critics

By Mark E. Smith

Someone asked me what the hardest part of my career has been? I didn’t have to think twice: Learning to embrace criticism.

Whenever we put ourselves in the public eye, even on a small scale, criticism flies at us. I once read a scathing criticism about Mother Teresa. Why would anyone ever criticize Mother Teresa?

I would have never imagined 25 years ago when I published my first piece in Sports ‘N’ Spokes magazine about racing wheelchair technology that readers would send letters to the editor criticizing me. But, they did. I remember the next month’s issue where a Canadian racer lunched a personal attack on me in the Letters to the Editor section. It hurt and made me second guess myself, not as a writer, but as a person. Then I wrote a piece in New Mobility about the goal of equal rights for those with disabilities, and I again was shocked by the hate mail. By 1995, when my childhood autobiography was published – as wholesome as writing gets – I wasn’t surprised but disappointed at the strangers who didn’t attack the book, but me personally.

With my work becoming so visible online since the late 1990s, and my career and public persona growing exponentially ever since, public ridicule and criticism is something I’ve faced on a daily basis for two decades now. It’s weird turning on your computer each day, seeing complete strangers hating you. But, it goes with the territory of being in the public light.

What’s intriguing about criticism, however, is that it’s by no means limited to those of us in public roles. In fact, among the most painful forms of criticism can come from those closest to us, those who profess to care about us – spouses, parents, siblings. I know because I’ve been there, too.

I recently received an unsettling phone call from a 22-year-old college student with cerebral palsy. He’s striving to graduate college and build a life for himself, but his dad gives him no support, just criticism. I could relate on an eerie level because I was in almost his exact situation, where my estranged father went out of his way several times to lash out at me, mocking me for pursuing my education, criticizing me for “thinking I was better than everybody else because I was going to college.” Sure, it stung, but by that point I couldn’t put any credence in my father whose track record was a tenth-grade education, a walk-away father and an unemployed, life-long alcoholic.

And, that’s the pattern of critics: typically they’re the last people who should criticize anyone. From my public career to my personal life, I’ve never had anyone doing what I do criticize me. It’s always those not doing who criticize. Among the best quotes on this topic is President Theodore Roosevelt’s excerpt from a 1910 speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Researcher and lecturer, Brene Brown, expands upon this, noting, “If you place yourself in the arena, you’re going to get your ass kicked. But, those not in the arena, who aren’t getting their asses kicked with us, have no right to judge. …Take your seats and be quiet.”

From Roosevelt to Brown, I wholeheartedly agree. We can’t put credence in armchair quarterbacks. If you’re on the field with me, taking blows, marred by dust and sweat and blood, I’ll give you due credibility. However, I can’t take beer-belly, armchair quarterbacks seriously – they invest nothing of themselves. If you criticize me, I will hear you out of decency, but I’ve learned that if I truly believe in what I’m doing – and I do – criticism may still feel lousy, but it doesn’t change my inspired path. Some are satisfied by watching and criticizing, but I’m busy doing.

Let us live boldly in the arena, and as the seated critics shout – too cowardly to be in the arena taking blows with us – use it as validation that we’re doing everything right and getting stronger all the time, thriving on being marred in dust and sweat and blood. It takes nothing to be a critic; it takes everything to strive to make a difference. See, the ultimate strength isn’t in ignoring your critics; rather, the ultimate strength is in having the courage to continue moving your life and career forward regardless of what they say.

thegates

By Mark E. Smith

Every so often, a well-meaning soul of tremendous faith says to me, “You need not worry, there are no wheelchairs in Heaven.”

And, while I appreciate the deep, faith-based perspective of such individuals, I have to bite my tongue to keep from exclaiming, “What do you mean there are no wheelchairs in Heaven! How am I going to get around?”

I’m no theologian, but I understand the Judeo-Christian belief that there is no suffering in Heaven, and this is what individuals are truly getting at when they make such comments. And, I share the belief that there is no suffering in Heaven.

However, their words on this earth imply that I am suffering, that in Heaven, God will make the injustice of my life right. Yet, my faith says that they have it all misunderstood.

