It took me about 3 years before I could truly move forward in my life after my spinal cord injury. And those 3 years were a really difficult time as I was coming to terms with my new reality. I contemplated often about what life would be like moving forward. And I was really afraid that people were always going to feel sorry for me. But after I finally did move forward, I realized that wasn't always the case.
Moving forward meant to accept my situation and get acclimated to my life. So I learned to live independently, moved out of my parents’ house, got a job, went back to school, and started playing wheelchair basketball. And when people I knew found out about what I was doing, I was almost always met with the phrase, "You're such an inspiration!"
Initially, I truly enjoyed hearing those words as it was a lot better than people feeling sorry for me. It was also motivating to be called an inspiration because living a life in a wheelchair is really hard, and the fact that I was positively affecting others fueled me to keep pushing forward. But as I got more involved in the wheelchair community, I realized that being an inspiration didn't make me that special.
I started playing wheelchair basketball regularly, and in doing so I met a lot of other people in wheelchairs. And I learned that everybody I met had also been told they were an inspiration by people in their own lives. It was a running joke with people in this community as they would mock the able-bodied world by saying things like, "Oh you play wheelchair basketball? Wow, you're such an inspiration!" My exposure to this community made me realize that we were only being called inspirations in our lives because, once again, our situations were obvious.
Because it was obvious that we were in wheelchairs and were being noticed for doing things in our lives like playing sports or living independently, we were being called inspirations. But the truth was we were just trying to live our lives to the best of our ability. We weren't trying to be inspirations. And this realization made me wonder if being inspirational to others by simply living our lives was the existential reason on why we were in wheelchairs to begin with.
Throughout my life, and especially after my accident, I have repeatedly heard the saying, "Everything happens for a reason." It's the thing people say when they really don't have an answer to what is happening in life. And being in a wheelchair made me really contemplate if this phrase was true.
I would think, "What could be the "reason" on why I'm in this situation? I don't enjoy being in a wheelchair, or the attention I get from it. So why do I have to go through this?"
After understanding the inspirational effect I, and others in similar situations, had on others, I wondered if this could be that mysterious reason that would explain why we were in our respective situations. Could it be that the "reason" why we were in wheelchairs was to positively affect others by our obvious examples of overcoming adversity? It was an interesting thought to ponder, but it wasn't until I had an experience with someone who found me overbearingly inspirational that I started to believe this.
In 2014, I traveled to Thailand for my cousin's wedding. Over there, I got reacquainted with many of my family members, and also met many friends of my family. One of these friends recognized me from a video that was shown to him by my family. This video was taken 3 years prior, and it was a video of me skydiving that I uploaded on YouTube. I went skydiving on my 5th wheelchair anniversary, and on that day, I said in the video, "5 years ago I fell off of my balcony, and today I'm going to fall off a plane."
This moment was a declaration for me that despite what I had been through, I wasn't going to let it hinder me from living life. It was an incredible and momentous experience for me, and this friend of my family witnessed it and was ridiculously inspired.
He came to me and told me how inspirational he thought I was, and how I have really made a difference for him in his life. I didn't expect to hear this from this person, but it wasn't uncommon for people to call me inspirational, so I accepted it and said, "Thanks man, that means a lot", thinking the conversation was over. But he persisted to repeat himself and continued to convey how great he thought I was, and it was getting very uncomfortable and annoying. Some of my cousins had noticed the predicament I was in and came by to save me from this person's excessive praise. When we finally were able to leave him, I was upset and said to my cousin, "What is his problem? I don't understand why he was being so excessive about it."
My cousin replied, "He actually just lost his whole family. His parents and sister were in a car accident a few months ago. So, your video gave him a lot of hope."
My cousin's words hit me like a truck. I was dumbfounded upon realizing what this guy had gone through, and the role I played unknowingly to help him overcome his hardship. I didn't go skydiving in order to help people with their problems, I did it to fulfill my own desire. And here it was, the example of how something I did for myself was amazingly beneficial for somebody in such a dark circumstance. This moment made me realize that I really have no idea what people's issues are because they're not as obvious as my situation, and if people see me as a positive light to them then so be it.
After all, I'm not trying to be inspirational to others, I'm just living my life.