I’ll never forget the first time someone told me that I was an inspiration.
It was a couple of months after being attacked. I was still in bad shape. I was living in a hotel room in Anchorage with my parents, brother, and dog. I had nurses visiting daily, treating wounds, administering IV antibiotics, and caring for my tracheotomy site. I still had stubborn, open wounds in the middle of my forehead, between my displaced eye sockets, that wouldn’t stay closed no matter how many times they were stitched. I was doing daily trips to the hyperbaric oxygen chamber to breathe pure oxygen through my tracheotomy while lounging with my brother in a large metal cylinder pressurized to three times atmospheric pressure. This was to promote healing and ward off further infection since I had already contracted MRSA, a form of resilient staph infection on the titanium plates in my head.
I was still trying to comprehend what had happened, but mostly I was still in survival mode, and just trying to make it through what each day required of me. So, when this nice lady told me I was an inspiration, I was caught off guard. Then, I began having an emotional reaction.
“I’m so glad that my misfortune is such an inspiration for you,” I thought to myself.
“I’m so happy that my pain and suffering and the loss of my vision is such a great thing for you.” Her perspective really angered me. I wasn’t ready in any way to see my attack as a positive thing. The idea that this was a positive for someone else made my stomach turn with disgust.
However, even though I never saw or spoke with this lady again, she became a teacher of mine. She became an integral part of my healing journey. Her words stuck with me intensely for several days. After my initial reaction, I began to think about what she really meant.
“Why am I an inspiration?” I wondered. It was hard to think of myself as an inspiration, or as anything great at all. “I’m the same person I was just two months ago when I wasn’t an inspiration to anyone.” What is it about being blinded and nearly killed by a bear that makes a person inspiring?
“Is this some kind of irrational social phenomena?” I thought. The idea that all a person must do to achieve greatness is to be tragically injured seemed ridiculous and way too easy. All I was doing was lying in bed every day. My life consisted of moving from one medical procedure and surgery to the next. I had no control over anything. I had to surrender my dignity, and allow the nurses and doctors complete access to every part of my body at any time of the day or night. One common procedure would cause me to vomit into my mouth, which was wired shut leaving no way to evacuate the putrid mess. Even though the procedures were invasive, and often caused incredible pain and discomfort, I knew it was in my best interest to surrender myself into the hands of those who were caring for me.
I was certain I was not an inspiration. However, I began thinking about how people were going to have their own thoughts about what happened to me. People will have their versions of the facts, and their perspectives about me and about how I deal with this turn of events in my life. I realized that I had no control over this either. I had no control over much of anything. So, I learned to surrender to this as well. I began practicing acceptance. As a survival strategy, acceptance is a powerful tool. I had to accept that there were those who felt they knew what I was going through, even when their words made it clear they didn’t. I had to accept that people were saying and reporting in the news that I had thrown beer cans at the bear, or that somehow I deserved or could have prevented getting attacked. I had to accept that I was now blind even though I didn’t really know what that meant for my future. Once I had that perspective, being called an inspiration didn’t seem so bad.
Over the years I have healed inside and out, mentally and physically. I can chuckle at my initial reaction to this lady who told me I was inspiring.
I now see that turning something that is perceived to be “bad,” into something “good” is a great strength and skill to possess. Indeed, it’s the power of the fabled alchemist who had the ability to turn lead into gold. After surviving, and then healing, I continued to work on accepting the life that I’ve been gifted. Then, after accepting, I began to be able to look at how I could turn this attack into something positive for me and for others. The idea of being an inspiration no longer felt insulting, but rather something that is worth cultivating. The more inspiration the merrier. The more good in the world the better.
The other thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to be mauled by a grizzly bear to be great, or to be an inspiration. If you practice acceptance of all things in your life, whether they are perceived to be “good” or “bad” then you will awe and inspire others. I’ve learned that things are not always what they seem. For example, getting mauled by grizzly= bad. However, 8 years after my attack, I often review the facts.
My vagabond life of music, road-tripping, back packing, skiing, and fishing was quite good. However, I question how good this would be if I were still doing the same thing today, which is likely where I’d be had the old grizzly sow not intervened. Both Amber and I doubt that we would’ve been able to work things out as I was scared of committing to anything that would have interfered with my next fishing or skiing adventure. Graduate school, pursuing a career, marriage, and having kids were still, like the horizon, off in the distance.
Getting mauled and blinded lit a fire under my seat. I was forced in the most fundamental way to consider where my life was headed and what I wanted my life to be. At one point in the hospital I had the realization that I’d almost died without having children, which hit me pretty hard. The rest is now history. I’ve pursued my dream of a higher education to become a helping professional. I’ve found genuine love and the best friend I could ever ask for in my wife Amber. I have two wonderful children who love every game or song we make up together. In my therapeutic journey, I healed old wounds from childhood, and have learned healthier ways of relating to others. I have rebuilt a relationship with a father I had felt alienated from for most of my life. The list of good things that have come from this misfortune goes on and on. Perhaps the most unforeseen gift is that I have learned to accept what life offers, and I’ve discovered that a giant misfortune can lead to many fortunate things, and can change the direction of our lives in unforeseeable ways. I believe these lessons have helped me find some truth about my human nature, my spirit, and how to live my life during my time here. I find joy and purpose in talking about these personal truths, and sharing these personal lessons with others who are interested. It is through these exchanges wherein we inspire, challenge, and encourage one another; when we reflect on realities beyond our material lives; when we reflect on who we want to be, and the footprints that we want to leave in the sand, that help me find meaning. It is through these exchanges that I have found what I could not see at the beginning of this story. Inspiration.