Equipped and Prepared

By Mark E. Smith

When we face tragedy, trauma, or adversity, the question that many default to is, Why me?

While it’s an understandable initial response – after all, no one wants to experience life’s toughest times – there’s no way to answer that question.

Or, is there?

What I’ve witnessed time and time again in life is that the answer to Why me? is a straightforward one: Because you’re being equipped and prepared for the unforeseen to come.

At my birth, I wasn’t breathing, my body in life-threatening distress. I entered this life in a traumatic state and survived. That set into motion a life of cerebral palsy, which brought its own challenges. However, no one could have fathomed just what I was being equipped and prepared for.

See, some four decades later, I once again wasn’t breathing, once again fighting for my life. An intubation tube from which I was breathing during a surgery kinked in my airway, cutting off my air supply. An emergency tracheotomy was performed, allowing me to breathe – a harrowing eight-minute battle to save my life, I was later told.

I awoke in a different world – on a ventilator, unable to speak, my body far beyond my control, all in distress, just hanging on for life.

Over the following weeks, it took all I had to survive. Yet, there was an intrinsic familiarity to it all. There was a strength that I can now look back upon and contextualize. My body was in a place it had been before. I was long ago equipped and prepared to handle this.

Fortunately, most haven’t battled for life twice in such an uncanny way. But, we can all look back on any number of circumstances in our lives and connect the dots as to how they equipped and prepared us for future vying and victory. Maybe it was a job loss where it seemed like your world collapsed in an instant, but you went on to a better job, with a new understanding that you could come back from a seeming career setback even stronger. Perhaps it was an excruciatingly painful breakup from a relationship, from which you felt your heart would never recover, but you grew to understand what you truly wanted in a relationship and went on to find the love of your life. The list goes on. However, it all ties into the perspective that nothing happens to us, but for us. No, we usually don’t see the reasoning behind it in the midst of crisis, but it eventually reveals itself.

What have you struggled with or are struggling with? Could it be that you’re being equipped and prepared to be great when it matters most, that there is a reason behind it?

Indeed, there is. Let us shift from asking Why me? in times of adversity and take comfort in knowing that we are being equipped and prepared for whatever life has in store. Let us recognize that our seemingly weakest moments actually fortify us in ways that aren’t otherwise possible – we are stronger because of it. We are equipped and prepared!

Avoiding Boulders

By Mark E. Smith

Many, many years ago, I taught a semester-long course called “The College Success Workshop.” Its purpose was to teach freshman the skills needed to better succeed in college. I covered subjects ranging from test-taking skills to study habits to healthy living. My favorite section, though, was on the importance of positive focus.

I told my students of a research study done in the 1980s on a highway in the Nevada desert. There was nothing but flatlands along the 30-mile stretch of highway – except for a single mound with a boulder approximately at the halfway point. At least once per week, a car crashed into the boulder. The boulder was legendary to the state police, many referring to it as “The Magnet.”

Researchers stumbled upon this as a case study and also wondered how it was that so many people hit such an avoidable object in the middle of the desert?

They interviewed many who’d collided with the boulder and found a striking similarity among them. When asked what was the last thought they remembered before leaving the road and hitting the boulder, they all answered to the effect of, “Don’t hit that boulder!”

Maybe you can relate with those drivers, having thought, “Don’t spill this coffee,” only to spill your coffee! The fact is, what we focus on is most often what we experience, both in the positive and the negative. The science behind it is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. In simple terms, we have the power to create our state of mind based on what we focus on, and that creates actual experiences.

For this reason, the importance of focusing on the positives in our lives can’t be overstated. Our mindsets dictate both outcomes and our quality of life.

I remember going through a rough period as a teen where I was focused on all that was wrong with me. This isn’t unheard of with teens, as it’s a difficult time for many. However, I do think that disability can compound such feelings, and it did for me. I focused on how my cerebral palsy made me feel so removed from my peers, how unattractive I was, what little I brought to the world. It was a bleak time, where I couldn’t even envision a future for myself. What’s a 14-year-old with severe cerebral palsy ever going to become?

