On the day in 1961 when Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American to travel into space, a 12-year-old middle school student from Pittsburgh used an earphone to listen on his new transistor radio to the countdown for Freedom 7. The study hall monitor caught him and dispatched him to detention.
Jay Apt later became an astronaut, eventually flying four missions on the space shuttle. He was one of tens of thousands of young people whose dreams took off with Shepard (and later with Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and John H. Glenn Jr.), one of millions of Americans whose hearts were fired with passion by the lure of the heavens and with the goal, set by President John F. Kennedy, of reaching the moon before the end of the 1960s.
Indeed, by the day less than a year later when Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth, Apt wasn’t the only one at Shady Side Academy to be gripped with the excitement of space exploration. Televisions on black metal stands were being rolled into classrooms to witness the first steps of America’s climb into the skies; classes were being interrupted to join Walter Cronkite watching in awe as an Atlas booster thrust Friendship 7 into space. “Oh, go, baby!” Cronkite cried on the air, later admitting that he had dropped his cool impartiality.
Jay Apt and a friend formed a model rocket club at school, found a faculty adviser to help them and eventually launched their own rockets into the soot-ridden air of Pittsburgh, then still dirtied by the noxious emissions of the steel industry. “Project Mercury was thrilling to all of us,” said Apt, who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and does research into clean sources of energy, “and I treasure a recording of Glenn’s description of the sunsets and sunrises: The images he painted with those words led me to the path that allowed me to see them for myself.”
Apt’s story is, to be sure, inspirational. But it is also a story about inspiration itself. It’s about what factors and forces inspire us, set us on our course or disrupt our course entirely; about what events shape our lives and our world views, sometimes affirming our inclinations, more often jolting our assumptions. This story of inspiration is also about how ancient impulses — the human desire to explore the skies, for example, dating to the Babylonians and Greeks, or the desire to serve others, dating to earliest Biblical times — are stirred anew in each age. And it’s also about how language, that mere act of putting one word before another, building a coherent, supremely motivating thought a few syllables at a time, has the power to change a perspective, and then a person and, finally, an entire people.
For Apt and his generation, whether beguiled by the space race or bored by it, the inspiration often came from Kennedy, whose achievements in office may have been slender but whose impact on American idealism has few equals.
The 35th president mobilized U.S. idealism, sending Americans into the forests and wetlands of the poorest lands as members of the Peace Corps.
His 1961 inaugural address, with its famous “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” line to his fellow Americans, and its request to fellow citizens of the world to “ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man,” sent Americans into paroxysms of introspection as they examined their place in the world and their ability, and obligation, to change themselves and their world.
And he sent Americans into space, with the notion that the race to the clouds and beyond may have been part of the Cold War but also was part of a broader human yearning: to seek, to explore, to travel, to dream, to imagine and to do the unimaginable.
The Original Seven astronauts (always rendered in upper-case letters) were the personification of those impulses. “We didn’t know how inspiring this was to so many,” Glenn, now 92, told me in a recent conversation. “It completely surprised all of us. Almost 90 percent of the public believed the Soviet claim that they were ahead of us in space and engineering. We knew they weren’t so far ahead of us — we were all test pilots, so we knew, or thought we did — and we all felt strongly we could catch up.”
Ordinarily test pilots look on their tasks as mission, not inspiration. But this was different, for it was a different time and an entirely different kind of mission — and mission, after all, is the root of the word missionary, and there is nothing quotidian about the work of the missionary, in our time or any other. Listen for a moment to Kennedy’s remarks at Rice University in 1962, a distillation of pure inspiration:
[W]hy, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win . . .
A much-forgotten historical footnote: In that very stadium the following fall the Owls of Rice, winless in their first four football games, took on a Texas team that had beaten them, 34-7, the previous year, and would win the rest of its regular season games and play LSU in the Cotton Bowl in an era when that mattered. But somehow — maybe it was inspiration, maybe it was perspiration, for that was a humid Houston evening in October with a slight breeze coming from the southwest — Rice outpaced the Longhorns in first downs, in net yards rushing and in total yards passing . . . and tied the best team in the country, 14-14, in a performance that can only be described as inspiring.
And so what is inspiration? How and when does it happen? Why is it so powerful? Hundreds of sermons and scores of books have been written on this subject, and yet inspiration remains as elusive as it is indispensable. Hope may be, as Emily Dickenson said, the thing with feathers, but inspiration is a different bird entirely, letting loose an occasional feather that floats through the sky, by chance entering our line of vision, sometimes perching in the soul, sometimes fluttering past us. Few elements — faith and love, to be sure, and maybe courage — are so mighty a force and yet have so gentle a presence.
People are inspired by moments, by stories, by uplifting talk and unforgettable example — life’s softer side, you might say. Inspiration’s power sometimes is in what it says below the breath, its whispers urging us to try, pushing us to carry forward, bidding us to dream.
