tvBy Mark E. Smith

Happiness amidst adversity has always fascinated me. Yet, so has misery among fortune. Both are totally counterintuitive – that is, people facing life’s toughest adversities logically shouldn’t be genuinely happy, just as among the most fortunate shouldn’t be miserable. But, we constantly see this occur with such frequency that it’s almost a norm rather than an isolated phenomenon. We see individuals facing challenges that, logically, should defeat the soul, but instead there’s a contentment and joy. Then, we see individuals with every advantage in life who are miserable. How is it that a 23-year-old with muscular dystrophy from which he or she will eventually die by age 30 is intrinsically happier than a 40-something multi-millionaire, recreational triathlete? I witness this all of the time among people I know and acquaintances – and, as one with a severe physical disability, I’ve experienced it myself.

Psychologists, sociologists and philosophers have been studying this exact subject, trying to crack this code of human nature: how does suffering allow for happiness while good fortune allows for misery? The recent consensus is intriguing.

See, what’s been discovered is that while happiness should logically come from good fortune, good fortune unto itself doesn’t evoke happiness. You can have all of the success in the world, and it doesn’t inherently induce happiness. Of course, many of us have known this, but, here’s the intriguing part. What does inherently induce happiness is gratitude. In fact, it turns out that they’re inseparable. If you have gratitude, you inherently possess happiness. But, that leads to yet another question in this equation: where does gratitude originate?

It turns out that opportunity is the root of gratitude – both in recognizing it and in appreciating it. I know where researchers are coming from because I live it. My independent living skills, such as bathing, are extremely difficult for me, sometimes having to endure a level of literal pain, if not suffering, in the process. When you lack coordination and balance, aspects like showering aren’t just difficult but often borderline dangerous, where falls and rebounds are just part of the nightly ritual. Yet, even in the midst of tremendous struggles, I’m genuinely happy. Heck, I even catch myself singing in the shower among the controlled chaos. How can I remain truly happy during such seemingly difficult times? Well, I know a lot of individuals who aren’t able to bathe themselves, and so I’m grateful for the opportunity simply to be able to do so, no matter how trying it can be. Opportunity creates gratitude, and gratitude creates happiness.

A childhood friend of mine, John, has had a slowly-progressing form of muscular dystrophy. He’s always used a power chair, but has slowly lost more and more muscle tone to where, now in his 40s, he doesn’t have the strength to use a television remote. But, John, as a super successful guy who knows the power of opportunity, gratitude and happiness, shared a story that made me smile. He found out that by getting a different cable box, he could use his smartphone’s touch screen to change channels. And, here’s what he said in his exuberance: “I’m quite overjoyed, and delighted even, to discover the new X1 system comes with an app on which I can completely operate the cable box from my iPhone. Losing strength and losing that ability killed me (metaphorically)… But now, I again have full control of my cable box!”

No, operating a cable box doesn’t in itself make John happy; however, the gratitude that he recognizes from the opportunity does.

Of course, this isn’t to say that we don’t all experience real human emotions like sadness and frustration, nor can gratitude overcome mental health conditions like clinical depression or chemical imbalances. However, when we’re emotionally and mentally healthy, gratitude can help us move toward positive states amidst difficult times. I recently lost Rosie the English Bulldog, my companion of 10 years – a very sad loss. But, amidst my understandable sadness, I found tremendous gratitude in her companionship, where reflecting on her hilarious absurdities – her tongue always protruding from her mouth, making her constant comic relief – filled my heart with joy despite the sad loss. In this way, finding gratitude in the toughest of situations can elevate our spirits. I’m not happy that Rosie the English Bulldog passed, but I’m grateful and happy for the 10 comical, adoring years we shared.

When the everyday aspects of life aren’t seen as doom or gloom, but as amazing opportunities, it creates gratitude, and with that we’re intrinsically filled with happiness. One doesn’t need to struggle or face challenges to find gratitude in one’s life – everyone can embrace it because where there’s life, there’s opportunity and gratitude. However, one does need to have gratitude to truly have happiness. Maybe we all need to take a lesson from John and recognize that the surest path to happiness is found in simply switching the channel – to gratitude.