See, God made me right. Is my life in living with cerebral palsy a bit physically different than others? Of course. But, no one can justly declare it as suffering or needing to be resolved. Such beliefs are rooted in the unintentional ignorance of individuals, not in the intentionality of God. If we are to believe in an intentional God, then we must likewise believe that each of our lives was blessed with beautiful intention. My faith says that my cerebral palsy is part of exactly who I’m supposed to be, today, tomorrow, eternally – and I’m blessed with that. None of us need miracles, as we are already each a miracle.

In this way, if we are to have true faith, we must believe that each of our lives and circumstances has been created with an intention and purpose that some may not have the earthly insights to recognize. But, that’s OK. As long as we know our own value, intentionality and purpose, we know we’re blessed with being exactly who we are, perfect as-is – on earth as it is in Heaven. Just as houses of worship have accessible parking, wheelchair ramps and elevators, I’m positive that there’s an awesome custom-fit wheelchair awaiting me in Heaven.

emilybarn

(Beyond general admissions, my daughter is applying to an honors college program that includes research within the student’s field. In the applications process, a 750-word essay is required, explaining the desired area of research, why it’s of importance to the student, and its impact on humanity. It’s a lofty task that, ideally, begins students on an extraordinary academic journey, one that ultimately changes the lives of others. My daughter’s essay is in line with the inspired writing you read here week after week, and so it’s my privilege to share her essay with you this week.)

By Emily C. Smith

As I pursue my undergraduate studies in psychology, there is a much larger life mission at work for me. It’s a passion, a field of study, a research quest that ultimately effects each one of our lives: what’s the origin of hope within the human psyche?

It’s a very personal subject to me, and one that effects the life of every person on the planet. We either have hope or others have hope for us, and if hope is removed from our perspectives and lives, virtually all possibilities cease. Yet, with hope, potential dramatically expands our horizons, where a bleak prognosis becomes potential, where vying is a path for victory. However, the questions remain. What are the origins of hope? Why do some people have hope while others do not? And, how does hope, itself, impact the many circumstances throughout our lives?

I’ve learned about hope in my own life, and wish to extend the power of hope to others. I want to empower others with what I refer to as the “science of hope.”

As a very young child, my mother became addicted to prescription medication. I went through grade school, then junior high watching my mother drift away. I struggled with having hope. I remember being 11, and picking my unconscious mother off of the bedroom floor, tucking her in bed, my heading off to school. I remember sitting in class that morning thinking about all of the times I rushed to hospitals with my father because my mother had overdosed. I thought about all of the times I locked myself in my room as my mom crashed about the house. I remember all of the efforts my father made to put my mother through rehab, threatening to sue doctors who prescribed her more pills. Indeed, I remember sitting in class that morning, knowing my mother’s addiction was killing her – and there was no hope.

My father, though, knew something I didn’t. See, he was born with severe cerebral palsy. He wasn’t expected to live more than a few hours, and once he did, he was declared an absolute vegetable. His life ended up a lesson in never believing in a negative prognosis, but using hope as a guiding light, even in the bleakest of times – maintaining a high-profile career and giving me as much of his time as possible as my mother wasted away.

Soon, the inevitable occurred. My mother moved out, removing herself entirely from our lives. With bare walls because my mother took all of the pictures and very little experience running a house, especially at my young age, I wasn’t just void of hope, I was terrified. We were a 12-year-old and a suddenly-single father with severe cerebral palsy who used a power wheelchair in a bare-bones house – alone.

Yet, my father introduced the one component that would rescue me from my stifling fear and pain: the power of hope.

He hugged me and said, “It’s now just you and me. I don’t know how we’re going to do this, but we are. Soon these walls will be filled with pictures of our life, our dreams rebuilt.”

My father’s unshakable hope was my guide post. I held onto his hope as we learned together how to not just live, but to thrive, that guide post slowly becoming less of a need as it was replaced by my own intrinsic sense of hope.