Try to think of an act of violence, of hate, even an occasion of common harshness that has provided inspiration, and you will have a hard time conjuring many, or even one. Was anyone inspired by the Black Plague? The Chicago Fire? By the tumble into conflict that produced World War I or by any of the myriad acts of aggression that prompted World War II? Many may have been inspired by human reaction to these events — the courage of first responders, for example, or the valiant but oftentimes vain efforts to resist military incursion, especially in both world wars — but inspiration is created from the twin human impulses of daring and caring.
Julie Payette, a Canadian engineer and veteran of two space-shuttle missions who was born more than a year after John Glenn’s orbital mission, told me on the day Glenn returned to space at age 77 that the elder astronaut was “a hero of mine” who had sent her on her journey skyward. Calvin Coolidge, seldom celebrated as an orator and never regarded as an inspirational figure, nonetheless spoke with poignancy about being inspired by “the people of Vermont growing poor in their service to others” after their heroic and selfless work following a massive flood.
Inspiration occurs in many languages, but it seems a peculiarly American expression, part of what the French would call the roman national of our land — for this was a country inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment, though its revolutionaries, to be sure, were motivated in part by concern over taxes. Indeed, “No taxation without representation” was probably more about the taxation than the representation, at least at the start. But before long — John Adams deserves some of the credit here, and so does his sometime rival Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the soundtrack of the nation’s independence drama — the fate of America gradually but discernibly became more a matter of principle than principal.
The result was a country founded by an idea and an ideal — an original thought itself, seldom duplicated, unless you count Israel in 1948 and Iran in 1979, and both are different matters entirely, motivated by a separate sort of faith. Ours is a notion transformed into a nation. Here the transition of a mere vowel, one to another, from notion to nation, matters much. Here the inspiration that founded a nation inspired other nations.
The American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution are of course, separate buoys in our national passage, separated by more than a dozen years but separated as well by their function: one to win independence from a distant and oftentimes arrogant empire, the other to rectify a flawed governing model and to implement untested ideas in an unfinished nation in a relatively unsettled continent at an unsettled time. The Constitution was a triumph of compromise and of its handmaiden, balance. It encapsulated equilibrium even as it assured equilibrium: function following form. It was the result of inspiration and it prompted inspiration, taking root especially in Africa.
Although David S. Law and Mila Versteeg argued in a 2012 article in the New York University Law Review that the influence of the U.S. Constitution is in eclipse today, they acknowledge that freedom of religion, freedom of expression, the right to private property and other integral attributes of our Constitution (and its brother, the Bill of Rights) appear in 95 percent of constitutions around the world. It is those attributes — rather than the concept of federalism, which is in steep decline — that provide the American inspiration worldwide. Federalism may be an inspired idea, especially for lands with multiple ethnic groups seeking national expression, but it is not an idea that inspires — a vital distinction.
It also is very likely not what prompted Lajos Kossuth, the Hungarian revolutionary, to declare in a speech on Capitol Hill in 1852:
Your principles will conquer the world. By the glorious example of your freedom, welfare, and security, mankind is about to become conscious of its aim. The lesson you give to humanity will not be lost.
Inspiration is like fish. It is where you find it. But unlike fish, there is no reliable venue — no “honey hole” or “hot pool,” as experienced anglers would put it — for catching it. In that regard it is much like that other evasive quality, happiness, for, like happiness, you can search for it — but in its most profound form it happens to you, often when you are not expecting or seeking it.
Some famous names in modern American politics prove that point and one other: that the young Abraham Lincoln was not completely right when he defined politicians as “a set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people, and who, to say the most of them, are, taken as a mass, at least one long step removed from honest men.” That’s not my experience, based on a quarter-century as a political reporter in the capital, and in truth it wasn’t Lincoln’s either. Then as now, Washington may be corrupt but many of its men and women were, and are, not. Washington today may be positioned for little more than paralysis, but many of its inhabitants went there to do good, not merely to do well. At all times in our history, some of them have been inspiring — and almost all of them have been inspired, at least once.
Until recently, when he began to be viewed as a man of uncommon decency, grace and wisdom, George H.W. Bush was seldom regarded as an inspiring figure; competence and prudence, along with service, were his main currencies. But he was inspired, deeply so if the folklore is accurate, by a commencement address H.L. Stimson delivered at Phillips Academy in 1940. This revelatory moment occurred just before Stimson, a lifelong Republican who had been Secretary of War in the Taft administration and Secretary of State in the Hoover administration, was selected by a Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to return to the War Department, where he served until the defeat of the Axis Powers in 1945. Note the presence of the word served, for it may have been on that day, during that speech, that the young man who would become the 41st president first was introduced to the surpassing value of service.
The young Bill Clinton, living in racially unsettled Arkansas in the early 1960s and attending a racially segregated white high school in Hot Springs, was deeply marked by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Decades later, Clinton’s high-school classmates recalled that he had memorized King’s speech. The day King was killed in 1968 in Memphis, Clinton and a childhood friend and neighbor, Carolyn Yeldell, walked together through the burning streets of Washington, D.C., signing up volunteers for the Red Cross, and running food and supplies to emergency personnel. “I feel really called, responsible, empowered,” she remembers the young Clinton, then a Georgetown University undergraduate, saying, according to an interview in the Clinton Oral History Project at the University of Arkansas.
