth.
In 1638, when he was just 22, John Lilburne did a revolutionary thing: He imported religious pamphlets from Holland to England. At that time, all printing presses in England, and all the works that rolled off them, had to be licensed by the government’s favored guild. Lilburne’s pamphlets were unlicensed.
Reported by an informer, he was dragged before the secret Court of the Star Chamber. When he refused to plead (because the charges were read to him in Latin, instead of English), he was imprisoned. When he refused a second time he was dragged behind an oxcart to the pillory while being whipped—and still managed to spread his contrarian views while stooping in the pillory.
For the rest of his life, Lilburne was in and out of prison and endured all manner of other brutal punishments in defense of what he referred to as the “freeborn rights” of every Englishman—particularly rights to freedom of speech and of religion. He agitated against, and was imprisoned by, the king. Then when the parliamentary faction he supported took over the government and in turn became a dictatorship, he agitated against, and was in turn imprisoned by, them.
But “Freeborn John” was beloved by the common people of England for his courage and his convictions. He was twice tried for treason—and twice acquitted.
Unsurprisingly, his abuse at the hands of governments brought him to an early death, but his principles live on. The values he fought for became enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights, and his views and legal stands have been cited more than once in Supreme Court decisions.
John Chapman tramped the fields and forests of pioneer America, barefoot and ill-clad even in winter. He ate what food people offered him in exchange for his sermons, and he slept on whatever floor was available. When people gave him clothing, he gave the best and warmest to the poor and kept the lightest rags for himself.
In an era where animals were mere property, he was unusually kind to four-footed creatures. He took in sick horses whose owners were about to put them down. If the horses recovered, he gave them to poor farmers.
Though a wanderer, he was sort of a farmer himself. He planted nurseries, fenced them against marauding animals, and left them in the care of neighbors, who were instructed to sell the plants on credit, with no due date specified for payment. Every few years he would return to tend each of his scattered nurseries personally. And move on again.
He became a legend in his own lifetime for his kindness and goodness. By the time he died, his nurseries were worth a fortune—none of which ever benefitted him. But the plants he spread throughout Ohio and Indiana and Illinois benefitted young agricultural America greatly. His specialty was apple trees. John Chapman was the man we now know as “Johnny Appleseed.” And once again, the real man is even more interesting than the made-up legends.
You don’t have to believe that this French peasant girl actually spoke with the Virgin Mary in 1858 near the Pyrenean village of Lourdes, or that she was directed to discover a healing spring. Believe in the miracle or don’t, Bernadette Soubirous was another extraordinary person.
There she was, the sickly, undereducated child of people so poor they lived in the town’s abandoned jail. And no matter how her story was challenged—by threats, by punishment, by verbal trickery, by the overwhelming, armed, gaudily uniformed might of the French Imperial State, she stuck to her claim with quiet patience and the fearlessness born of inner knowledge. That’s a pretty remarkable thing, by itself. But frankly, plenty of non-saints have had visions and even struck springs. And plenty of teenagers have told wild tales. And plenty of us can be mule-stubborn under duress.
Bernadette earned her sainthood by what she did in the unheralded years after striking the spring. She entered a convent and lived a very short life of incredible suffering with incredible grace. Always ill with lung problems, she developed and eventually died from excruciatingly painful tuberculosis of the bone. Yet all the while she served others, created beautiful objects, never complained, never drew attention to herself, and quietly endured.
Now, maybe this is not the way you or I would choose to live. My fellow skeptics may think such a life is nothing but waste. Yet in our modern culture of go-go, want-it-now, instant gratification, a culture that expects some expert to solve every problem and hand the solution to us on a tax-funded platter, we could all take a bit of inspiration from Bernadette’s patient, centered fortitude when facing things we cannot change.
But okay, okay, maybe I’m being a little unfair. Saints and inspired madmen may live awesome (if awful) lives. But it’s hard to see our own lives in theirs. So how about coming into more modern times and seeking the inspiration of people more like us?
When the city of New London, Connecticut, tried to use eminent domain to seize 115 homes in the waterfront Fort Trumbull neighborhood and give the land to a private development corporation, 100 homeowners quietly sold. But 15 planted their feet and said that no government had the constitutional authority to take property from one private owner and give it to another—even if the other party did plan to build a resort and conference center that would bring in a lot more tax money.