Despite the tragedy of my family, hope has been the ultimate gift. We all face adversity, but when you have hope, you have the ability to not just survive, but excel. From my home life to my academics to my extracurricular activities, hope has led me to empowering heights. Give me a negative circumstance and I will show you the positives; show me limitations and I will show you possibilities; and show me a grim prognosis and I will show you hope.

I know where I got my hope – that is, from my father, from experiencing adversity and having him lead the way with hope. And, I want to further that legacy by not just portraying hope, but by scientifically defining it for humanity. See, I don’t want hope to merely be a mysterious state of mind that some have and some don’t. Rather, I want to research hope to a tangible level, where it’s a definable tool that doesn’t just elevate our individual lives, but all of humanity.

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By Mark E. Smith

As he spun on the salon chair, his joy was contagious. No one else his age, 20s, would dare spin on the chair, hands thrust in the air, yelling, “Woohoo!” but he did. Most of us would be too self conscious, too restricted by social norms. But, his authenticity allowed him to do what we’d all love to do – that is, follow our unbridled enthusiasm. Yes, he was different from the rest of us, and we were all a little jealous.

He stopped spinning for a moment, looked at my 17-year-old daughter and waived, flashing a big grin.

“I’m Kevin,” he said.

“Hi, Kevin,” my daughter replied from her seat along the front window. “I’m Emily.”

“Emily, watch…,” he replied, spinning some more, hands in the air.

He spun, and he spun, and he spun until his mother and father pulled him from the chair.

“Bye, Emily – I’ll call you,” he said, putting his hand to his ear in a telephone gesture, and we all giggled at how adorably unabashed he was, moving toward the door.

As he left, I glanced at my daughter and soon there was a knock on the window behind us. We looked, and Keven blew Emily a big kiss, promptly dragged away, smiling, by his mom.

I was immediately struck with the thought that whoever defines intellectual disabilities has it all wrong. I realized that there were a lot of us with intellectual disabilities in the salon that eve, but Kevin wasn’t one. He followed his enthusiasm, lived with an uninhibited heart and wasn’t afraid to extend love to others. Few of us could say the same.

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By Mark E. Smith

At 43, I’ve had my challenges in life, but with a mix of hard work, the support of others and luck, I’ve been privileged to have accomplished a bit, from fatherhood to a pretty cool career. Nevertheless, someone asked me what my ultimate dream is from here? My answer could have been related to a next career challenge or maybe a materialistic goal like a lake house. However, none of that’s the case – its all too easy, too meaningless in ways. My answer from the depths of my heart was, “I just want to be me.”

Assuming that we’re healthy, productive, loving individuals, isn’t that our ultimate dream: to not only be free within to be ourselves, but to be truly embraced for who we are by others? How many of us have felt at times that for any number of reasons – a work environment, a relationship, family expectations – we couldn’t just be ourselves? Maybe it’s a seemingly huge issue like if your family knew you were gay, they’d disown you. Or maybe it’s a seemingly small issue like someone correcting your grammar. Or, somewhere in the middle, where your love interest wants to change something about you. All of these and countless other examples prevent you from being you, and it’s painful and it’s isolating – and I’ve been there.

I had a cute conversation with a buddy of mine. He shared with me that if he could find a woman who loved comic books as much as he does, she would be his soul mate. See, he’s had girlfriends in the past who’ve ridiculed him for collecting comics, so finding a woman who loves comics would be a dream come true. Yet, that’s not truly what he needs, is it? He doesn’t need a woman who loves comics; rather, he simply needs a woman who loves him for him, comics and all. It’s what we all want and deserve: to be loved as-is.

And, that is an epic battle of the heart for many of us, where we just want to be rightfully loved as-is, where we’re perfectly imperfect and nothing about us needs to change to fit in or be loved. We just need to be us and be loved on that merit alone.

Unfortunately, others may not get that concept and so it’s up to us to set the standard and set the boundaries. I genuinely love people, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than a great conversation. I don’t care who you are, what you look like, or how you live. Assuming you’re doing right by others, I don’t want to change anything about you. I just want to know the real you.

