How to Win the Blame Game

By Mark E. Smith

Mathematics has it right: a problem dictates a solution. As emotional humans, unfortunately, we’re often not so constructive: a problem often fosters blame rather than a solution.

Indeed, we’re typically not mathematicians when it comes to solving everyday problems. However, it comes at a high cost, where seeking to place blame not only doesn’t solve a problem, but often makes a situation far worse.

Most of us in a relationship can recall situations where there was a problem at hand, and rather than addressing finding a solution as a couple, we’ve blamed each other. Those arguments didn’t turn out well, did they? They likely only made situations far worse.

My wife and I once argued over the proper place for a TV antenna to work most effectively. It was a simple problem and solution – that is, move the antenna around until the picture is clear and place it there. We both had our opinions on where it should be located, and when it didn’t work, we blamed each other. The more we moved it, the more we argued, to where we were so focused on blaming each other that we became oblivious to solving the problem.

My wife and I blaming each other over a TV antenna not working is a true but ridiculous story. However, we’ve all heard of very serious stories where couples get divorced over, say, finances, where rather than come together for a solution, they blame each other to the very end. Blame can truly lead to tragic outcomes, making a logical solution seemingly impossible.

We see the blame-game dynamic occur a lot in government. There’s no wonder as to why so few problems get solved on Capitol Hill – everyone blames everyone else rather than finding solutions. Locally, where I live, there’s a problem with potholes. The street department blames increased traffic and weather. The citizens blame the street department for not caring. I even heard someone blame automakers for poorly designing cars that can’t handle potholes. Yet, I haven’t heard anyone say, Hey, how about we just focus on fixing the potholes!

Few realize the toll that the blame game takes on commerce, as well. Have you ever had an issue with a product or service, and rather than solving the issue, everyone blames everyone and the situation escalates? Countless hours are spent arguing round and round – wasting time and money – and no one truly seeks a solution. It’s a disturbing dynamic I’ve long tried to earnestly change via my formal business roles, with mediocre success – people are people, after all. What I try to emphasize to my customers, dealers, and colleagues is that we need to solve the problem, that throwing blame around like a proverbial hot potato defeats everyone’s interest. We’ll determine the true causation of the problem in step two, but step one is finding an immediate solution.

On a personal level, once a problem is solved, some can hold on to animosity. I’ve found this to be primarily caused by people investing too heavily in blame to begin with. If a problem is solved, let’s move on, and holding on to animosity only makes us our own victim. Holding on to bitterness over a problem long solved is a tough way to go through life. Again, the goal is to solve a problem, not seek and hold on to blame.

If we want the most successful outcomes when issues arise in life, we have to seek solutions and avoid blame. Water puts out fires; gasoline makes them worse. Let us jump right to solutions, where we all simply do right by each other in the end. That makes for the ultimate solution, no matter the problem.

Taking Control of Control

By Mark E. Smith

We all need a sense of control in our lives to feel… well… in control. In fact, a sense of control is vital to our contentment.

However, there’s a paradox to control in our lives, a bell curve. While feeling a sense of control is fundamental to contentment in our lives, if we take it too far, we crest a bell curve and it begins to harm us. Specifically, when we try to control that which we inherently can’t control – from worrying about the weather to what a health issue may bring – we devolve from contentment into stress, anxiety, and fear. Interestingly, trying to control that which we can’t control makes us even more powerless because it escalates our emotions to a state that can become irrational – that is, out of control.

I’m very much a control-oriented person, and I’ve seen both sides of the paradoxical bell curve. On the one hand, assuming control in my life – including aspects surrounding my disability – has allowed me to accomplish much that others said was impossible, and that’s tremendously empowering. On the other hand, I’ve tried to control the outcome of events and circumstances that I couldn’t possibly control – from health issues to whether my wheelchair would be damaged on a cross-country flight – and it tied me up with stress, anxiety, and fear.

Personal responsibility and understanding go a long way toward managing the paradoxical bell curve of control. Again, to feel a sense of contentment, we must assume as much control over our lives as possible. We shouldn’t leave all to chance; rather, we should empower ourselves to take control of our lives and its directions where we can. If we don’t take the wheel of our lives, we’ll never get on course.