Susette Kelo took the lead among the 15 holdouts. You probably remember what happened. Kelo and company lost. In an infamous 2005 decision, Kelo vs New London, the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that a municipality could take from the politically powerless and give to the well-connected merely for profit. The whole nation was shocked. Some 93 percent of Americans polled said the decision was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Worse, the city of New London, in what looked like an act of pure revenge, then tried to charge “back rent” to all the holdouts, claiming they’d been living on city property during the years the suit made its way through the courts.
Things couldn’t get any blacker, you’d think. It’s a sure bet that Susette Kelo and her compatriots felt beat, as well as beaten. They probably felt broke, as well as broken.
But then history took one of those interesting turns. State after state rushed to pass laws against New London-style takings. President Bush issued an order forbidding federal agencies from taking land merely to advance the “economic interest of private parties.”
New London backed down on its attempt to charge spurious rent. Not only that; it ended up having to pay substantial extra fees to the holdouts, and paid the cost to move Susette Kelo’s house to another area.
And—in the sweetest of sweet revenge of the powerless against the powerfully corrupt—the resort developer defaulted; the rest of the city’s ambitious plans fell through. The tidy but humble houses that once contributed to the city’s tax base are no more. Today, the former Fort Trumbull neighborhood is a bulldozed, weed-covered wasteland that generates not a dime of revenue for the politicians who were so eager to seize it.
Three Ladies of Liberty
It would be hard to imagine a darker year than 1943. The world had recovered from a long depression only by gearing up for world war. A whole generation was being lost, first to poverty, then to battle. And in 1943, it wasn’t yet certain which side would win those battles.
Just as bad for those who cherish individual rights and freedom, depression and war had led to a growing worship of government. Russia, Germany, and Italy were in the hands of tyrants. Some muttered that the U.S. was, also. For the first time, Americans had begun to adopt the belief that government could, would, and should take care of their every need, regulate every corner of life, and make all things better for all people.
For anyone who held the Constitution or the Bill of Rights or the natural rights of man as an ideal, 1943 must have felt like a year for giving up. Among intellectuals and their followers, the old American ideals were simply unfashionable. No one who was anyone believed in laissez faire or individualism any more.
Then into that dark year strode three women: Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Ayn Rand. In that darkest of years, three previously unheralded women published books that would—oh so slowly—help reawaken a commitment to liberty. Lane produced The Discovery of Freedom, which traced the history of liberty. Paterson gave the world The God of the Machine, a treatise on individualist philosophy, economics, and history that is now considered the first modern libertarian work. And, most famously, Ayn Rand shook the world up—and created a best-seller—with her novel about an uncompromising individualist, The Fountainhead.
Imagine how hard it must have been for them to struggle through the writing of such books, knowing their ideas were considered to be not just old-fashioned, but discredited. They must have wondered if anybody would ever even want to read their thoughts. Yet these three women persevered. And like the first explorers in a choking jungle, they cut a narrow trail for others to follow.
Is it pure coincidence that three women with three similarly important books all showed up in the same unlikely year? Maybe.
Or maybe it was the sort of coincidence that comes only from what Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (in their Illuminatus trilogy called The Cosmic Coincidence Control Center. No matter. It really happened—and its repercussions are still happening to us, today.
Marshall Fritz, Vince Miller, and Walter Jeffries
The world lost both Marshall Fritz and Vince Miller in 2008. Mostly, the world didn’t even know or care. Fritz headed up the Separation of School and State Alliance, while Miller led the International Society for Individual Liberty—groups not exactly in the mainstream consciousness.
I mention these men because their recent deaths are on my mind. But any of us could name a dozen other people like them: Smart, able men or women who could have thrown their efforts into worldly success, but who chose, instead, to give their best efforts to causes—causes they would never really “win,” but that they could at least promote and advance.
They put aside good fortune to do good works, knowing it would be a lifetime effort with mixed successes and failures.
Blessedly, helped along by the Internet, there are ever more successors to men like Fritz and Miller, having an even further reach. An example:
Walter Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont was as outraged as thousands of other farmers when he learned about the USDA’s “National Animal ID” plan to force every small farmer to tag every creature and report every movement to “the authorities.” So he set up the NoNAIS (nonais.org) web site as a clearinghouse of information—and yes, inspiration.
