The Solemnity of Serving

Posted: February 4, 2016 in Uncategorized


By Mark E. Smith

A presidential candidate was asked if it was difficult to balance service to others with self-gratuity – that is, serving others simply to serve others versus serving others to benefit oneself in return?

The candidate’s answer was honest, but unimpressive: “I’ve always struggled with that balance.”

Ultimately, by nature, we can’t fault any politician for being self-serving. After all, politicians need the support of others to achieve their goals – they must, even with the best of intentions, give in order to get, as well as vice-versa.

In our personal lives, we’re far more fortunate. We can serve others simply to serve – among the truest liberties in life. See, when we give of ourselves, there’s no catch, no other concern, just the opportunity to serve another, and that’s the ultimate freedom – no strings attached.

Now, some might argue that the personal satisfaction of serving is self-gratuitous. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. I assert that in the truest sense, serving is an action made, then released. It doesn’t change how we feel about ourselves or effect our lives – we just carry on.

Interestingly, religions differ on this topic. Under Buddhism, the Law of Cause and Effect says, “The kind of seed sewn will produce that kind of fruit,” so simply doing right by others is doing right by ourselves – that is, we can’t escape karma. Serving others is to serve ourselves in the end.

Christianity, however, has another take on how we should handle serving others. In a translation of Matthew 6:3, it’s said, “But when you do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does,” meaning that good deeds should be kept secret, not done for praise.

In the end, serving others has a very simple universal truth: Whether you’re a politician, altruist, Buddhist, Christian or one of a million persuasions in-between, serve others because it’s the most sincere act we can extend to other human beings.

First Dyson

First Dyson

By Mark E. Smith

A gracious colleague noted that I’m very skilled in business at seeing the positives and negatives in situations, and then pragmatically steering both toward the positive.

I replied, “That’s not a business skill, that’s a life skill that I’ve learned from disability experience, where if I didn’t know how to work with adversity, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”

In 1993, when Britain’s James Dyson introduced his first vacuum, it had a clear dust-collection canister of great controversy. Vacuums had always had bags, and the vacuum industry all said no one would want to see the dirt they vacuumed up in a clear canister. It was a totally valid point, proven by market research. Dyson had two choices: he could avoid the potential market controversy by enclosing the canister or he could see it as a counter-intuitive selling feature.

In among the most brilliant moves in business history, Dyson saw the controversial clear canister not as a detriment, but as an advantage. He wasn’t deterred by the market research, but embraced it proving his vacuum was unique. He used the clear canister to show consumers how his vacuum’s cyclonic action picked up more dirt than other vacuums – and consumers were mesmerized by it. People loved seeing how much gunk they vacuumed up! Within 18 months, it was the best-selling vacuum in the U.K., and today, virtually all vacuums have a clear canister.

So often when we face obstacles, we’re taught to work around them. However, working around obstacles rarely results in our greatest successes. Rather, working with obstacles is where success comes in. If you can succeed by addressing obstacles head on – like showing dirt in a vacuum canister instead of hiding it – that’s where ultimate success is found.

Many years ago, based on my disability, I couldn’t button buttons, so it was suggested that I have all of my clothing buttons replaced with Velcro. Velcro would work, except for one aspect – it wasn’t truly overcoming the obstacle, as I still couldn’t button buttons. I used thick, stiff wire and put a loop on one end, and discovered that by pushing it through a button hole, looping on to a button and pulling it back through, I could button buttons (other such tools are now sold). As a result, I could button any button. By addressing buttoning head-on, I solved it rather than avoiding it. Velcro was no solution; finding a way to button buttons was!

What I’ve learned is that life gives us obstacles no matter our circumstance, and we have the choice to use them as a deterrent or an opportunity. Maybe it’s based on my disability experience, business skill or smart-alecky tenacity, but when life presents me with obstacles, as it does all of us, I try my hardest to turn that canister of dirt into a pot of gold – obstacles into advantages, that is!

