Inspiration 101

“Oh Captain my captain!”

I watched Dead Poet’s Society a few days ago for the second time, and it was even better than I remembered. Robin Williams was gold as Mr. Keating, and I didn’t fully appreciate before what a stellar supporting cast he had (Ethan Hawke? Josh Charles? well, I had no idea who these people were when I watched it in high school). The story builds up to a tragedy, but it is not without humor and triumph. It is innocent, but not naïve; philosophical, but accessible; wise, but not preachy.

It made me wonder about the stories that inspire us. What springboards something from unremarkable to unforgettable? I thought it was one of those hazy, hard-to-define things but I wanted to pinpoint a few key elements. You could say some stories just have it, a mysterious, magical X factor, but crafting a good tale isn’t like waving a wand. So I thought through my favorite books and films and came away with some common themes.

A hero who overcomes what we cannot

The stories that take a step beyond the plane of reality give themselves the liberty to create a larger-than-life protagonist: someone who can fight the battles and lead the charges that ordinary people can only dream of. They stand against seemingly insurmountable odds, and they sometimes stand alone (or at least vastly outnumbered). Basically, every superhero movie or fantasy novel where good defeats evil in a glorious spectacle.

They are the characters we will never be, but they move us with their valor and nobility. We may not have their abilities, but we can aspire to live with the same spirit.

A hero who overcomes a relatable weakness

I think there’s a large class of people that we’d look down on in the streets, but we’d love if we found them between the pages of a book.

While we’d all like to be crushing villains and taking names, most of us are fighting smaller, invisible battles each day. We’re frail, breakable, and often barely holding things together. When we don’t know someone’s heart, it’s easy to judge by appearance. That’s the wonderful thing about stories—they teach us what is often hidden behind facades in real life. They make us cheer for the poor, geeky outcast who, let’s be honest, not many of us would have befriended in real life. They make us fall in love with a man who few would probably tolerate the company of (yes, you, Mr. Darcy).

Awkwardness. Fear of what people think. Anger over irrational issues. Relationship problems. When we find characters beating the challenges we face ourselves, it inspires us to keep fighting too.

A vision of the future that is better than today’s reality

Hope and hopelessness, the two opposite ends of the spectrum, are both capable of instigating reckless actions. Our society is familiar with the latter. Desperate men with nothing to lose can do an extraordinary amount of damage.

But hope can lead to reckless living too—in a good way. Paul was utterly sold out for Christ because he believed in the deepest part of him that his present suffering could not compare to the glories to come. In fiction, this may be best seen in fantasy or sci-fi. Heroes who refuse to live under a shadow of evil or fear, who will give their all for the sake of a brighter future.

Hope can make humanity rise above a bleak reality.

Style

Style without substance is meaningless. But substance without style can range from boring to terrible. Style binds good substance together and makes it shine.

There are stories with all the “right” elements jammed in but executed poorly. Not going to name names, but we all know the ones that had so much potential in character or premise—and they flopped.

And there are some stories that are made great by their stylistic choices. If The Book Thief were narrated by anyone else, it would not be as brilliant. Probably still a decent story, but not stunning or truly set apart. Every single human being has many ordinary stories they can tell. Only a few become classics, and while it’s most often what you have to say, how you say it can also set the literary world spinning.

So…lights! Pens! Action! What inspires you? That, to me, is one of the great purposes of art and storytelling. We don’t create fiction in a vacuum: we create to reflect reality and inspire people to live more boldly and compassionately.

Carpe diem!

Twenty Seconds of Courage

the swing at the end of the world

How long is twenty seconds? In a conversation, a twenty second pause is ridiculously long, palm-sweating silence. When you’re counting down to a deadline, twenty seconds run away from you faster than a man hustling a mistress out the back door when his wife returns (sorry, I think I stole this reference from an obscure line in Suits).

My roommate and I watched We Bought a Zoo last night, and it was better than I expected. Nothing shockingly original or profound, but it was a sweet story. While most of it wasn’t terribly memorable, one line in particular caught my attention and flipped a switch in my head.

“Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” – Benjamin Mee

I bet we can all think of those moments—those times we mustered up that courage and did something outrageous. Or profoundly stupid. Those stories that still make us turn as red as a plum if they happened less than two years ago, but are the best stories we have to retell ten years down the road. And we can all think of the other moments—when we let the twenty seconds slip away, replacing them with a haunting what if that hangs over our heads.

Those are the big things. But it also got me to thinking: sometimes, it takes an insane amount of courage to do something small too. Because I don’t think anyone lives in a perpetual state of bravery. We’re all cowards sometimes. Or most the time. So I thought I’d come up with a brief list of things I—and you—could do with twenty seconds of courage. They’re not all big things, and something great may not always come of it, but I think they’re worthwhile.

  1. Make someone new feel welcome. Whether it’s at church or a party, there are always these huddles of people that stick together. Step outside your comfort zone and talk to someone new, or just someone who might be left out. Lay aside convenience and comfort. You might turn someone’s day around. You might make a lifelong friend.
  1. Hang out with someone very different from you. Maybe it’s background, beliefs, age, personality—someone you typically wouldn’t be friends with. Take the initiative and ask them to lunch or coffee. If they ask you, say yes. Learn something, and give them something to think about too.
  1. Share the Gospel with someone. You can go cold turkey, or you can finally open up with the friend you’ve never told. You probably can’t get it all in in twenty seconds, but it’s enough of a start that it would be more awkward to run away than just finish after that.
  1. Tell someone how much he or she means to you. You don’t have to wait until you’re writing Christmas cards, or until their birthday rolls around. Sometimes I think we do that because it feels safer. You and I are not promised tomorrow or our next breath. So go knock on their door or pick up the phone now. Or on October 12. Or on the most random date you can think of.
  1. Show genuine kindness to someone who hurt you. I guess I subconsciously ordered these by how close someone is to you—and it’s those who are closest who can hurt you the most. So swallow the perfect insult that’s poised on your tongue. Being nasty is easy, but you will regret cruelty. You won’t regret being too kind.

These aren’t things that will make headlines. They’re more in the vein of storing up treasures in heaven than here on earth. I realized all of the five points contain the word “someone.” Doing any of these things makes you more vulnerable for the benefit of someone else. Because courage and selflessness are two sides of the same coin: it is turning away from self and focusing on others.

How long is twenty seconds? Long enough to do something brave.