dreamfield

By Mark E Smith

There’s a counter-intuitive nature to adversity that you can’t understand or appreciate unless you’ve experienced or witnessed it. It’s a realm where, as a complete contradiction, weakness becomes strength, heartbreak becomes joy, tragedy becomes fortune. It’s where life sends you a devastating blow, only to usher in unexpected triumphs of the soul.

Two weeks ago, at this writing, I was involved in the still-unfolding story of a 10-year-old boy. On March 9, 2015, his family was involved in a devastating car accident, the jaws of life employed to remove the 10-year-old. While the parents, fortunately, quickly healed, the 10-year-old was left a C-4 quadriplegic.

Many people casually describe such a spinal cord injury as chest, down paralysis, it’s not. It’s truly chin, down paralysis. See, The fourth cervical vertebra is the level where nerves run to the diaphragm, the main muscle that allows us to breathe. It separates the chest from the abdomen, and when it contracts, air is sucked into the lungs like a bellows. No contraction, no sucking, no breathing. People who survive spinal cord injuries at or above this level need ventilators or machines to breathe.

And, so in a scene unfathomable to most, this 10-year-old boy lay in a hospital bed on a ventilator, his body motionless since March. As the boys of summer ramped up for little league, he wasn’t among them. Then, in the most tangible moment to date of how permanent his disability is, two weeks ago, his new power wheelchair was delivered to his bedside.

No, this wasn’t a typical power wheelchair. It was small, built for his childhood stature. It had a ventilator on the back. And, rather than a hand control, a small joystick was mounted aligned to match his chin and mouth.

It took a lot to get him in the power wheelchair – everything takes a lot at that injury level. Tubes had to be routed, his body positioned and strapped in. And, all the while his parents watched with fear and sorrow in their eyes, not knowing what the outcome would be – what it will ever be. It was a scene no parent can even process.

But, then, amidst all of the logistical and emotional chaos, all became still, quiet. And, with a touch of his lower lip on the joystick, the power chair moved – he moved for the first time in months. A world of tragedy and confinement was transforming before everyone’s eyes into hope and liberation. Soon, he was independently driving up and down the hospital halls, a special version of seeing your son rounding third base.

And, as the clinicians and his parents transferred him back into bed, it finally happened. For the first time since his accident, he screamed and cried. No, not because of the extent of his injury or the realization of all that has been seemingly lost. No, he cried because he wanted his power wheelchair back – it was his freedom – and he wanted to be racing up and down the halls, not back in bed.

Indeed, there is a counter-intuitive nature to adversity, where that 10-year-old boy teaches us that weakness can become strength, heartbreak can become joy, tragedy can become fortune. It’s where life sends you a devastating blow, and you ultimately can experience triumphs of the soul.

The-Wedding-Singer

By Mark E. Smith

Let’s talk about sexy! This conversation started for me about a year ago when I asked my lifelong best friend – both of us wheelchair users – about whether he was observing what I was: there seemed a sudden shift where many of our peers with disabilities were now in amazing relationships. “When did disability become the new sexy?” I asked.

There have always been cultural stigmas around disability and sexuality – the most historic and inaccurate being that those with disabilities are asexual, that sexuality doesn’t exist within the disability realm. Further adding to this is the totally inaccurate message in society at large that physical perfection directly correlates with sex appeal – that is, the better looking you are, the more sexually desirable you are.  Now, we know in our progressive culture that neither of these are true. However, here’s the question: if we know that imperfect physicality doesn’t deter sex appeal, what then actually drives sex appeal?

The science is in, and the results are encouraging for the 99% of us who aren’t supermodels. While most might say a big bosom or bulging biceps are what people find sexy, the true factors are far more complex and equalizing according to researchers.

Firstly, people find integrity sexually appealing – which makes sense because healthy people aren’t attracted to those who aren’t forthright. The deeper the trust, the purer the attraction.

Secondly, people find a smile and eye contact totally sexually appealing. Admit it, when you’re checking out at the grocery store and the checker glances up at you with eye contact and a smile as he or she runs your V8 juice across the scanner, you’re like, “Was that a flirt?” and it feels awesome. So, imagine when someone at a cocktail party smiles and makes eye contact from across the room – that’s hot! And, if you’re the one doing it, you’re hot! And, if two of you are doing it with each other, it might be time to find a closet – the coat closet, that is, where you can exit the party and go have great conversation over coffee (what did you think I was implying?)

