What the Ancients Still Teach Us
As I celebrate the accomplishments of the 2020 Paralympic athletes, I find myself relating the five
foundational elements – Air, Fire, Water and Earth – advanced by our earliest global thinkers to the
obstacles that today’s great Paralympians, and millions of People with Disabilities, navigate every
day. Obstacles like bias and stigma, misplaced inspiration, ableism, and inappropriate language.
From the earliest of days, we can still learn life lessons that will take us far into the future, where life
is more equitable for all.
You see, the early Grecians, founders of the first Olympic games and classical philosophy,
understood the world around them (think “influencers”). They held a belief that everything was
composed of air, fire, water and earth. In fact, Hippocrates even equated the elements of matter to
describe the four temperaments a person could have. He insisted the four “humors” found in the
body needed to be in balance with each other in order for a person to be well both mentally and
But wait a minute! I thought there were 4, not 5 Elements? It seems one of the greatest
philosophers, Aristotle, claimed a 5 th one existed, “aether.” Aether loosely translates to the glowing
space above earth or as it been referred to as, “the space where stars exist.” Thank you, oh great
philosopher…stars fit beautifully into my blog post, too.
I think the ancients got it right! Here’s my take on how the original five elements can become today’s
“Five Elements of Achievement,” for Paralympians, for People with Disabilities, for all humans. After
all, we’re more alike than we are different.
What elements do dreams need to thrive at the Paralympics?
Air is invisible yet essential to survival. It fills us with vitality, with anticipation for life. In the few seconds leading up to a Paralympian’s ultimate performance, silence lingers in the air…they inhale… exhale… inhale… exhale. Regardless of what country we cheer for, what language we speak, what uniforms we wear, we all breathe the same way. And that essential unity leaves us emotionally connected to the athletes. The thrill of each human’s journey to the Paralympic games draws a gasp of awe, not for their disability, but for their perseverance and dedication. However, like the pressure of sustaining Paralympian status, the pressure of air behind what we say to PWD and how we say it can empower or deflate in a second.
REFLECTION: Person-first, Human-centered language is soul food. Misplaced and misguided words, intended or unintended, can paralyze us all. The words we choose to depict people, and the way we communicate those words, no matter their identity, rides on the language we choose. Choose language that lifts.
Achievement is not a contest to decide if we can sink, float, or swim, but rather if we can find the current to propel us to our aspirations. Sometimes finding the right current means pushing through resistance, other times it means adapting to the flow. Paralympians are no stranger to the resistance of training it takes to prepare mentally and physically. PWD also feel the waves of influence from the outside world can crash over them, pinning them to the ocean floor, taking their breath away. But with renewed buoyancy from allies, we can look up to where the sunlight penetrates the surface of water. There is where vision lies and the clarity of the shoreline sharpens. How we ride the currents doesn’t matter; what matters is that we all get to the shore.
REFLECTION: Before you throw out a lifeline, ask if help is needed. ABLEISM is a form of discrimination and oppression of those who are disabled, by assumption that help is needed in order to “normalize” the person. Its origin is derived from an opinion that being able bodied or similarly minded is superior.
Earth’s terrain is as unexpected as everyday life. There will no doubt be crevices and precipices to navigate on our “Journey to the Summit of Success.” ( bleeeh!) Each of us has to decide whether to take the route on the map or trailblaze our own way. The journey to the Paralympics is unique to each athlete, with their own Mt. Everest to climb, just as is everyday life for PWD. It’s never a matter of “if” we will reach the summit, it’s the matter of “how” we will ascend. (Read: cross the road, get up the stairs, fit into the ‘accessible’ bathroom.) Paralympians and PWD embrace the challenge, constantly pushing the boundaries of limitations. We live on the edge, looking at the horizon of possibility, yearning less for the rope to pull us up, and more for the equipment to let us climb ourselves.
REFLECTION: *Equity* gives PWD the same opportunities to succeed by recognizing that while our circumstances are different, resources are needed to reach an equal outcome. When barriers are removed, we can reach any summit. Or, at least we can try…
The fiery spark to challenge is ignited deep within a competitor’s soul. It grows into a burning passion to prove our place to family, friends, colleagues, coaches, and where it matters most – to ourselves. To achieve our goals we must look deep into our own reflection, to harness those essential hallmarks of persistence, possibility, and passion. All Olympians possess the fire to win regardless of the absence or presence of the prefix para. To affirm a paralympian, or really any PWD, we shouldn’t focus on the barrier, but the person. Focusing on barriers gives power to the obstacle rather than the ability to navigate them. Disability, when viewed as a natural life experience, seams together all competitors who must persevere through their own triumphs and tragedies, just as the original Grecian athletes. For all people with disabilities, the fire can truly burn brightest with the right allies, technology, equipment and mindset. When the torch is held high, let’s celebrate the fire that all Paralympians possess — the fire to win!
REFLECTION: Celebration is celebration! Passion is passion! Winning is winning! When we jump, wheel, or even stumble across the path, spectators will applaud our courage for even trying. Why is that? We are not less than, or even exceptional for our disability. We love encouragement and accolades, but please, cheer for our strength, our determination, and our hard-earned abilities!!
The elements of achievement are incomplete without the fifth one, the nearly indescribable one, the “rare air.” Aristotle referred to it loosely as the circular, celestial spheres where the stars and planets lived. This element is ingrained into each Paralympians mind, body, and soul… It’s what bonds the other four elements –air, water, earth, and fire — into an unstoppable force. The dreams of PWD are also written in aether, high above earth’s surface, elaborately intertwined into our aspirations. Like the stars, each of our dreams is unique to us individually. But, when we use our light to shine on others, it reveals talents and strengths to inspire those who need its light the most. The Paralympics games unite stars of all sizes, shapes, and abilities into a constellation, narrating a story passed through generations of beauty, resilience, and strength.
REFLECTION: Stars are as close as our backyards, as far away as our dreams. Yet, every culture sees the constellations of the same patterns. They still shine and flicker and sometimes even dim in that huge night sky. Let dreams live in every person you know…they are the future Star Seekers who will change the world into something more accessible for all.