Dreams-Quote

By Mark E. Smith

Walt Disney said, “All of our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”

He was right, but only partially. See, his understanding of how dreams truly become reality was incomplete – that is, there’s an addition to his eloquent words that must be added to shift them from inspirational to achievable: “All of our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them, and as long as we are flexible, willing to adapt our vision as circumstances dictate.”

I know a lot of people – me included – who’ve lived their dreams, but none have achieved them by adhering to a single, fixed, idealistic vision. Life and success simply doesn’t allow for an easy Point A to Point Z dream-come-true path – there are a lot of twist and turns along the way. And, dreamers who succeed know the importance of remaining flexible and adapting along the way.

A dream begins as a wish, a want, a desire or a need, and always has a specific outcome – very specific. A high-school student dreams of being a professional football player in the NFL. Newlyweds dream of buying the perfect house. A CEO dreams of having the top company in his industry. A woman in her 30s dreams of meeting Mr. Right.

Now, by nature, such dreams are rigid. That high-school student’s only foreseeable result is playing in the NFL. The newlyweds know exactly what their dream house looks like. That CEO has an exact dollar figure in his head. That woman in her 30s has a list of all of the characteristics that her Mr. Right possesses. They’re all linear, inflexible, singular outcomes. However, again, although we cement such rigid dreams in our minds, it’s a contradiction to how life plays out for even the most focused, fortunate people.

Therefore, if dreams set in stone are unrealistic to begin with, why have them, and isn’t any dream then a set-up for failure?

Not at all. In fact, with flexibility and adaptations, the core aspects of our dreams are always achievable, ultimately resulting in at least some form of what we wished – and sometimes even more. I personally know each person in the examples I’ve given and they exemplify how flexibility and adaptation has allowed them to live the core values of their dreams – and achieve them.

The star high-school football player was paralyzed from the chest, down, six years ago. The injury, of course, could have destroyed his dream of playing in the NFL. Yet, it didn’t. No, he won’t be suited up on the field, but he’s now in law school becoming a sports agent.

The newlyweds couldn’t afford the new custom home they wished, but bought a fixer-upper. With a little paint, handywork and sweat, they’ve created a home they absolutely love.

The CEO’s industry went through a 5-year downturn, but he reorganized and refocused, and he’s arguably now at the top of his competition.

And, the 30-something woman is madly in love and engaged to a man who’s three inches shorter than her – a trait that her tall, handsome Mr. Right was never supposed to have.

When it comes to my friends’ original, rigidly envisioned dreams, you could argue that, per Walt Disney’s outlook, they failed, never achieving the exact dream. Yet, their plights prove that with flexibility and adaptation, the core values of their dreams were totally achieved.

Let us not be boxed in by our dreams but inspired by them. If you hold on to a single vision too strongly, your dream will be destroyed by the first twist life introduces. Instead, let a dream be the inspiration to seek what you wish, and loosen its reigns to shift as needed. Dreams are like seeds planted – as they germinate and grow, follow them with flexibility and adaptation, where the ultimate dream realized is almost never quite what you envisioned, but often proves more successful than you ever …well …dreamed.

closet.1

By Mark E. Smith

Isn’t it amazing how incongruent we can be within ourselves and in our lives? When I say incongruent, what I mean is that the three levels of our behavior don’t align – that is, what we think and feel is different than what we do, and that’s different than how we portray ourselves to the world. It’s like splitting ourselves in three directions where our lives – let’s be blunt – can become hidden and fragmented at best or torturous lies at worst.

Here’s a great example we can all relate to…. We all have that close friend or family member who confides in us that he or she resents his or her spouse with a passion, wanting out of the relationship. However, while he or she may have a combative or distant relationship with the spouse, true feelings are never expressed and the person stays with the spouse. Then, you log on to Facebook and see him or her posting the most happy couple photos ever! It drives you crazy because you know the person is living an incongruent life – read that, a facade – doesn’t it? Again, if we are to live a congruent life, our feelings, actions and portrayals must all align.