However, we must also know where to draw the line when it comes to irrationally trying to control that which we can’t. For example, most of us would fear a surgery. Yet, we have no control over what happens when we’re on the operating table, so rather than trying to predict and control the circumstance – which is impossible to do and causes stress, anxiety, and fear – we could go into it with a sense of peace, understanding that the best position we can take is, I’ll see where I am when I wake up, and go from there.

Having intrinsic trust in our lives, in fact, is how we master the paradoxical bell curve of control. We must recognize that we are able to take needed control in many aspects of our lives. Likewise, we must be at peace with that which we can’t control, but trust that no matter the outcome, we can handle it.

Although I’ve long traveled alone, I used to experience tremendous stress and anxiety leading up to trips, thinking of all that could go wrong. It was a way of trying to control that which I couldn’t control. I had no way of preventing a damaged wheelchair on a flight or ending up with a less-than-accessible hotel room – I could merely wait to see what transpired – but I worried about it profusely. I eventually realized two fundamental aspects that all but eliminated my stress and anxiety, making travel far more pleasant: Firstly, I accepted that I had no control over certain aspects, so there was no point in worrying about them. Secondly, I learned to trust that if something did go wrong, I could handle it. This perspective, which I’ve applied to many other aspects of life, has allowed me to approach possibly-disconcerting circumstances with far less stress and anxiety. I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I’ll cross those bridges if they arise. Until then, I’m not worried about it.

When we draw a line in our lives down the center of the paradoxical bell curve of control, it puts us in more control than ever. We know what to control and what we can’t control, empowering ourselves while reducing stress. And, that’s the formula to have ultimate control in our lives.

Robbing Banks

By Mark E. Smith

In the San Francisco Bay Area during the mid-1980s, it wasn’t hard to get harassed by the cops if you were a punk teen. Smoking in public, hanging out in front of a convenience store, being on the streets too late, having a house party, and so on would all but guarantee the appearance of cops. I witnessed many such scenes. Among my peers, there was teenage social credibility to it all. If you wanted to be the cool 11th-grader on Monday morning in homeroom, a run in with the cops on the previous Saturday night did the job.

For me, it was hard to be that cool kid Monday mornings. The cops simply didn’t hassle a kid using a wheelchair like me. I was once hanging out with a bunch of smoking, punk friends outside of an ice cream shop, and a cop threatened to haul everyone away, then turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, I don’t take people in wheelchairs to jail.”

I was instantly stung by his remarks. I wanted to be one of the guys, as teens do, but the cop clearly pointed out that I wasn’t, that I was different. In my mind, I was just as much a punk as my punk friends, right down to my black leather jacket. How dare the cop discount my punkness due to my disability. Worse yet, how dare he give me a pass in front of the punk peers I was part of – but suddenly differentiated from because of the cop’s attitude toward my disability.

My immediate emotions aside, I wondered if the cop spoke a universal truth, that people who use wheelchairs aren’t taken to jail? If it was a fact, should I skip college and take up robbing banks?

All of this – the cop’s condescending attitude and the potential of never going to jail – made me more mischievous than ever. One night, as my buddy and I prepared to cruise the avenue in his car, I got the brilliant idea to put a pillowcase over my head in the passenger seat and pretend like I was dead.

The avenue was heavily lit, so everyone saw in everyone’s car. When my buddy stopped at traffic lights, I relaxed my body, pillowcase over my head, and flopped against the dash like a dead body. It seemed like harmless fun and got lots of attention – until the cops pulled us over.

It turned out that I played such a convincing dead body with a pillowcase over my head that multiple people took our license plate number and description, and called the cops.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the cop asked, holding my passenger side door open, the scene illuminated by the cop car’s colored lights.

“Nothing,” I said, the pillowcase still on my head.

He yanked the pillowcase off of me, my grin appearing.

“This isn’t funny,” he said. “You’ve scared a lot of people.”

