January 2011

Receiving and Giving Inspiration


I recently read about an amazing man – a quadruple amputee who swam the English Channel unassisted. I know this sounds like the cover story in a supermarket tabloid, but it’s true. And to me, it’s inspiring.

Many years ago I read about a woman named Hilda who, at age 90, climbed mountains. I was so inspired by that story that I still have the article in a special file I call “Heroes.”

I love going through that file folder, reading about people who do wondrous things. Children who raise money for charity; ordinary people who share all that they have; folks afflicted with adversity yet keep a cheerful outlook.

When I say they “inspire” me, what am I really saying? What does it mean to be inspired?

Literally the word means “breathed upon,” and historically it has been associated with religious teachings. Most faiths claim to be rooted in inspiration, with their Founder having been inspired to teach, write and act in ways not in common practice at the time. Many faiths claim that inspiration can help us transcend our usual abilities, going to supra-human levels. Other common elements of most faiths are the practices of prayer and meditation, with the former being supplication for inspiration and the latter being the means for receiving it.

In the words of Abdul-Baha, “What is inspiration? It is the influx of the human heart.” He then includes it in a list of sources of human knowledge: sense perception; reason; traditions; and inspiration.

Taking each of these items separately, we can attain knowledge through what we ourselves perceive, though obviously there are limits to where and when we are present and, for that matter, how we interpret what we perceive. This is where the importance of reason comes in, so that we can intelligently consider our perceptions through the lens of what historians, photographers, writers, artists and scholars have recorded as well as through conversation with people we respect.

At first I was surprised to find traditions on this list, until I considered that word in the broader sense, i.e. not as ritualistic practices but rather as truths handed down through the generations. Of course, it is important to apply perception and reason to those as well, especially if traditions have become tainted over time with prejudice and ignorance.

And then the list concludes with inspiration. This means being open to breathing-in knowledge in perhaps surprising and unpredictable ways. It also involves our being motivated by each other, as in the case of the quadruple amputee who “inspires” me to put more effort into my own endeavors.

Since inspiration can go both ways, much like communications that are sent as well as received, a worthy goal is to be an inspiration to others. Perhaps this is the challenge we all face, to do something that might inspire others. Whether we ever achieve such heights, and whether anyone ever notices or even cares, the important thing is to try — to grow and to share whatever we have and do.


© Jaellayna Palmer 2011