Will the USDA and its partnering state governments win? Or will farmers and freedom triumph? That remains to be seen. But one way or another, ordinary men like Walter Jeffries are in the battle and we’re all the better for it.
Lenny Skutnik (and friends)
I’ll bet you don’t know the name Lenny Skutnik. But if you’re old enough, there was, without a doubt, a time that you did know it. It was connected to one of the first, most dramatic events of the on-the-spot media era.
On a snow-stormy January morning in 1982, an Air Florida plane clipped a bridge on take-off from Washington, DC, and hurtled into the Potomac River. Skutnik, an ordinary, 28-year-old office worker, was one of many at the scene of the crash who spotted injured survivors in the water. In particular, he saw one woman repeatedly lose her grip on a helicopter’s lifeline. Without further thought, he plunged in to save her, even though the water was covered with slabs of ice and was so cold that another rescuer said entering it was “like an electric shock.”
Skutnik was actually one of several who went into the frigid water that morning to rescue complete strangers. It’s happenstance that the media focused on Skutnik in particular for the brightest 15 minutes of fame. There was also Roger Olian who arrived before the media and before any “official” rescuers with their helicopters and gear. Olian spent 20 excruciating minutes crawling over the ice and swimming through the stabbingly painful water. He never reached the survivors, nor did he really believe he could. But those he tried to help said later that he accomplished his goal; his death-defying crawl gave them a point to focus on, gave them hope that someone would save them. And soon, the helicopters, their pilots, paramedics, and Lenny Skutnik, did.
Even one of the injured survivors himself became a hero that day; Arland Williams, Jr. died because he repeatedly passed the lifeline to other survivors instead of saving himself. Five passengers were eventually pulled alive from the river, thanks to the efforts of strangers.
And how many times have you heard or seen such stories—true, unvarnished stories of ordinary people who, in extraordinary circumstances, suddenly rise above themselves?
I have no idea whether Lenny Skutnik or Roger Olian has ever done another great thing. I don’t even know whether they’re nice people (though they seem to be, from accounts I’ve read). Skutnik doesn’t have to be nice or special or impressive or especially heroic every day of the week. Olian can go the rest of his life being a regular, fault-filled human being—and still be a genuine inspiration.
The Everyday Everyman
If few people remember Lenny Skutnik’s name, then how about the thousands and thousands of everyday inspirations whose names nobody knows—unless they happen to be friends or neighbors or relatives or comrades-in-arms? I’m talking about utility workers who labor round the clock in blizzards to restore power. People who endure everyday hardships rather than submit to unjust laws. Soldiers who fight for true freedom causes. Crazy ladies who rescue dogs, cats, and abused farm animals. Search and rescue team members who tramp through wilderness in appalling conditions to save lost campers and hikers. The guy who drives the snowplow. Volunteer firefighters who scramble from their beds in the middle of the night.
I’m also talking about everyone who goes about every day keeping their own principles—not principles they haughtily impose on others, but ones they rise to themselves.
Our society and our politicians have done a lot to discourage principle, self-reliance, and mutual self-help. They like us to believe that only experts can give aid. They like us to believe that volunteers can only be trusted when they’re supervised recruits of “official” agencies. They like us to believe that we don’t need to help ourselves or each other because they’ll take care of us. Yet every, single bleeding day on this scary, pain-filled planet, thousands of people do what’s right, simply because it’s their job. Or simply because, exactly like St. Francis, John Lilburne, Johnny Appleseed, or St. Bernadette, they have an inner driver that tells them to do what’s right no matter what the rest of the world thinks of the matter.
Finally, you ought to consider yourself an inspiration every day when things get hard but you don’t give in or give up or sell out.
And even when you’re beaten like a Susette Kelo or a John Lilburne, you have every right to consider yourself an inspiration if, instead of giving in to failure, you acknowledge failure’s reality—then breathe a bit and find a new way of going onward.
Inspiration doesn’t have to come from angels.
You can triumph even when you don’t “win.”
A person can be a jerk or a dork in one part of life and still be an inspiration in another.
Being larger than life isn’t the point; just living is.