As if our incongruent friends and family don’t drive us crazy enough, when we live with incongruence in our own lives, it’s torturous. So much of our incongruence comes from fear of being judged or rejected, and that’s a valid fear that we all struggle with at points in our lives. However, in that process, we risk our own emotional health and happiness by being incongruent. I go back to my couples example. If I tell my spouse I’m unhappy for reasons X, Y and Z, and I’m not going to keep living in limbo by acting like this relationship is somehow working, and I’m not going to present an unrealistic image to the world, what’s the result? I’m honest with my feelings, so that’s a release. I’m honest in my relationship, so it’s either going to improve or we go our separate ways. And, I’m honest with everyone around me, so they can truly know and support me.

Now, of course discretion should be used when transitioning from incongruent to congruent behavior. We want to minimize hurting others in the process of living congruent lives – although, sometimes it can’t be helped. I mean, Grandma might be mortified to know you’re gay, but she’ll get over it – you owe it to yourself to be congruent in who you are. In fact, regardless of your particular circumstance, most will embrace you more for living a congruent life because it’s rooted in authenticity and honesty.

In my own life, I’ve lived both ways, and incongruent behavior never worked. I may have thought I was presenting myself in the best light by not expressing who I truly was in one way or another, but it always failed me in the end – it harmed relationships and proved me as lacking authenticity. In later years, I just put it all out there, and if others accept me for me, great; and, if they don’t, I’m fine with that – at least I’m me. Two years ago when I first got together with my fiancée, I took it slow in healthy form, but I disclosed every aspect of my life, from the realities of my disability to my views on intimacy to the fact that my dog liked to poop in the hallway when no one was watching. I may not have been the prize she was looking for, but at least she knew I was authentic – and no trait holds more weight in a relationship than demonstrating trustworthiness through congruent behavior.

All of us have little areas in our lives that are fine to keep to ourselves (your mom doesn’t need to know specifics on your intimate life!). However, in the larger spectrum of our lives and identities, congruent behavior is vital to living a healthy, happy life. After all, the only way to be yourself is to truly be yourself.

equation

By Mark E. Smith

I love having problems. See, what I’ve learned in my life is that problems are opportunities for solutions, and with solutions comes success. In fact, in most cases in our lives, our biggest successes begin with a big problem.

Many have the equations of life backward. Although in math we’re taught that problems are solved with absolute solutions, many never look at life that way. Instead, we often view problems as unsolvable or insurmountable. Often when we encounter a problem, we give up or dramatically change directions. And, this, of course, makes achieving success and accomplishing our dreams impossible.

However, if we look at a problem as the first step toward success – that is, if I overcome this challenge, I will achieve my goal – a problem becomes nothing but positive. I mean, losing a great job for example, is in most people’s minds one of life’s toughest problems. Yet, I’ve known countless people who have used a firing as a catalyst to land better-paying, more-satisfying jobs. In this way, the problem of losing a job can either be a devastation or an opportunity for career advancement – and we have the power to choose the path.

Now, there are also bad problems and good problems, and while the objective is the same – find a solution! – few realize the difference. My daughter is formally enrolled to begin college this fall, as are many of her friends. The number one topic I hear from my fellow parents these days is the problem we’re all facing with looming $30,000 to $40,000 annual tuition bills. I’ve been expressing to my peers that this is a fantastic problem to have because while it may seem a financial nightmare on the surface, it’s only because we have amazing kids who’ve worked really hard to get accepted to among the best schools. If our biggest problem is paying for our children’s college because they’re succeeding in life, we’re actually blessed – it’s a great problem to have.

I’ve been working through good versus bad problems in looking to buy a new home. While my fiancée and realtor have been diligent and patient, it’s been impossible so far to find a home that can be made reasonably accessible for my power wheelchair and interior adaptations, such as an accessible bathroom. We’ve found several homes that if I could walk would have been dream homes. However, due to my special needs, house after house has had to be ruled out. It’s seemingly becoming a bad problem because as a man using a wheelchair, I’m seeing firsthand the problem we have in this country with an overall lack of housing that can be made accessible, from rentals to purchases. However, as one with a disability – where based on remaining social stereotypes and societal barriers to employment, my peers have an 85% unemployment rate – I’m blessed to be able to afford home ownership. Therefore, the ability to afford a house, but not be able to find one quickly based on my access needs, is a good problem to have.