“It’s a joke,” I replied with no remorse.

He looked in the back seat and saw my manual wheelchair, then looked back at me.

“Let’s get your wheelchair out and get you to Juvenile Hall,” he said. “I bet your parents won’t find that funny.”

Obviously, not arresting people who used wheelchairs wasn’t a universal code among cops. I was in deep trouble, fast, and my disability wasn’t getting me out of it. So, I did what any punk teen would do: I apologized profusely and explained that I never intended to scare anyone, that it was a dumb prank gone wrong, that I’d never do it again.

Fortunately, the cop let me off of the hook – but kept my mom’s pillowcase.

At 16, I learned a lot that night. I learned that what I thought was funny scared a lot of people and that wasn’t right. I learned that there’s nothing cool about getting in trouble with the cops. And, I learned not to rob banks because they do put guys like me, who use wheelchairs, in jail.

Popping Our Balloons

By Mark E. Smith

What is it? You know, what’s been on your mind that you’d love to safely express to your partner, but can’t bring yourself to do so?

All of us are in such a situation at some point, if not perpetually, an emotion that’s within us, but we can’t bring ourselves to speak the words to our partner. Sometimes it’s a simple thought; sometimes it’s one that could affect the whole relationship, maybe improving it or maybe ending it. In any case, we don’t always say what we feel, and it can be suffocating, can’t it?

All of this made me wonder, can we have an honest relationship if we’re… well… not honest in sharing our true emotions?

Now, let’s clarify that not everything should be said in a relationship, namely insignificant thoughts that simply harm. We’re not always going to think our partner is, say, dressed the best, but there’s no need to express such rude opinions toward someone we love. Rather, I’m referring to serious issues that detract from our contentment in a relationship because we can’t bring ourselves to say what we really feel, need, want, or desire.

My interest was piqued in this subject because friends have confided in me what they truly wish in their relationships, and when I’ve asked them if they’ve shared the sentiments with their partners, the answer is always, no. I, too, have found myself at times squelching genuine emotions and wondered, Why can’t I bring myself to say what I feel within the safety of my marriage?

At the root of this is vulnerability. Whenever an issue is deeply important to us, and we don’t know how our partner will react, it’s scary. Yet, holding back expressing our feelings, needs, wants, and desires can cause us to behave differently, not our true self, especially if silencing ourselves leads to resentment and bitterness. Festering feelings can make us miserable and destroy a relationship, so why take those risks?

The surest solution I’ve learned is to let it all out, saying how we feel. No, it’s not a comfortable conversation to embark on, and we never know how our partner will react. However, being courageous in expressing ourselves is the ultimate liberator, a release of tension, figuratively popping our balloon before we burst. Often our partner reacts far more favorably to our expressed feelings than we ever imagined, improving our relationship. On the other hand, if our partner reacts adversely, at least we know where everyone stands and informed decisions can be made moving forward. Either way, we’re honest in the process and that goes a long way toward contentment in a relationship.

Interestingly, fear of sharing our emotions isn’t always just about the tough stuff. There can be vulnerability in sharing positive, heartfelt emotions. If you’ve been in love, you may recall how scary it was to say, I love you, for the first time. Opening our hearts to our partners can feel tricky, no matter the origin of the emotions.

Emotions are meant to be expressed. Holding them in is a balloon waiting to burst. It’s up to us to pop our balloons in healthy ways, with purpose. If we’re not expressing emotions to our partners, we’re not being true to ourselves and honest in our relationship. We deserve to be ourselves in entirety. Likewise, our partners deserve to know us in our entirety. If you want to ultimately have the most fulfilling, loving relationship, there’s no secret to it: Just express your truest self.

One Fine Burger

By Mark E. Smith

It’s a simple, quiet place. The confusion and struggle of a younger man are long gone. It’s reminiscent of when I look out through the pane windows of our farmhouse on a wintry Sunday morning. There’s something gentle and still about it all – winter and life.