Thirdly, wit and humor are huge turn-ons. Wit and humor make us fun, engaging, grounded, disarming, comfortable and charming. Seriousness is like rain: it’s great as needed, but you don’t want to live with it every day. Wit and humor is the warmth and sunshine that draws others to us.

Fourthly, intelligence is seen as very sexually appealing. Intelligent people both make us feel more secure and stimulate us mentally and emotionally – and that’s sexy. People who demonstrate poor judgement aren’t those who attract others. Act with intelligence; be sexy!

Fifthly, compassion is exceptionally sexually appealing – it ties into deep biological reproductive drivers, where we’re compelled toward people who nurture. It’s a huge turn-on when your partner recognizes and addresses your needs, and you, his or hers.

Last, but not least, people find confidence ultra sexy – bring in the alpha! Now, arrogance shouldn’t be confused with confidence. There’s nothing sexy about a narcissist. However, confident people are cool, calm, collected, in control, comfortable in their skin – and who isn’t attracted to someone with such composure? Just be you; that’s confident and that’s sexy.

Now, the fact is, I haven’t shared anything that you don’t know – and researchers on this subject aren’t rocket scientists. Yet, it proves a powerful point for all of us: sex appeal ultimately doesn’t stem from the body, but the brain. And, if your brain demonstrates integrity, knows how to flash a smile, can make someone laugh, demonstrates intelligence and compassion, and is absolutely comfortable in who you are, well then you are exuding sex appeal wherever you go, a love magnet!

Did I just catch you smiling at me?

EMILY_GRADUATION

By Mark E. Smith

At this writing, my daughter graduates high school this eve. She’s the second to do so in our family’s history. I was the first. Great grandparents, grandparents, my parents, aunts, uncles, no one on any limb of my family tree graduated high school.

However, it’s not like everyone doesn’t try. You start out with all of the hope in the world as a child , but in a realm where we know that cycles of dysfunction are so complex – right down to aspects like addiction having a genetic component – it just gets a grip on you, tough to escape as you hit your teens, your adulthood. I know – I’ve been there.

My daughter’s mother came from a family history of addiction, as well, and not with bitterness or anger or resentment, but with sadness, I watched her fall into the grips of addiction. They say that if you come from a family of dysfunction, you’ll either become it or marry it. Ironically, as 27-year-olds, with our daughter born, my ex-wife and I thought that we’d broken the cycle – we didn’t drink, both went to college, and life was on track.

However, as my daughter hit her toddler years, life went off of the tracks, and my ex feel into a life of mental illness and addiction compelled by her troubled upbringing – while I don’t believe in excuses, I do have empathy for reasons. Again, you can’t fault trying.

As the vortex swirled in our family, I consciously chose to swoop my daughter out. We all were in the generational cycle of dysfunction – my ex-wife became it, I was married to it, and, most disturbing of all, my daughter was growing up in it.

Soon enough, my daughter and I were on our own, my sister a major source of support. And, as my daughter grew, thriving year after year, I was both inspired and scared to death. After all, I was the only person I knew in my family tree to stay on the track during high school, and my worst fear was that my past, her mother’s past would become my daughter’s. Yet, as she grew into a young lady, like watching a thoroughbred round the bend, she never skipped a beat. I can’t count how many of her plays, band concerts, honors clubs, and so many other functions I went to. By 2013, she was named among the top 250 youth scholars in the country, and simultaneously was awarded a scholarship to a summer performing arts program for the top youth musicians in the world – literally. And, all the while, I watched not just with a father’s pride, but awe-inspired by what a person can accomplish with dedication, ambition and passion.

Tonight, my daughter will be among the most honored graduates in her class, her gown decorated with more honors – a stole, multiple awarded cords, so many award pins that my sister had to strategically align them – than I ever knew existed. And, as she walks across the stage, she won’t be the second to change our family tree, after all. No, she will be the first.

See, what I’ve witnessed through my own plight, and now my daughter’s, is that it’s irrelevant where we come from. From a lineage of addiction, poverty, incarceration, illiteracy, and mental illness, none of that crosses the stage with my daughter tonight. My daughter, it proves, will cross that stage as each of us can, where the only legacy her life carries is that of her own – and it’s amazing.

Here_I_Am

By Mark E. Smith

The ultimate liberation of the spirit comes when you look into the mirror, realizing that you can’t change who you are – based on any number of factors totally beyond your control – and you just say to the world with pride and contentment: Here I am….

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.