Beyond politics, consider how the talented can affect the talented in a charmed circle of mutual inspiration. In 1963, Roy Orbison was asked to tour with a British band called the Beatles, who worshiped the American singer-songwriter. Together they traveled through England, first as partners, then as rivals. On the tour bus they engaged in a frenzy of competitive song-writing that produced, among other titles, Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Said Paul McCartney: “He would play us his song, and we’d say, ‘Oh, it’s great, Roy. Have you just written that?’ But we’d be thinking, ‘We have to have something as good.’”
The thing about inspiration is that it is democratic. We may know about the inspirational moments experienced by, or even caused by, the famous, but our lives are enriched by everyday moments of inspiration that transform ordinary lives into extraordinary lives. Such stories exist in every city and town in this country, in yours and in mine. I’m inspired, for example, by the tough-minded reporter at the newspaper I edit who unfailingly stops and talks with the homeless, and by the dry-humored night editor who has invited dozens of foster children into his home and family — examples, both of them, of how people who seem hard-nosed are sometimes wonderfully, inspirationally warm-hearted.
Then there is one of my occasional Internet pen pals, a retired Presbyterian minister who a quarter-century ago started doing funerals for World War II veterans, nearly four dozen of them. Listen to his testimony:
I knew most of these vets who basically served in hell, came home and became solid citizens; teaching school, working in factories, starting businesses and being the bedrock of decency in America. Most of the men never talked about the terrible things they saw. One man told me on his deathbed he had been wounded three times in the Pacific theater and ended up in the honor guard for General MacArthur. I mentioned this at his funeral, and his family never knew this as he had never talked about it.
For Rev. Art Seaman of Kittanning, Pennsylvania, this was an inspirational moment, and he mentioned this man, Glenn George, a pillar in the church, in a Memorial Day sermon this spring. “What really inspired me about these vets was they did see the worst,” he said. “I have seen documentaries about Iwo Jima, and it was awful with bugs, heat, disease, mud and a bloody fight. The man I mentioned fought there but never talked about it. I get sunburn at the golf course and complain for two days.”
In none of these examples did the moment of inspiration lead to moments of happiness, but they did lead to lives of significance, to acts of importance — and perhaps, much later, to the happy conclusion that theirs were lives well-lived. Inspiration makes us useful and makes for useful lives. It is not intended to assure we have happy lives or even to provide us with moments of happiness.
Even so, happiness provides an illuminating analogue in our search to understand inspiration. We are, after all, steeped in the search for happiness; its pursuit is even mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s transformative document. We seek happiness in self-help books, in retail outlets where we substitute purchasing for experiencing, in counseling sessions where we struggle to understand ourselves in the hope we might be happy with ourselves, all the time forgetting that true and enduring happiness is likely a consequence of our goals, not the goal itself.
Inspiration, like happiness, comes to us in the course of an examined life, its sources as unpredictable as its effect is unavoidable. In short: Don’t look for it. Let it find you.
It can find you in others’ acts of kindness and valor, in their selflessness and in their vision. But it will not find you if you are not open to its lure. Because it can appear in the oddest places. Maybe even Saskatchewan.
Not so long ago I asked the premier of that huge swath of Canadian prairie why his province historically was burdened by a huge inferiority complex and was known across Canada as a have-not province. Brad Wall explained that it took time — years if not decades — for the province to realize that Ontario and British Columbia might have glitz and glamour but Saskatchewan had about 45 percent of the world’s known reserves of potash, about 7 percent of the world’s known reserves of uranium, was the second largest producer of oil in Canada and remained the site of about 40 percent of the arable acres of the entire country. Basically some fairly big assets, inspiring even. What Premier Wall said next stuck with me: “People want the license to believe, permission to think well of their prospects.” Inspiration can come from the most prosaic thing, even potash.
Now let’s move from Regina to Trenton. Crystal Hall, a University of Washington professor of public affairs who studies poverty, asked a portion of the patrons in the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen in New Jersey to recall “a personal experience where you have felt successful or proud.” Those who did so were far more open to learning about their eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit than a control group who were not in the “successful or proud” state of mind or, more precisely, a state of readiness. Premier Wall and Professor Hall have discovered an important precondition for inspiration. It is a state of mind. Inspiration requires permission. Sometimes that comes from inside. Sometimes it comes from outside. But it has to be welcomed.
President Kennedy concluded his Rice speech on space by citing the great British explorer George Mallory, who died on Mount Everest. Before his final and fateful ascent, Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb it. His answer resonates with us still. “Because,” he said, “it’s there.”
“Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there,” Kennedy said. “And therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
We’re all on a mission that is hazardous and dangerous, for that is what life is: in its best case, a great adventure. God’s blessing helps, a lot. But human inspiration is utterly indispensable. So onward, to the skies and beyond, and to our homes and to our hometowns, to our families and to the human family, inspired by what we see and hear, of course, but also by what we can summon inside of us, if only we are open to it.
David Shribman is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.