It’s another Friday night and my wife and I are the early crowd at a local restaurant. It’s the kind of restaurant where some go for special occasions; others are regulars, older folks who have dinner there several nights per week. We’re neither. It’s close to home, and despite its higher-end menu, I prefer to sit at the vintage mahogany bar and get a basket of bread, one fine burger, and just be, with my wife. There’s no complexity to it. It’s all comforting – my wife, the food, the atmosphere.

The owner-chef and I have an understanding. We’re acquainted just enough to be on a personal basis. He’ll sit with us and chat. We’ve been open to the degree that we both have shared that we come from families on the other side of the tracks, as he’s politely put it. When you come from that type of family and get to a point in adulthood where you’re no longer running, no longer hiding, no longer out to prove yourself, and you don’t need to worry about being able to pay the utility bill each month, life becomes easy, almost effortless – at least emotionally. So, what’s the key to moving beyond it all, where you’re no longer running, hiding, or proving, but just being, finally at ease?

I’ve come to understand that there are two sides to living with a difficult past: sometimes we hold on to the past and sometimes it holds on to us. Some of us, with struggle, get to a point where we can, for the most part, let go of our pasts. For me, time has equaled distance in that process. The more that time passed, the less my past affected me. Sometimes we can move beyond all in a literal sense by simply moving our lives forward. Education leads to career, which leads to financial security, just as finding love leads to understanding love, and at some point we transcend from what we knew into what we know, all for the better. That’s the key to the best of my understanding of how to change one’s life and leave the past in the past – we realize that we can work to move beyond what we’ve known, into a life of different possibilities, potentials, and outcomes. It’s not easy, but the time-distance equation makes it possible.

On the other hand, when our past has a hold of us, it’s a harrowing plight, as well. We live in a culture that propagates the belief that anyone can “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” It’s not just physically impossible – try pulling on your shoes to lift yourself off of the ground! – but it’s also emotionally impossible when one’s past has its grip. We can’t expect anyone to just get over it and move forward. Trauma is far more complex to heal from.

We know that the healing process is subjective. Of course, the severity of the trauma plays a role, as does one’s psychological and physical health. Where the subject gets tricky is when, say, siblings grow up in the same dysfunctional family and one is able to move beyond the trauma while another continues in its grip. Similarly, in my world, I often see individuals of the same severe injury or illness, but some cope in positive ways while others struggle in a negative space. Therefore, it’s difficult to say who escapes the grip of trauma.

Regardless, it’s vital to have empathy and utmost respect for both plights. After all, both plights involve just as much struggle. We can’t look at someone who’s moved beyond his or her past and say, You’re lucky, because we know the phenomenal amount of work it took. Similarly, we can’t look at someone who’s struggling in the grips of his or her past and say, You’re just not trying hard enough, because we know that’s not how the process works. Again, one only knows what one knows until one knows differently – and there’s no single or direct or surefire route to getting to that point. If you swam across a channel of water, knowing how tough it was to cross, you can’t look at those still in the middle, struggling, with anything but empathy and respect.

My wife and I try to remember if I ordered my burger medium-rare or medium-well? I don’t recall. I simply know that, regardless of how they’re cooked, such burgers taste better than ever these days.

Lou Gehrig’s Disease

By Mark E. Smith

While writing a medical article about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), I was intrigued by the story of Lou Gehrig. Although “Lou Gehrig’s disease” is a synonym for ALS, little is discussed in literature in a linear form about how the most famous person with ALS actually dealt with the condition. In extracting parts of Gehrig’s experience from many sources, bit by bit, I saw an amazing story unfold, one with a profound lesson for many of us.

In 1923, Lou Gehrig joined the New York Yankees, soon taking his spot as first baseman. By the 1930s, he set an all-time record, playing in 2,130 consecutive games, a record unbroken by another player until 1995. In the 1930s, Gehrig, alongside longtime teammate, Babe Ruth, became a homerun champion, as well. However, in 1938 everything changed for the baseball legend.

In the 1938 season, Gehrig had his first seasonal slump. Based on the 1937 season, he was still going strong, even in his mid-30s, but his performance was suddenly amiss. What’s more, Gehrig felt it was more than just an unlucky season. He struggled not only on the field, but with tasks as simple as tying his shoes.