To John: After writing the essay, I had to have an illustrator colleague bring my image to life - or death!  -Mark

To John: After writing the essay, I had to have an illustrator colleague bring my image to life – or death! -Mark

By Mark E. Smith

Among my all-time favorite people is Callahan – John Callahan. He’s been dead now for going on 6 years, and I’m sure there’s still a hilarious punchline to that waiting to be told… maybe a cartoon of two grave diggers with shovels standing over a grave dug in the silhouette of a wheelchair?

See, Callahan was abused as a child, an alcoholic by his teens, and a high-level quadriplegic by 21 from a drunk-driving accident. There’s nothing funny about any of that – except to Callahan and his millions of readers who understood through his twisted but totally candid cartoons that humor can be among the truest healing forces. I mean, his most famous cartoon was where cowboys on horses in the desert surrounded an empty wheelchair, noting, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot,” exemplifies where tragedy evolved into humor in Callahan’s life. Many were mortified by the tasteless cartoon; but for those of us who live with disability, it was hilarious.

I’ve seen it so many times, where our pain, when addressed with humor, can become joy. And, making that transition is life-changing. If you can genuinely laugh at something, you’ve survived it. You’d be hard pressed to find a successful comedian who hasn’t experienced trauma, but through that has somehow found humor.

For me, humor has always kept me from the dark sides of life. If you ask me about cigarette smoking, I’ll tell you to go for it. After all, my mother smoked throughout her pregnancy with me, and I was born just fine, right? …The whole cerebral palsy thing was just an uncanny coincidence.

I likewise grew up with alcoholic parents, and they died from it at young ages. Along the way, I spent time accompanying my drunk mom to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as a teenager – because when you’re 16, with cerebral palsy, it’s the one place your slurred speech and uncoordinated body gestures fit in. At times, I wanted to truly participate: “I’m Mark, and I’m not an alcoholic, but I sound like one and sometimes I pee my pants – where’s my AA coin!”

No, there was nothing funny about being born with cerebral palsy or having drunks for parents – it was all tough stuff. Yet, I survived it all, and I can’t help but see humor in most of it now. Humor, in so many ways, is the power to rise above pain, to take back our joy, our spirit.

As they say, that which does not kill us – or does! – only makes for a hilarious punchline. And, as Callahan taught us all so well with his work, if you’re not at the point yet where you can laugh at your own pain, you don’t need to worry – there are plenty of us who will do it for you!


By Mark E. Smith

The story of American jazz piano great, Keith Jarrett’s, 1975 concert in Cologne, Germany, is legendary. See, Jarrett was scheduled to perform solo that night at the Opera House in front of a sold-out crowd of over 14,000 people, to be recorded live for an album.

However, when Jarrett arrived at the Opera House the afternoon of the concert – exhausted, with a bad back from touring Europe – he was horrified to find that they didn’t have his required piano. Instead, they had an old, small broken piano – not concert worthy.

The young promoter called around, but couldn’t come up with the needed piano. The best she could do was get the old piano tuned, but the upper keys were all but useless and the pedals didn’t work. Jarrett was done, insistent that he couldn’t perform without a proper, working instrument.

With 14,000 people waiting until close to midnight and recording equipment set up, the young promoter begged Jarrett to perform. With nothing but tenacity, Jarrett took a leap of faith in himself and walked onto the stage, standing behind the tiny, broken piano. The packed Opera House was silent.

Jarrett focused on only the piano’s center keys, the only ones that worked, and pounded them with ferocity that allowed the tiny piano to project, rearranging the songs in real time with each key strike. The result was over an hour concert that ended in a standing ovation – and became the best selling solo jazz album of all time, The Koln Concert, with over 3.5 million albums sold.

How often do we, in our own lives, find ourselves in Jarrett’s situation, seemingly not having what we need to succeed? How often do we only see limitations in the face of adversity? But, more importantly, how often do we have the tenacity and courage to do as Jarrett did, and not dwell on what may limit us, but strive to find that which may elevate us?

I’ve had my share of adversity in life, as have many who I’ve known. After all, adversity doesn’t discriminate. What I’ve learned is that when we succeed in adversity, we do so by using what we have, ignoring that which we don’t. We’re fearless experts at playing broken pianos.