It’s this way of embracing others that I more and more expect in my own life. Regardless of the situation, I’m just going to be me as authentically as possible. I don’t need to prove anything or be anything – I just need to be me. And, when I’m not good enough for someone or criticized for just being me, I’ve developed the strength to put the onus back where it belongs – on the person doing the pointing.

I am me, you are you, and for anyone who wants to see flaws in us or seek to change us, well, we need to hand him or her a mirror and go about being just who we are: perfectly imperfect, as-is.

nike

By Mark E. Smith

Imagine spending years running alone. Per your pace, you’ve gone from a 30-minute walk of a mile to running a 15-minute mile. That’s quite an accomplishment.

But, then, you get a running partner, and that running partner runs a 6-minute mile. What would you realize in this process?

For me, I’ve realized that this is my life and I’m really good at being really bad at much of what I do. I suck, and I’m proud of that fact. You can’t suck at as much as me without a lot of hard work and determination.

See, for years now, it’s been just my daughter and me in our home, where I live as independently as possible with cerebral palsy – and I’m pretty good at it, moving along at my own pace. A lot of it takes time and tenacity, but so be it. I’ve always looked at my independent living skills as the result, not the effort. I don’t care what I have to do as long as I can accomplish the task.

However, now I have a running superstar by my side – my beautiful fiancee – and it’s made me realize that I’m really good at being really bad. A task that takes me, say, 10 minutes on my own, takes one minute with her helping. And, for the most part, I’m secure and appreciative of her helping because I equally contribute to her needs in other ways.

Nevertheless, we’ve had an ongoing dialogue about how beyond my neanderthal stubbornness, she’s raised good points that just because I can accomplish a task doesn’t mean I do it the easiest way, that I often make things harder than needed, that just because I’ve used a haphazard technique for 20 years doesn’t make it necessarily the best approach.

Beyond me, her point is one that’s strikingly universal: Questioning how we do what we do can help us find better solutions, from our careers to parenting to everyday life. But, I have my point, too: It’s taken me a lot of years to get this good at doing independent living tasks really badly – that’s hard to give up when you’re so talented at sucking as I am!

GEORGEMASON

By Mark E. Smith

I’ve just returned from my daughter’s first college visit. It was actually a bit more than a typical college visit that high school seniors do because she’s being recruited by the school based on her achievements. As a dad, I see aspects like a waived application fee, streamlined early application, early acceptance and a scholarship as all the reasons to go there – plus, it’s a great school in a great part of the country for internships and a subsequent career. However, there’s a more profound reason why my daughter is leaning heavily toward this particular school: she’s wanted.

So many people want; yet, in most circumstances, wanting isn’t emblematic of success. However, being wanted has everything to do with success. As I’ve told my daughter, anyone can want to go to any college and apply, hoping to get in. However, the ultimate success is in being sought out based on merit, where a college wants you.

The realized value of being wanted instead of simply wanting, applies to so much of life. Top executives never apply for jobs – they’re recruited. When we’re in the most fulfilling relationships, we’re desired by our partners. Among the greatest successes in life involve being wanted, not just wanting.

However, there’s a caveat to being wanted, one that I continue seeking to instill in my daughter. Being wanted has nothing to do with entitlement, but everything to do with unyielding dedication and responsibility. You earn being wanted by being extraordinarily dedicated, and then you honor being wanted by striving even more. In my daughter’s case, she’s being wanted by a college because she’s worked hard in high school, but now she must work even harder to honor the college’s recognition. The recruited executive can’t rest once he’s landed among the country’s top jobs, but must honor it by working even harder. And, in our relationships, we must always honor our spouses with love and attention, where desire is unwavering.

I’ve been fortunate to experience the privilege of being wanted via the writing portion of my career. I used to have to hustle and try to secure paid writing jobs. However, I’m fortunate that now editors come to me with writing assignments. However, tight deadlines and working late nights are par for the course — again, the privilege of being wanted must be honored with dedication or it won’t last. Being wanted means being unyielding in what you do.

Wanting is great, especially when there’s effort behind it to achieve a goal. However, being wanted is emblematic of ultimate success because it’s where dedication intrinsically leads our lives to new levels of potential and opportunity.