Although I had made tremendous strides in life, it wasn’t until I was 16 that I realized that I was focusing on the wrong areas. I didn’t need to focus on how weak my body was, but how strong my mind was. I didn’t need to focus on my spasticity, but my charm. I didn’t need to focus on who I wasn’t, but who I was. I was a remarkable person in my own right, as we all are, and when I focused on that, not only did my life change, but the world around me did, as well.

This principle applies to all of our lives. That is, our lives evolve based on what we focus on. If we see the world as a negative place, it is, just as if we see the world as a positive place, it is. Our experience is ultimately built by our own mindset.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t address the tough stuff in life, as of course we should in responsible ways. I can’t just ignore the difficult realities of my disability, as there’s no skirting them. Nevertheless, only focusing on the negative literally makes us and all around us negative. That’s a difficult way to live.

All of us have blessings and curses in our lives. Yet, we also have the ability to choose how to frame our lives. Are we focused on the blessings or the curses? The choice is ours, but the outcome is unquestionable. If we focus on the blessings, we live a blessed life. If we focus on the curses, we live a cursed life.

I say, let’s focus on the positives in our lives – and avoid those boulders!

From the Maternal to the Eternal

By Mark E. Smith

It’s a simple truth: When it comes to empathy, compassion, devotion, and unconditional love, we men have a lot to learn from the women in our lives.

I love my male counterparts, but the women in my life have taught me more as a man than… well… any man has ever taught me. In fact, women like my wife, daughters, and sister have made me the man who I am. And, I know that holds true for many of my gender.

We can talk about the most remarkable aspects of humanity – empathy, compassion, devotion, and unconditional love – but to truly know them, we must witness them, experience them. Of course men can possess these heartfelt traits. However, I’ve never seen them more exemplified than through a mother to her children, a daughter toward her parents. It’s so natural, so intrinsic, effortless, selfless. I watch my wife comfort our youngest daughter in the toughest childhood moments. I watch her listen without judgment to our oldest daughter as she explores young adulthood. And, I watch as my wife gives me her all in too many ways to ever list. She embodies an emotional intelligence that’s awe-inspiring.

Why do men seem to be less expressive – dare I say, less intuitive? – in this area? Is it cultural or social norms? Is it the way the genders are hardwired?

I hate to break it to my fellow men, but neuroscience has the answers. Empathy, for example, functions very differently between women and men. Empathy occurs in a part of the brain called the insula. When we sense another’s emotions, the insula mimics those emotions and allows us to relate to them as if our own. That’s empathy.

What’s fascinating is that neuroscience proves that while women stay in a state of empathy, men typically quickly leave it and the brain shifts to problem solving. Problem solving is a great trait, but not very nurturing or present in the moment. This is where we see the remarkable capacities that women possess.

Despite the science, we, as men, do have the ability to learn and grow, and the women in my life continue teaching me that such vital emotional intelligence doesn’t have to be gender-specific, but that they can be human-specific.

On Mother’s Day, when I take to heart the women in my life, I realize that their love isn’t just maternal, but eternal.

Trusting the Pathway

path

By Mark E. Smith

In college, I took a course, The Bible as Literature. While I understand that such a course’s secular treatment of a sacred text may not sit well with all, it did make the Bible accessible to many students unfamiliar with the writings. For me, as one who was raised Catholic, the class converted what I’d only known as a child as a daunting, abstract text and allowed me to see relevance in its words to my own life.

Recently, Romans 5 came up in conversation, and when I looked it up, eying it from both spiritual and secular perspectives, I was touched by a verse that I recognized of a profound truth:

…We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:2-4)

Think about that. Suffering leads to perseverance, which builds character, which leads to hope. In facing life’s trials and tribulations, I’ve realized this is the exact path that many of us have followed during extreme adversity. Suffering brings out our perseverance, which builds our character and results in hope.

What is most powerful about recognizing this intrinsic process is that it adds tremendous comfort in the face of adversity. I don’t know why this is happening, but I know where it’s leading me.

I spoke with my father-in-law, who’s a minister, and he made a relatable comment that boils down to, we may not like the process at times, but the reason behind it and the outcome are worth it.