It’s trite, cliché and undeniably true: Never let what you can’t do stop you from what you can do. There’s stunning form waiting to be played on our own broken pianos.


By Mark E. Smith

We hear of “random” acts of kindness, but more aptly, they’re usually “intentional” acts of kindness.

I often write about coming up the hard way, and that experience, of course, has shaped who I am, feeling extremely blessed for however little or however much I have in all areas of life.

I’m very fortunate to have the means to eat out – especially since it’s something I enjoy. After all, what’s more relaxing after a day at work than having a fine dinner somewhere? And, my wife and I have our favorites, including the restaurant our acquaintance, Gary, owns. The food’s great, the staff and patrons know us, and they always fit us in, with or without reservations. We’re just comfortable there.

As a result, it’s become a tradition that we go to Gary’s place for his Christmas Eve buffet – an unbelievable seafood spread. We get dressed up, settle into our table, and have a terrific festive holiday dinner among our family and those we know.

This year, however, was an exception. Indeed, we got dressed up, had a fantastic feast, and exchanged holiday greetings with the staff and those we knew from the community. But, when we asked for the bill, there wasn’t one.

See, Dr. Freiman, who grew up with Gary – both my age – sat with his family at the table next to us. And, as he and his family left, he quietly paid our bill. Why would Dr. Freiman do that?

Well, there’s more to his and Gary’s story than most know. Dr. Freiman, an ENT specialist, and Gary grew up together. In looking at either one today, you’d never guess their upbringing. After all, one’s a doctor and the other is a very successful chef.

Yet, they grew up together in the worst of the worst conditions, living in dive motels, neglected and abused. As Gary told me, he was as shocked as anyone years ago when he was working as a chef at a wedding, only to find out the groom-doctor was Mike Freiman, the kid he tagged around with in school. “Neither of us came from a real home and we were always in trouble together,” Gary told me. “It’s a miracle we each made it to this point.”

Gary knows a bit about my story, past and present, and as kindred spirits, we know the unsaid code that Dr. Freiman clearly also knows: When you’ve survived your knocks in life and achieve some level of success, you give to others, both out of empathy in having once been where some are, and in recognition of where others have gotten, as well.

As one who’s always felt it’s better to give than to receive – being fortunate where I’ve gotten in life – it was a true honor to receive such an understanding gift this past Christmas Eve by Dr. Freiman. Whether giving or receiving, we are truly blessed in the process.


By Mark E. Smith

My friend texts me from a restaurant on New York City’s Upper East Side. He explains that it’s full of those who are ultra-wealthy, and they’re acting awkwardly toward him, as if they’ve never seen a person using a power wheelchair. He further texts that there’s an attractive, older women next to him who seems possibly approachable.

“Say to her casually, ‘I’m just back from London, and I’m amazed at how warm the weather is here,’ and see where the conversation leads,” I text back.

Of course, my buddy has never been to London and, yes, my reply was sarcastic.

We live in a culture where people may make totally uninformed, ignorant presumptions of us – and we can feel it sometimes, can’t we, like my friend in that restaurant. They perceive us as they wish. I mean, think about all of the stereotypes people can make about a gentleman using a wheelchair in public. And, it’s so easy for those of us who use wheelchairs to absorb those. It would be understandable for my friend to want to avoid that restaurant scene and high-tail it out of there. But, there’s every reason to stay.

No matter who you are – disability or not – you have far more control over such situations than you likely know. The fact is, just as others attempt to perceive us, we can completely project who we are, totally reversing the process. My text to my friend wasn’t meant for him to literally lie, but rather to imply gaining comfort in his skin. There was no reason for him not to fit in. It wasn’t up to those in the restaurant to tell him who he was; rather, he had the power to project who he was.

