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"Impossible" is in our heads - interview with Jan Mela

Jan Mela with students of Public Middle School No. 2 in Staszów

This interview with Jan Mela was conducted by: Luiza Halota, Maja Toporowska and Julia Orzechowska - students of Public Middle School No. 2 in Staszów.

How did your life change after the accident?

Dramatically. Everything got turned upside-down. For the longest time I couldn't believe I would be able to do anything at all, I thought I'd never live a normal life, never follow my dreams. Especially right after the accident when I could see my life transform, step by step. It was too much for me to handle at first. That was a very rough time in my life.

How did your loved ones react to what happened?

I had a lot of support from my friends and family, especially from my parents who were completely honest and did not hide anything from me. Mom's experience in psychology helped me cope. The accident happened in July and for several months after that I had to have one-to-one tuition. It was really annoying, because there was no way for me to get off easy – after all, it was just me and the teacher, no one else they could ask questions. I really disliked that and I could not wait until I'd come back to school, even though at the same time I dreaded that return. But my schoolmates visited me several times while I was still hospitalized, that was tremendous moral support. Once I came back to school, I could tell they were doing their best to treat me in a completely normal way.

Who motivated you the most to keep going?

Definitely my parents, especially since I spent nearly three months stuck in a hospital, after fifty surgeries, most of that time in an isolated post-surgery room, which meant that almost no one could come visit. Except for my parents. I would not have made it without them. Just their presence there, by my side, during the hardest time of my life, was enormously significant. It was also extremely important because I was still on heavy medication – morphine, which puts you in an altered state of consciousness.

What does the phrase "Never give up" mean to you?

Actually, I don't think you should never give up. It's okay to complain, to feel defeated. What's important however is that it should only be temporary. Even now, I still feel like giving up sometimes, but then I realize that kind of attitude leads you nowhere. You could simply throw in the towel, but then you'd have achieved nothing. And I'm not talking about some big accomplishments; even the smallest things require perseverance. That's definifely something the North Pole and South Pole expeditions taught me - even everyday, mundane things require consistent dedication.

Do you ever break down?

Yes. I used to, and... I still do, sometimes. Everyone has those moments. Undertaking something as big as a trek to the North Pole... I had moments during that expedition when I sincerely thought about giving up and going back. But it was not just about me anymore. It wasn't all about getting there for myself – I needed to give people hope, I had to prove something. I thought to myself: this trek is bigger than me, it may even be more important to the people who are not here. I wanted to offer people some moral support, to make them think "hey, they made it to the North Pole, I can deal with my struggles as well". We were a team of four: Marek Kamiński, Wojtek Ostrowski, Wojtek Moskal and me, but the list of all the people without whom that trip never would have happened is very long. Our families, doctors, sponsors, trainers, people who didn't actually go with us, but if we didn't have their support, we couldn't have made it. I knew that if I were to just give up halfway and go back, I would be letting all of their hard work and dedication go to waste. I couldn't allow that.

What was your initial reaction after watching "My pole" ("Mój biegun") and why did you agree to have your story made into a movie?

It was definitely something, I mean, it's not every day you get to watch on a big screen something that's at least partially a re-enactment of your own life. I've spent a lot of time with the screenwriters so a lot of the movie's dialogue is actual quotes from my dad, my mom and myself. So when I saw the actor Bartłomiej Topa, who may not look like my father but has a similar temper, saying the exact same lines my father once said to me, word-for-word, it definitely left a strong impression. Having said that, however, I do have very mixed feelings about the movie. I mean – it's no masterpiece. I think it's an average movie. At first we really didn't want to agree to making it, we were afraid of the story getting presented too one-dimentionally. What eventually convinced us was the screenwriters saying that it would be worth it, since it's not actually a 100% faithful representation of my life's story, but rather a movie about a difficult relationship between father and son. I thought that kind of movie could really help someone.

Were there any big inaccuracies in the movie?

Yes, there were a couple. Especially the scene in which my father goes to Marek Kamiński to ask him to take me on his next North Pole expedition. That's not what happened: it was actually Kamiński's idea from the start, my parents did not come up with it at all.

What convinced you to visit both of Earth's poles?

Honestly, during the first trek, it was about proving something to myself, that I could do it, and that I am worth something. It was only after the expedition I realized that everything we do has some effect on other people, that media is a tool, which could also be used in positive ways. I won't lie, my first trek was very egotistical, it was mostly me trying to do something amazing, to prove something to the world. I don't have that kind of ambitions or goals anymore. At the time, I wanted to prove to everyone looking at me with pity that I am a normal, capable guy.

Do you have any other expeditions planned for the coming years?

I don't know yet. Time will tell. Time, which is very much in scarce supply for me recently. I would love to go to Iceland, and then embark on a long journey to the edges of Siberia, to Yakutia. I'd like to go there for 2-3 months, but that might be difficult to arrange.

