Thursday, March 21, 2013

Inspiration, Done Right

wil wheaton as wesley crusher
Yesterday, I read a lengthy Facebook post by Wil Wheaton. Depending on your age and level of geek cred, you might know him as one of the kids in the film "Stand By Me", as Wesley Crusher on "Star Trek: The Next Generation", or from occasionally appearing as a fictionalized version of himself, serving as Sheldon Cooper's nemesis on "The Big Bang Theory". Beyond his specific acting roles, Wheaton was an early and admired blogger, and has become something of a geek culture icon, who also seems to be a genuinely thoughtful, insightful, and articulate person.

In his Facebook post, Wheaton describes an encounter he had with a woman at a "Con", or sci-fi / fantasy convention. The woman told him that when she was young and dealing with severe physical impairments, she would focus on a photo she had of Wheaton as Wesley Crusher, which gave her strength and inspiration. She told him that he inspired her in this way to reach an adulthood in which, among other things, she is able to walk. She wanted Wheaton to know how much he meant to her, then and now. Wheaton describes how moved and inspired he was by hearing this story and meeting the woman. There were tears on all sides.

Wil Wheaton Facebook Story

What impressed me wasn't so much the events themselves, but the fact that Wheaton managed to tell the story in a way that was very emotional, but without spilling over into sentimentality. The story didn't make me gag, though a word or phrase placed differently could easily have done so, and the basic outlines of the story should have. At a couple of moments, I felt my eyes starting to roll, but somehow Wheaton kept the story on the tracks, and I enjoyed reading it untroubled.

I'm not sure what made Wil Wheaton's story inspiring in the best way, and avoid becoming "inspiration porn." It was a close call. Was it the words themselves, or my pre-knowledge of what kind of person Wheaton is? Maybe it was a little of both. He told the story well, with just the right mix of pride and humility, sentiment and stoicism, humor and crying. At the same time, I already knew that Wheaton is no fool, and that his way of thinking and expressing himself is similar to mine. That's no guarantee. I think most people with disabilities know the feeling of hearing someone you love and respect say something really stupid or clumsy about disability. But a good track record of thoughtful intelligence is an indicator.

The other thing I took away from reading the post is that while it's healthy to call out sentimentalizing of people with disabilities, people really do crave inspiration and role models. Instead of trying to eradicate inspirational disability stories from the public discourse, maybe instead we try to come up with tips on how to do it right.