At points in our lives, we’re going to question adversity and suffering. Having an answer as to its purpose can serve as a tremendous coping mechanism. Or, maybe when we reach that insight, it’s simply perseverance, character, and hope kicking in – right on queue.

Where the Intertwined Branches Meet

By Mark E. Smith

I was asked how my wife and I maintain a healthy marriage in times of adversity? After all, that’s when most couples struggle, albeit based on health issues, financial crisis, pressures of parenting, or countless other life circumstances. In fact, it’s a topic I’ve pondered and my wife and I have discussed, especially based on recent health issues in our family. So, what have we learned about trotting through the tough stuff in life as a couple?

We’ve identified four key components to successfully facing life’s adversity as a couple that serve us well. I realize there’s no science to this, as each couple and their personalities differ. However, there’s merit to what we’ve learned, sound factors based on our experience.

Firstly, an advantage to any relationship is in knowing whether the individuals can, in fact, address adversity in healthy ways. The fact is, some people can’t. I live and work in disability culture, and I’ve heard many stories of accident and illness, where when adversity struck, the healthy partner left. We don’t like to believe that happens, but it does. It’s not always predictable, but if we know that our partner can handle adversity, it’s a tremendous reassurance. My wife and I both knew adversity as individuals before we met, so there was a confidence that our vows of “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, and in sickness and in health.” If you’re in a long-term relationship, you’re going to experience all of these, and each partner must be committed to moving through them, not caving when times get tough.

Secondly, it’s imperative to tackle the issue, not each other. Too many couples lash out at each other during adversity rather than focusing on the issue. If you can address the problem as a team – pointing at it, not each other – you’ll simultaneously solve the issue and strengthen your relationship. I call it the “high-five effect.” Celebrating victory as a couple is tremendously empowering to a relationship.

Thirdly, respect each other’s individual experience amidst adversity, as they may not be the same. This is an invaluable principle that my wife and I learned the hard way. I was recovering from a health issue and she was placed in the role of caregiver. One morning both of our emotions around the situation came to a head. I expressed mine, she expressed hers, and soon we were in a war of words for whose perspective was right? The fact was, we were both right in our feelings, as our experiences within the circumstance were different based on our roles. We learned to respect what each other was going through based on our individual experiences, not assume that they were the same or that there was only one perspective.

Lastly, it’s vital to not neglect the core normality of the relationship regardless of the adversity. For us, this means that humor, affection, romance, and shared joys remain during even the toughest of times. Ideally this is an intuitive and natural part of the relationship, regardless of circumstance; but, sometimes we should stop and think, “What does my partner need at this moment?”

My wife and I are just a married couple trying to make it through the trials and tribulations of life like everyone else. We’ve faced a bit more adversity than some, and a bit less than others. Yet, despite our lessons learned, there’s still a simple truth to all lasting relationships: Love conquers all.

Welcome to the Here and Now

By Mark E. Smith

As part of the disability community, I’ve long known those with progressive and terminal conditions. While not everyone handles such life paths the same, I’ve been struck by those who express and experience absolute joy while living with their conditions. I’ve thought a lot – and talked with some – about how any of us can experience true joy in the face of exceptional adversity? What I’ve learned, and subsequently practice, is an approach to life that I’ve seen bring the greatest fulfillment, one that we all can live by.

Progressive and terminal conditions can be tough for many because one can get caught up in dwelling on the past while fearing the future. There’s not much room in there for joy in the present when the past and future weigh on us so heavily. What’s more, this very human emotional dynamic isn’t exclusive to a progressive or terminal condition. Many of us can find ourselves dwelling on the past while worrying about the future based on countless life circumstances. So, how do we find joy amidst such daunting circumstances?

The key is found in living emotionally present during any given moment. It sounds like psychological or philosophical babble. But, truly, the past and future aren’t real in the present. What’s happened is past, and what may happen is the future. Yet, neither is occurring now. The only state that we’re truly in and can work with is the present. Therefore, if we want to experience joy regardless of the circumstances that have or may affect us, we simply need to be emotionally present, in the here and now.