In both these situations, what may seem like problems are actually remarkable opportunities for success. Solving the problem of costly tuition means that my daughter is the second person in my family’s history to attend college and, ideally, go on to an amazing career.  Solving the problem of finding my accessible dream home will allow me to live in my own sanctuary, full of laughter and love for decades to come. Yes, such circumstances begin as problems, but eventually they are pathways to remarkable success.

We all encounter problems in our lives, and it’s so easy to be frustrated at best, devastated at worst. However, if we’re going to succeed amidst adversity, we need to look at problems not as obstacles, but as opportunities. When we face a problem, it’s rarely that life isn’t going our way. Rather, when we face a problem, it’s usually life simply asking us to look at the situation a little deeper – and there within most often resides a path to greater success than we ever imagined. We may have problems, but we also have solutions to achieve amazing success.

dearhead

By Mark E. Smith

The Deer Head Inn, in the middle of virtually nowhere, in a 150-year-old saloon-hotel on the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border, claims to be the oldest continually operating jazz club in the United States. That status may be up for debate, but what’s a fact is that you’ll see literally among the best jazz musicians in the world there on any given Friday night, among a silent, eyes-fixed crowd of no more than twenty. It’s as intense as it gets.

Now, I, myself, know nothing about jazz. But, I know intensity – and I know what it takes to get that good. You play every day of your life. You play till your hands, fingers blister and bleed. And, when you’re not playing and practicing, you’re thinking about it, learning about it, breathing it. See, you don’t get to be the best in the world overnight, and you don’t do it without a drive beyond all drives, where nothing stops you, not even blisters and blood.

I’ve learned time and time again in my own life that when we start where other people stop, that’s where true progress begins.

Like the jazz musicians I go see at the Dear Head Inn, I have some idea of the sacrifice it takes to pursue the extraordinary, to start where others stop, to push yourself till you literally bleed. See, among the most intense, extraordinary times in my life was in my mid twenties, when I was broke, finishing up undergraduate work and writing freelance. I had come a long way in life, but I knew that I could write better, and by writing better, I could live better.

During that era in the literary world, San Francisco State University’s creative writing program was renown as the best-of-the-best, where from the students to the staff to the guest lecturers, it was an incubator of craft, the truest heights of writing. And, I wanted to go there; I wanted to be among the best-of-the-best.

However, there was every reason why I couldn’t go: it was unbelievably competitive to get in to, I couldn’t afford tuition, and, as one with a severe disability, I had no transportation to get there every day, 50 miles from my home. But, in growing up with cerebral palsy, I knew a lot about tenacity and perseverance.

I put together an application and portfolio, and was immediately accepted into the program. Then, I scrambled to secure grants and scholarships, getting my tuition paid. Lastly, I found that by taking two buses and a train, three hours each way, I could make the commute.

I remember sitting through my classes the first day and knowing that I was living the opportunity of a lifetime.

Semester after semester, I was being taught by and working with the top writers in the world. Guest lecturers flew in, best-selling novelists critiqued my work, and I learned the formal craft of writing to a level I never knew existed. And, then, there was the whole decadent, glamorous scene that surrounded it all – from the literati to the tantalizingly lurid.

But, for me to study and write at that level, I had to live it to an ultimately disturbing intensity. Due to my disability, I wasn’t able to simply use the bathroom, so the commute and my schedule had me not urinating or drinking for 18 hours per day. Ultimately, my body was at its breaking point.

One morning my wife of the time got to my urinal before I did, and discovered my secret: I’d been urinating blood for months, an infection so bad that I should have been hospitalized. Yet, like every other morning, I raced to catch the bus. Why would I risk my health and live in such agony, all in the name of writing?

The answer is, I didn’t want to stop where others would. If you’re going to be great at what you do, sometimes you must throw rationale out the window and push yourself beyond what’s logical. Like a jazz great, you need to play till your fingers bleed.

Jayne__Kenya_1

By Mark E. Smith

Think about the most genuinely happy, joyful person you know. I have no way of knowing that person, but I certainly can tell you all about him or her. His or her smile lights up a room. He or she is totally comfortable in his or her own skin. He or she doesn’t worry about trivial aspects in life. He or she is one of great comfort to others in an especially unique way. And, he or she is slowly but surely changing the world for the better. Who is this individual?

