By Mark E. Smith
There were many reasons why Kurt Cobain of the band, Nirvana, killed himself on April 5, 1994. Suicide, you see, is often a very complex process, rarely attributed to a sole cause, but most often a culmination of unbearable emotions. However, as fellow musician, Henry Rollins, put it, much of Cobain’s issues leading to his suicide could be traced to “the brutality of the public” – that is, the challenges of being in the public eye, where strangers can be astoundingly cruel, where Cobain, himself, discussed being too sensitive to endure criticism by the public, robbing him of his sense of identity.
When I started WheelchairJunkie.com 15 years ago, two aspects surprised me. Firstly, I was surprised by its success. After all, I created the site simply as a small place for my fellow wheelchair users and me to connect. However, its readership didn’t just grow rapidly in the beginning, but has continued growing ever since, where I’ve been forever amazed that such a personal project could reach so many – and I’ve been blessed that others have allowed me the privilege of being part of such a terrific community for much of my adult life.
Secondly, following the launch of the site, I was surprised by, as Rollins put it, “the brutality of the public,” which grew proportionately as the site’s popularity grew. I don’t recall exactly when my readership grew large enough to tip into the realm of my being somehow recognizable enough to become a target of “the brutality of the public,” but at some point relatively early on, a complete stranger emailed me in hatred of who he thought I was or represented. Now, in my 15th year of running the site, based on the vast readership, not a day passes where I don’t awake to an email or message board post where a total stranger – sometimes several – wants to argue with me, condemn me, or literally wish me dead.
However, rather than being distraught over strangers wishing me ill over my public persona – although my public persona isn’t a persona at all – I’ve been intrigued by the phenomenon as it’s occurred for well over a decade in my life. What’s intriguing is the question of why anyone in the public would hate me to the point of wishing my death, or at the very least stating, “I disagree with Mark on almost everything….” If we look objectively at my “public profile,” it’s about as mundane and noncontroversial as it gets. Read my weekly web and print articles and essays, read my message board posts, follow my Twitter and Facebook, and you’ll see that there’s no controversy (most of it is so feel-good or sincerely striving to be helpful that it borders on boring). Still, you’ll see comments directed at me that are antagonistic at best, shockingly graphic in wishing me dead at worst. But, why?
In a parallel, strangers hating me reminds me of what I know about Jennifer Aniston. Year after year, Jennifer Aniston receives among the most death threats of any celebrity. What has Jennifer Aniston ever publicly done that could possibly upset anyone? So, I suppose that if someone as noncontroversial as Jennifer Aniston is among the most hated celebrities, I, as a guy simply striving to help others in a similar situation to mine as one with a disability, shouldn’t be exempt from unexplainable hate from strangers, as well – after all, there’s no rationale to the brutality of the public, strangers merely inappropriately projecting their angst upon us. If you have a large enough audience, regardless of who you are or what you do, the brutality of the public emerges.
Nevertheless, when it comes to enduring the brutality of the public, I have a tool on my side – and you may, too – that most others in the public eye don’t have: Disability experience. See, if you’ve lived with disability for many years or a lifetime like I have, you likely know how brutal the public can be. From time to time, strangers will make assumptions about us based solely on our disabilities, projecting stereotypes and stigmas upon us that are completely irrational. It can be offensive and distressing. Yet, when it occurs, if we’re rational and self-accepting, we’re not offended by someone treating us arbitrarily different based on disability, but we instead recognize that a stranger’s ignorance toward disability is of no ultimate consequence as long as we know who we are. Therefore, there’s a fascinating overlap between disability experience and public experience, where void of rational explanation, strangers make completely inappropriate projections upon us – and it’s our job to not be offended by it, but to just recognize that it goes with the territory of public exposure.
Yet, there’s an even larger picture to all of this, life truths that apply to everyone. If we’re going to find ultimate fulfillment in life, we must be so resolute in our core values – in following our hearts of hearts, our passions of passions – that we’re simply not swayed by outside forces. Praise shouldn’t matter. Criticism shouldn’t matter. Peer acceptance, the support of our families, money, fame, a risk of failure – none of it should matter. If we are to be ourselves to the most true, sincere levels, we can’t be swayed by others – all we can be is who we are, where the brutality of the public is voided by our own unwavering integrity.
Unfortunately, as Kurt Cobain ultimately failed to realize, true singers sing solely for the sake of one’s own soul, not for the praise or criticism of an audience. For, when it comes to seeking acceptance, we should look no farther than ourselves.