For me, this approach to life has allowed me to not only release the past and worry far less about the future, but most importantly, it’s allowed me to savor more moments in my life, being totally emotionally present. This isn’t to say I never think about the past or consider the future. However, there’s a difference between dwelling on the past versus remembering it, just as there’s a difference between worrying about the future versus setting goals or recognizing objectives. The profound advantage to being emotionally present in any circumstance is that we can fully experience the power of a moment without interference. We can purely revel in what is – for that’s truly all there is.

I recall being in a hospital ICU after a major surgery. A lot went wrong, was going wrong, and my future was uncertain. I was with my wife and oldest daughter, and in that moment, I genuinely didn’t have a care in the world. I was the luckiest guy alive because I was with the two loves of my life. What happened or may happen didn’t matter. I was with my wife and daughter, and that was reality, that was the beauty of life surrounding me in the moment.

I apply this same principle to my everyday life. No matter what I’m doing, I strive to be emotionally present, where multi-tasking of emotions rarely exist. Whether I’m talking to my daughter or a stranger, and everyone in-between, I immerse myself in that connection. If I’m at work, I entirely focus on the task at hand. And, as far as going to bed or waking up upset… well… it doesn’t happen, as I’m just thrilled to be with my soul mate, in the present. No, I’m not perfect at any of this – we all have emotions that catch us off guard – but I’m pretty good at being present because I know how it’s amplified the quality of my life and my connections with those around me.

The benefits of being emotionally present toward joy are easy to see. However, it also proves beneficial during very difficult situations. So often during difficult times or decisions our thinking is skewed by past emotions coming up or fear of the future. Yet, when we can be emotionally present and focus solely on the here and now, we can make far more rational decisions. Again, we should focus less on what was and what may be, and more on what is.

None of our lives are perfect. Some of our lives can, in fact, read as nightmares. Yet, if we live with emotional presence, where we keep our pasts and futures in check, choosing to be emotionally present, moment by moment, it’s astounding how many of the moments in our lives reveal themselves as breathtakingly beautiful.

Sailing in all Seas

By Mark E. Smith

I heard a doctor say, “Wellness is the temporary state when we’re in-between illnesses.”

On the surface, it sounds cynical. However, there’s a truth to it, both in medicine and in life.

No matter who you are, life is a constant ebb and flow of circumstances. We can be just as assured of good times as we can be of bad times. Most often, life is a confusing mixture of both. Just as we get ahead, we experience a setback. Just as we’re facing defeat, we’re uplifted. And, much of it seems inexplicable in reason and timing.

What can frustrate us even more is the never-ending chain of down times, when it appears that no matter how hard we try to ensure all is well, something always goes wrong. The fact is, we can never totally isolate ourselves from life’s tougher times. Money can help us better absorb difficulties, but not so much prevent them. In this way, peaks and valleys aren’t unique to any one of us, but intrinsic to life itself.

I’ve had a lot of extreme highs and extreme lows in my life. As one who’s tried to avoid the lows by taking every possible precaution in cases – with little success – I’ve found myself frustrated with the fact that, no matter what, life drags us through tough stuff from time to time. Yet, I’ve found a way to soften the blows a bit.

I had a fantastic talk with a dear family friend over dinner in Boston a while back. We got into a theological discussion about why does God allow bad things happen to good people? (I know that sounds cliché, but stick with me.) My friend replied, “So, are we to only value God when he gives us what we want?”

Her question also struck me me in a secular way: Are we to only value our life when it goes how we wish?

For me, finding gratitude for life itself – regardless of the circumstances – has been the ultimate key to moving through some very tough times. I’m not perfect at it, but when I stop separating the so-called good and bad, and focus on gratitude for life in its entirety, it’s hard to stay in a funk or get too upset. Similarly, by not hyper-emphasizing good times, it lessens the chances of feeling wronged when the tide changes – as it always does.

What I’ve learned is that life is far more fulfilling when we don’t place too much weight on the good versus the bad, but on finding gratitude for all of life. On our journeys, we’re going to experience calm seas and wicked storms. Let us not get hung up on either, but relish the journey, itself.