The answer is, it’s a person living to his or her purpose. See, when we live with purpose, it’s impossible not to be happy and successful. After all, in living with purpose, you know the value of your life, the positive ways you impact others – directly or indirectly – and how you change their lives for the better. Most importantly, you recognize the value of others, and strive to meet their needs with your unique abilities.

For some, their purpose seems obvious. A police officer protects citizens. A comedian makes people laugh. An emergency room nurse saves lives. However, for the rest of us, finding or recognizing our purpose can be less obvious.

I recently had this talk with my 18-year-old daughter: how do we know our purpose? An even more challenging question is – and it’s one of the toughest in humanity, an age-old inner-struggle – do I even have a purpose?

As one who feels tremendous purpose in my life, I thought a lot about what core questions does my daughter – or any of us! – need to find and understand our purpose?

And, so I gave my daughter some questions to ask of herself:

Who am I?
What am I passionate about?
How do I effect other people?
What do others need from me?
How can my everyday actions better other’s lives?

For me, the answer is easy. I have cerebral palsy and in understanding the liberation of mobility and independence, my purpose is in helping others achieve those vital aspects in their own lives. As a result, at the end of each day, I feel the privilege of having a tangible sense of purpose in my life.

Based in New York, Rick Guidotti is among the top fashion photographers in the world. In the 1990s, he photographed those who were deemed the most beautiful women on Earth. Then, in 1998, at a bus stop, he encountered a teenage girl with albinism. In a world that can see such conditions as strange, Rick saw beauty, and as he embarked from there to taking photos of those who weren’t known as conventionally beautiful like the models he shot for Vogue and such, he found a turning point in his life: his purpose. See, through Rick’s photos, he not only raises the esteem of his photographed subjects – many seeing their own beauty for the first time, the camera serving as the ultimate mirror of truth – but his photos have also captured the attention of the top magazines and galleries, dramatically improving society’s perception of not just those with disabilities, but also the truth that we’re all beautiful.

Rick knows who he is, what he’s passionate about, what others need from him, and how his actions change their lives. He’s a man living with purpose.

I don’t know where you are in your life, but I l know that you, too, have great purpose. Maybe you know your purpose and know the joy that comes with it. Or, maybe you’re trying to discover your purpose. Think about who you are, what you’re passionate about, what others need from you, and how your actions can change their lives. And, live it with everything you have.

say-anything-main-review

By Mark E. Smith

When you have a disability like me, you get used to some referring to you as “brave.” Yet, there’s nothing intrinsically brave about disability, in itself. You have it, life goes on, no place for bravery.

However, the human experience requires tremendous – sometimes, stomach-churning – bravery if we are living authentically to our best. My daughter, at this writing, has three weeks to decide if she’s attending Pratt in New York City to major in photography, or George Mason in Washington D.C. to major in psychology. Those are not only two completely different college experiences, but totally different life paths. Imagine the bravery it takes for an 18-year-old to make such a decision.

Bravery, after all, is an inner-feeling spoken – there’s nothing scarier than that. For example, while my daughter deliberates colleges, there’s little on the line. However, once she discloses her choice, she’s committed to it – it will take bravery for her to utter the words, “Dad, I’ve chosen….”

But, let’s go deeper, let’s think about the bravest moments in our lives, feelings spoken. What do they sound like?

I’m falling in love with you.

I love you, but I’m not in love with you.

I just had to come over here and introduce myself.

I’m sorry.

I was wrong.

I wish I was who you need me to be, but I’m not.

I’m scared.

I need help.

I want a divorce.

Will you marry me?

I can’t.

I’m doing it!

The list goes on, and the words are different for each of us at vital turning points in our lives. Yet, the definition is a universal truth: bravery is a feeling spoken.

Here’s the real question, though: if bravery is a feeling spoken, what’s its impact on our lives?

Authenticity to ourselves. If we want to truly be ourselves, we must… well… be ourselves. We must be honest with our feelings, honest enough to vocalize them even when so much is at stake, when our deepest, sometimes scariest feeling are vocalized – and that takes the ultimate bravery.