Being humble is among the most admirable traits. However, feeling as though you need to apologize for who you are should never be in our emotions. I use a power wheelchair, with severe cerebral palsy, right down to muscle spasms and labored speech. At 44 – and it took me a long time to get here – I don’t feel awkward in who I am, and I certainly would never apologize for who I am. As I go through the entirety of my daily life, I am who I am, and I’m not making an issue of it, and neither is anyone else, per me. Here I am, as I am, period.

And, that’s what I’ve learned: We teach people how to treat us by both how we view ourselves and what we project. If I’m in a conversation and I spasm, I correct my posture and keep with the conversation. If I don’t make it an issue, typically neither does anyone else. It’s amazing how our reactions and projections can completely dictate how others react to us. Just be you, and you’ll be impressed at how others recognize you as just that.

As for that awkward restaurant scene, how would I handle it? …I would just be myself.


By Mark E. Smith

Every week, I take a leap of faith on this blog and write essays that are often very personal and expose vulnerabilities about myself that I know can range from liberating to uncomfortable for readers. Yet, there’s a deep meaning and purpose to it all. Firstly, as a formally-trained writer, I was taught that if you’re truly going to write, you owe it to yourself and your reader to write with unflinching courage, to expose that which others may not dare, all in the name of integrity – the best writing is fearless and scary all at once. Secondly, there’s such power in universal experience, where if through sharing my own vulnerabilities I can help someone else embrace his or hers, realizing that none of us are alone in life’s challenges, that’s a tremendous privilege. I write to connect, and that demands unflinching honesty, candor and authenticity.

However, here’s what might surprise you: I don’t believe that this unyielding, wide-open form of trust should be practiced in our personal lives. The fact is, whether a child or a so-called hardened criminal, there’s a fragility within all of us – our inner-most vulnerabilities. And, they aren’t to be trusted with just anyone. We’re too valuable to risk handing over our emotions to those who may not honor, respect or deserve them.

Many of us know a lot of people, many of whom we call family and friends. For me, I can’t even count how many people I know. All are wonderful people. Yet, if you think about your own friends and family – as I do mine – how many have truly earned your trust to possess the capacity to treat your deepest vulnerabilities with the safety and security you deserve?

Chances are, not many. Unfortunately, we’ve often learned this in the most painful ways. We’ve shared our most vulnerable selves with someone, only to have that person attempt to hurt us with it later in scorn or judgement at the most opportune – make that, malicious – of times. True family and friends don’t use our vulnerabilities against us. Rather, true family and friends treat our vulnerabilities as sacred, those which are to be addressed with compassion, empathy and support.

So, how do we know with whom our deepest vulnerabilities are safe? For most of us, it’s a tiny fraction of those who we know, maybe only one or two people. And, the litmus test can take time, often years. See, true trust isn’t assumed; it’s earned, piece by piece. You share a little, see how that’s handled by someone over time, and if it’s honored, you share a little more, until ultimate trust is earned. Along the way, let us not be guarded, but aware, as if we witness the slightest violation of trust, it’s a sign to put on the emotional brakes and realize that person may be a loved family member or great friend, but not one who we can trust in our most sacred places – again, that’s reserved for those who’ve earned it.

By far the toughest practices of setting boundaries of who’s earned the privilege of being trusted with our deepest vulnerabilities is in romantic relationships because the emotions are so intense and the stakes are so high. In our desire to love and be loved, it’s far too easy to dismiss violations of our vulnerabilities. He only said it out of anger during our argument…. No, there’s never a reason or excuse to use someone’s vulnerabilities against him or her. That’s not love, its betrayal – and that never makes for a relationship you deserve. I married my wife for a lot of wonderful reasons, but the big one was our mutually-earned trust. Sure, we get mad and frustrated with each other, but we know that each other’s vulnerabilities are the sacred boundary line that we respect above all else. I’m also blessed that this ultimate sacred trust holds true with both my oldest daughter and my lifelong best friend.

When it comes to our vulnerabilities, let us seek comfort in others – it’s healing for the soul. However, let us likewise know that our vulnerabilities shouldn’t be entrusted to anyone except those worthy of respecting and cherishing such a gift. See, when it comes to ultimate trust, it’s quality, not quantity, that serves our heart.