Like most people, I'm a sucker for a feel-good story. Walk into any bookshop and you will see a veritable smorgasbord of inspirational biographies and autobiographies fanned across the shelves. They all have a common golden thread deftly woven through the chapters: overcoming adversity when the odds are stacked against you.
I confess that I used to have a shelf full of these books. Before his cataclysmic fall from grace I had read Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike a dozen or more times. As I flicked through the dog-eared pages I was cocooned in a bubble of my own smugness, self-assured that if I ever encountered adversity I too would spectacularly and triumphantly rise above it. But of course, adversity is always something that happens to other people.
Until it happens to you. I had a stupid accident that changed my life forever and left me with a mild but permanent disability. You would have thought that the years of reading that had prefaced my accident would have equipped me with a raft of skills and the steely mindset necessary to get me through what was to follow, but I was completely derailed as I faced multiple operations, two years of physiotherapy and a pessimistic but bluntly-delivered prognosis. If anything, the seven years since have shown me that if anyone is waiting for me to achieve the extraordinary they should not be holding their breath.
I have come to the realisation that I had missed something pretty crucial as I devoured the stories of these amazing people. I had completely overlooked the fact that they were already exceptional before they had their lives upturned by adversity, by cancer, as a result of car accidents or whatever crushing misfortune befell them. The adversity didn't magically transform them into higher beings capable of extraordinary achievements, it had merely crystallised the characteristics, determination and sheer grit that was already present in their personalities. They were already inspirational beforehand but that alone doesn't sell books. Adversity made them more of a marketable commodity in a literary market that eagerly feeds an insatiable demand for inspiration. We grotesquely find comfort in the fact that there is always a person facing a greater struggle than we are. Everyone wants a happy ending. A mountain climbed. A medal won. A wheelchair no longer needed. But that's not the reality for the majority of us.
Whilst tragedy can magnify a person's positive qualities, it also has the potential to throw a spotlight on and exaggerate more negative traits such as fear, anxiety and self doubt. For some of us, these so-called 'inspirational reads' throw our absence of achievement into sharp relief and leave us with the bitter aftertaste of failure. For me, to keep reading these books invites examination of my own shortcomings. Of course I'll always be a failure if I keep measuring my own recovery against that of other people.
I cannot accept that I'm the only person out there deliberately aiming for ordinary. Aiming for invisibility. Hoping that the rest of the world will see past the stiff leg, the limp and the walking stick. I don't want the four or five seconds that it took for me to have my accident to completely define the rest of my life. To keep reading those books is to place additional and unreasonable expectations on myself that I cannot hope to achieve, so, I'm calling it a day where this type reading material is concerned.
For some of us, a return to the ordinary, to the mundane and to the everyday is is an exceptional achievement of itself and worthy of quiet celebration.