Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Aimee Mullins on Possibility - “You know, Aimee, you're very attractive. You don't look disabled.”

How cool is Aimee Mullins? I've gotten to know her just a little bit lately, and she's completely blown me away with her artistry, her strength, and particularly, her compassion.

Check this out from her recent TED talk:
I was speaking to a group of about 300 kids, ages six to eight, at a children's museum, and I brought with me a bag full of legs, similar to the kinds of things you see up here, and had them laid out on a table, for the kids. And, from my experience, you know, kids are naturally curious about what they don't know, or don't understand, or what is foreign to them. They only learn to be frightened of those differences when an adult influences them to behave that way, and maybe censors that natural curiosity, or you know, reins in the question-asking in the hopes of them being polite little kids. So, I just pictured a first grade teacher out in the lobby with these unruly kids, saying, "Now, whatever you do, don't stare at her legs."

But, of course, that's the point. That's why I was there, I wanted to invite them to look and explore. So I made a deal with the adults that the kids could come in, without any adults, for two minutes, on their own. The doors open, the kids descend on this table of legs, and they are poking and prodding, and they're wiggling toes, and they're trying to put their full weight on the sprinting leg to see what happens with that. And I said, "Kids, really quickly -- I woke up this morning, I decided I wanted to be able to jump over a house -- nothing too big, two or three stories -- but, if you could think of any animal, any superhero, any cartoon character, anything you can dream up right now, what kind of legs would you build me?"

And immediately a voice shouted, "Kangaroo!" "No, no, no! Should be a frog!" "No. It should be Go Go Gadget!" "No, no, no! It should be The Incredibles." And other things that I don't -- aren't familiar with. And then, one eight-year-old said, "Hey, why wouldn't you want to fly too?" And the whole room, including me, was like, "Yeah." (Laughter) And just like that, I went from being a woman that these kids would have been trained to see as "disabled" to somebody that had potential that their bodies didn't have yet. Somebody that might even be super-abled. Interesting....

...the conversation with society has changed profoundly in this last decade. It is no longer a conversation about overcoming deficiency. It's a conversation about augmentation. It's a conversation about potential. A prosthetic limb doesn't represent the need to replace loss anymore. It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space. So people that society once considered to be disabled can now become the architects of their own identities and indeed continue to change those identities by designing their bodies from a place of empowerment. And what is exciting to me so much right now is that by combining cutting-edge technology -- robotics, bionics -- with the age-old poetry, we are moving closer to understanding our collective humanity. I think that if we want to discover the full potential in our humanity, we need to celebrate those heartbreaking strengths and those glorious disabilities that we all have. I think of Shakespeare's Shylock: "If you prick us, do we not bleed, and if you tickle us, do we not laugh?" It is our humanity, and all the potential within it, that makes us beautiful.

For commentary we go to the amazing Zanders, Rosamund and Benjamin, talking about "being with the way things are" and "speaking in possibility" in their spectacular, amazing, thrilling, and uplifting book The Art of Possibility:
"Often, the person in the group who articulates the possible is dismissed as a dreamer or as a Pollyanna persisting in a simplistic 'glass half-full' kind of optimism. The naysayers pride themselves on their supposed realism. However, it is actually the people who see the glass as 'half-empty' who are the ones wedded to a fiction, for 'emptiness' and 'lack'... are abstractions of the mind, whereas 'half-full' is a measure of the physical reality under discussion. The so-called optimist, then, is the only one attending to real things, the only one describing a substance that is actually in the glass.

The practice of being with the way things are can break the unseen grip of abstractions created as a hedge against danger in a world of survival, and allow us to make conscious distinctions that take us in to the realm of possibility––dreams, for instance, and visions. Imagine if we were to faithfully whisper the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr. 'I have a dream....,' as a preface to our every next remark. Speaking in possibility springs from the appreciation that what we say creates a reality; how we define things sets a framework for things to unfold."
Why do I bring this up? Because Aimee's description of the kids' reactions to her many pairs of legs was 1) simply a reaction to the way things are as opposed to a story about how things are i.e. there is a problem here, there is a shortcoming. And, 2) the kids were easily coached by Aimee in to speaking in possibility. She did so by getting two minutes alone with the kids before the adults were able to come in and "censor their natural curiosity" and asking them a question that immediately sparked their imaginations.

Aimee enrolled the kids, which the Zanders talk about later in the book:
"Enrollment is the art and practice of generating a spark of possibility for others to share.... we have at our fingertips an infinite capacity to light a spark of possibility. Passion, rather than fear, is the igniting force. Abundance, rather than scarcity, is the context."
Again, what does this have to do with compassion?

A whole let, let me tell you.

Compassion makes one able to see the limitless possibility in anyone. The Zanders talk about Michaelangelo having said that "inside every block of stone or marble dwells a beautiful statue; one need only remove the excess material to reveal the work of art within." By being truly compassionate, by refusing to judge, by paying attention to what is rather than our story about it––there's something wrong here––we're able to notice what's actually possible for another, whether physically, or in the words and thoughts they have to offer.

So film, for example, gives us an opportunity to notice this, to dwell in possibility rather than in limitation. Watching a historical account of a small time lawyer who rises to free India, for example, in Gandhi, or an aging professor who's played the field for his entire life and suddenly, unexpectedly, finds himself in love in Elegy, or in films starring actors other than Ben Kingsley, one realizes the humanity of others as we see their journeys on screen.

In Elegy, for example, Kingsley's character David Kepesh is utterly sure of himself and his game. When he begins to seduce Consuela (the ridiculously beautiful Penélope Cruz) we immediately understand that the moves he's putting on her are moves he's put on a thousand others. It'd be easy to judge him, but the film––Kingsley's acting along with Cruz, Clarkson, Hopper, Sarsgaard, the wonderful script and direction––allows us to join him on his journey, and gives us an opportunity to understand someone who's been sure of himself his whole life, and then finds himself questioning the whole thing. We see the possibility in Kepesh, we want him to have love and happiness, we know it can be true for him if he'd only allow it to happen. We, as an audience, want to chip away the marble hiding the work of art within.

The oft-quoted Tom Hiddleston:
"Within all of us there is the capacity to be anyone or anything... There is an Iago and a Romeo within all of us, there is that lover, and there is that sociopath."
Benjamin Zander recently gave a TED talk on music, passion, leadership, and possibility:
"I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. And you know how you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you're doing it... So if the eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question. And this is the question: Who am I being that my players' eyes are not shining? We can do that with our children too. Who am I being that my children's eyes are not shining? That's a totally different world.

Now, we're all about to end this magical, on-the-mountain week, and we're going back into the world. And I say, it's appropriate for us to ask the question: Who are we being as we go back out into the world? And you know, I have a definition of success. For me it's very simple. It's not about wealth and fame and power. It's about how many shining eyes I have around me."

So maybe it's a good opportunity to ask yourself: who am I being that my children's eyes are not shining? Who am I being that my clients' eyes are not shining? Who am I being that my audience's eyes are not shining? Consider that everything you do, say, or even think has an impact, and creates an opportunity to awaken possibility in others.

By focusing your work, and your life on compassion, you create an opportunity to awaken possibility in others. Perhaps, to imagine themselves in love, in spite of the stories they've told themselves. To imagine hope, happiness, and humanity where they'd previously thought none. To imagine themselves having something to contribute, when they might have previously considered themselves worthless.

And by refusing to focus on compassion, by mindlessly ignoring it, you're costing the world something huge.

Aimee Mullins, and the Zanders, are awakening opportunity, and creating shining eyes all around them through their tremendous compassion.


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