I’d like a plate of inspiration without the struggle, please.

I was in the mood for curling up with an inspirational movie. One problem: literally every inspirational movie I found had components of hardship built in. Did I really have to watch the suffering to get to the good stuff?

There are no hero stories without monsters of one kind or another. There can be no catharsis without angst, uncertainty, inner turmoil. In a story arc that ends in a transcendent, hard-won success, characters will travel a rough road to get there. Glancing at the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time, I saw that each of the 46 I’d seen had dramatic components.

So maybe, I thought, a movie wasn’t what I needed. Maybe, I thought, quotes are safer. Quotes can be inspiring without presenting negatives because they don’t require a story arc. Or can they, and don’t they? I headed to a box of quotes I keep on a common shelf, and began to dig.

Marianne Williamson’s inspirational quote, “Your playing small doesn’t serve the world” seemed innocent enough. But the ideas of playing small, and embracing the calling to serve others and to have a greater purpose – these create tension, which only resolves if you commit to play bigger.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step” presents strength in the face of underlying hesitation, the unknown, uncertainty of direction. A first step feels brave precisely because we don’t have a vision of the whole staircase.

Many quotes I read leveraged fear behind the words. Some were stated, as in Michael Jordan’s, “Don’t be afraid to fail. Be afraid not to try,” or Jack Canfield’s, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” In others, the concept wasn’t stated, but still resided. A Charles Darwin quote I remember from undergrad Anthropology seems to surface every week in someone’s writing, thanks to the constant state of pandemic-related change: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” As it inspires many to get flexible today, the quote embeds the scary prospects of survival of the species itself.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s, “A mind that is stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions” encapsulates the forced abandonment of our former, smaller selves. Do we fear failing to challenge ourselves, or abandoning ourselves in the pursuit of self-realization? Does Eric Thomas’s “Fall in love with the process, and the results will come” harbor a quest for results, for progress or completion we may otherwise be powerless to attain?

I had to face it: There is no transcendence to be found without struggle. It’s not a diner menu favorite that you can order up as you’d like. It’s the endgame of an arduous process. Contentment, while beautiful, doesn’t motivate us to do or feel anything else. Conflict begs resolution. I find some comfort in this. Remembering that one can’t exist without the other inspires perseverance. Perhaps that realization is inspiration enough.

Can we stem the proliferation of misquotation?

Some quotes are so good that they inspire you to read more from the source. They beg the question of what other wisdom and pithy phrases envelope them. I experienced the wondering and the search recently with a quote attributed to Anäis Nin – supposedly one of her best quotes, in fact. Here’s how it went down…

…and then the day came

when the risk to remain tight,

in a bud,

became more painful

than the risk it took to blossom…

Anais Nin. Elizabeth Appell?

Before tossing a lightly used journal one morning, I flipped through and cut out a few special quotes. The one above was among them, listing Anäis Nin as author. Literally two hours later, I decided to begin re-reading Jen Sincero’s, You Are a Badass. By page 13, I stumbled upon Jen’s statement, “There’s a great line from the poet Anäis Nin that reads: ‘And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’”

The universe was clearly directing me to learn more about this work, so I embarked on what became hours of research trying to get to the bottom of exactly which Nin work featured this line. Turns out it’s none of them. My search yielded the sad surprise that it wasn’t demonstrably hers.

How could this be? Zazzle sells t-shirts, pillows, magnets and posters all attributing the quote to Nin. Goodreads and poetry sites attribute the quote to her, sometimes calling it a poem titled “Risk”. Poem analysis sites speculate on Nin’s intentions expressed in each line. It’s been referenced as hers in published works by other authors. I chuckled at the irony of seeing the quote in a blog post on the Nonfiction Authors Association site. And yes, I felt ashamed of myself after I did it. But really…how did we get here?

I headed to Sky Blue Press, which specializes in publishing and researching Nin’s works, and which operates the official Anäis Nin blog. A post noted in 2009 that the unevidenced credit was an unresolved mystery. Then in 2013, a woman came forward alleging she had written it in 1979, and offering proof of publication. At the time, she had only received credit as editor. Sky Blue Press agreed that Elizabeth Appell’s story makes for a compelling claim. Nin wrote much about risk and courage. Did anonymous voices of the internet simply choose her as the author of a phrase she never uttered?

Despite authoritative noting in 2009 that the quote didn’t appear to be Nin’s, there is no sign of its attribution slowing. I was at least heartened that a 2015 doctoral dissertation by Clara Oropeza – which included substantial discussion of risk as a topic in Nin’s writing – did not include any reference to the apparently non-existent poem “Risk”. Thank you, Clara, for being a light in this darkness!

The inability to reliably source or attribute quotes – especially the most inspiring – seems to have become commonplace. I expect it to become worse. After the “Nin” incident (as I call it), I began researching authors’ quotes before using them, and citing their specific source. I feel better doing the heavy lifting to get to accuracy, even if it means speaking with university archives research librarians or the credited authors themselves.

Unfortunately for me, I drew the line at folk wisdom. I didn’t feel the need to nail down centuries old common sayings. Then, as if the hand of fate needed once again to drive me forward, someone commented on my blog post mentioning their favorite line from my post. The sentence was a derivative of a phrase I believed to be common folk wisdom. I began to write that I couldn’t fully take credit since I’d heard its sentiment before, passed on to me by someone who’d heard it from another. But the wondering started…what was the origin, anyway?

I entered it in Google Search and was immediately met with pillows and mugs showing the original quote along with an author’s name. “Fool me once, Zazzle!”, I thought. But as I continued to research I became convinced that it wasn’t folk wisdom, but someone’s actual quote. I reached to the author credited, and confirmed it was, in fact, hers. The author was gracious and provided me with a preferred reference to a source. I updated the post to include her actual quote and source.

Inadvertently failing to give credit where it may be due is not a new phenomenon. Isaac Newton is credited with publishing the phrase, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” although it’s been identified as a possible derivative of statements by two others many centuries before.

Still, giving credit where none is due seems to be a different sort of issue. Especially given that it can overshadow an author’s real brain children. My heart was heavy when I thought that despite many other great quotes, Anäis was being remembered for and reintroduced by one that wasn’t her own.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

Anäis Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944, June 1941 entry

Nin did produce inspirational quotes. One that has stuck with me over the years seems especially important now. “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage”. We should all have the courage to question, and to search, and to find our truths. Sometimes it’s best to dig deep even if it’s easier to cut and paste.