What exactly does your foundation "Beyond Horizons" do, and what inspired you to create it?

The foundation was established 8 years ago, mostly because during various meetings over the years I've met lots of great people, who were doing great despite their disabilities: cultivating their passions, engaging in sports and satisfying work, etc. However, I have also met many disabled people who weren't so lucky, either for personal or financial reasons – and it's those people that I wanted to help. It's often purely by chance that your place in this world is decided; and if not chance, then it's the people around you who decide that outcome. If I hadn't met those people who've inspired me, surely my life would have looked a lot different. In our foundation, we help amputees, chronically ill, accident victims, sometimes people born with disabilities – mostly by gathering money for prosthetics and rehabilitations. Recently we've been getting more involved in also providing those people with psychological support: organizing field trips, generally taking them out of the confines of their houses, showing them that having a disability is not the end of the world. Oftentimes it's actually people's minds that we have to work on the most, rather than their arms or legs.

Have you ever met with discrimination of the disabled?

I don't know, honestly. It's difficult for me to say, because I simply don't care about it. When you care about something like that, when you let it offend you, you're bringing more attention to it. I've discovered that if there is something that you don't accept about yourself, something that you're ashamed of and trying to hide, you will only make people notice it more. You see, sometimes it takes people a while to actually notice that I'm missing an arm. My friends have confirmed this: they say that the more confident and normal my attitude, the less attention I'm bringing to the arm. If you accept yourself and treat yourself as a normal person, that's how others will treat you as well. Going back to your question: I don't that discrimination of the disabled is a big problem. Well, it is harder for them to get a job, but that's gradually changing for the better.

What's it like being a role model for so many people?

I don't know, because I try to separate "myself" and my public image from my work. I do have a rather odd profession; I call it emotional exhibitionism – you go on a stage and tell your life story, all the tragedies, victories, various other things that've happened, to a crowd of strangers. I treat my experiences and my story as a working tool, because I believe that a specific experience that happened to the person speaking to you is a lot more worthwhile that listening to stories of some other people's lives. It's a very weird feeling, being viewed as a "role model", because I don't actually feel like I should be one. I have many problems, I make tons of mistakes, I'm clumsy and unorganized about many things; it just seems funny to me. On the other hand, if that's the way people perceive me, then I'm trying to get the most of it and use that recoginition for good! But it's crucial to keep one's humility and modesty.

What are your hobbies?

I really enjoy photography, so I try to take every opportunity to snap some pictures in my spare time. I like people and I enjoy talking to people; I consider photography a form of dialogue. I especially like photographic portraits, I'm currently studying them; they're particularly difficult to do, not only because of technical aspects. Taking someone's picture is more than producing a simple photograph – you're capturing that person, their silhouette, their face. I've learned that it's good to pick people with interesting features, strong facial expressions; however the best portraits are those that capture a feeling between that person and me. And that is the hardest thing to capture on a photograph. Other than taking pictures, I also like exploring abandoned buildings – for example, I went to the former Staszów cinema building while I was here. Mountain hiking is another favorite past-time of mine. I also like slackline – it's similar to tightrope walking, you walk on a tape set up between trees, no balancing pole.

What made you participate in the Polish edition of "Dancing with the Stars" ("Taniec z gwiazdami")?

That's a difficult one. I guess my motivation was similar to the movie – even in the harsh working environment of show business, I tried to convey my own message: don't lose spirit, you can overcome all hardships in life. Unfortunately, I don't have fond memories of working on that show – I don't like television, I don't like show business, chasing after cameras, selling yourself. I mostly treated my participation there as part of my work for the "Beyond Horizons" foundation. A large part of what I earn as a motivational speaker goes towards the foundation so it can keep going. I'd love to only work with people truly dedicated to my cause, but that can't always be arranged, sometimes you have to compromise. But looking back now, I think that participating in "Dancing with the Stars" was a bit much.

Who's your role model?

I don't really have role models, famous people I admire or anyone like that. Sometimes writers can impress me, for example Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote "The Little Prince"and "Wind, Sand and Stars", or Anthony de Mello, an Indian spiritual teacher, whose books I also enjoy greatly. I don't read enough, definitely not enough, but I think reading is extremely beneficial. So I don't have role models in the traditional sense of "being obsessed with someone". I just think that reading good books is very important.

Thank you for the interview.

Jan Mela (born December 30, 1988 in Gdańsk) is the youngest person to ever reach the North Pole. He reached it in 2004, and eight months later went to the South Pole, achieving those impressive feats despite being a teenage double amputee. He created the "Beyond Horizons" Foundation.

​Maja Toporowska, Julia Orzechowska and Luiza Halota, the interview's authors

02-12-2016, Ireneusz Kapusta
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