By April of 1939, during spring training, even the press became concerned. Sports journalist, James Kahn, wrote:

I think there is something wrong with [Gehrig]. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing. I have seen ballplayers ‘go’ overnight, as Gehrig seems to have done. But they were simply washed up as ballplayers. It’s something deeper than that in this case, though. I have watched him very closely and this is what I have seen: I have seen him time a ball perfectly, swing on it as hard as he can, meet it squarely—and drive a soft, looping fly over the infield. In other words, for some reason that I do not know, his old power isn’t there… He is meeting the ball, time after time, and it isn’t going anywhere.

On May 2, 1939, Gehrig ended his consecutive-games record by pulling himself from the lineup. Six weeks later, on June 13, he checked into the Mayo Clinic, where he was diagnosed in the following days with ALS, a degenerative muscle disease, fatal within two to five years. He was 36.

Although contrary to the actual diagnosis given, Gehrig’s initial reaction was expressed in a letter to his wife: “There is a 50–50 chance of keeping me as I am. I may need a cane in 10 or 15 years. Playing is out of the question.”

On July 4, 1939, with the news of Gehrig’s illness filling newspapers, he returned to Yankee Stadium to retire, giving his “luckiest man alive” speech. There’s little record of the speech, but the following pieced-together excerpt shows Gehrig’s disposition:

For the past two weeks you’ve been reading about a bad break. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…. When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today? …I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

One might think that upon retirement from baseball, with such a grim health prognosis, Gehrig would have settled into a quiet life. However, in keeping with his show-up-and-play nature, he took a civics job as a New York Parole Commissioner in January, 1940, maintaining a very low profile as he worked with prison inmates, where he believed in rehabilitation.

By 1941, while Gehrig worked as a Parole Commissioner, his condition dramatically declined. His wife, Eleanor, was his constant companion, helping him perform his duties. In May of 1941, Gehrig resigned his position due to ever-deteriorating health.

On June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig died of ALS at 10:10 p.m., at his home in the Bronx.

While many remember Gehrig for his Hall of Fame baseball accomplishments, his ultimate legacy may be a single quote that he left us with that applies so well to all facing such harrowing adversity: “Don’t think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition at present. …I intend to hold on as long as possible and then if the inevitable comes, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That’s all we can do.”

Complaining About Complaining

By Mark E. Smith

Complaining is an interesting subject to address because it’s sort of complaining about… well… complaining. However, before you deem this writing as the ultimate hypocrisy, keep reading!

Indeed, we live in a culture of complainers. Everyone seems to complain about everything. For example, is there any type of weather that people like? I know a television weatherman and he once told me it’s a completely thankless job because no matter the weather, his email and voicemail are filled with complaints. We see this in our own lives, too – can’t people just accept that the weather is what it is, rather than complaining about it, that which no one can control?

Of course, people incessantly complain about everything from their jobs to the lives of celebrities. If complaining wasn’t so toxic, it would be amusing to witness at times. However, that’s precisely what many don’t understand – complaining takes a toll on our lives. So, why do we complain so much and what’s its true impact on us?

By definition, we complain to “express dissatisfaction.” Yet, there’s a legitimacy scale to it. We all may rightfully complain when we receive poor service by an establishment. On the other hand, complaining about, say, the weather is a futile expression that truly has no point. You can’t change the weather, so there’s no reason to complain about it.

Interestingly, research shows that chronic complainers are individuals who feel powerless in their overall lives. You might have previously thought that chronic complainers were egomaniacs or know-it-all critics; but, in fact, the opposite is true. Chronic complainers typically use complaining as a way to mask feeling inadequate. For example, people who are envious of others most often use complaining about them as a coping device – albeit, a self-destructive one. The school board members are idiots. I could do a much better job….

The reality of complainers feeling a deep sense of powerlessness makes sense because those who feel a sense of control in life strive to resolve issues rather than simply complain about them. Those who do, do. Those who don’t, complain.

Complaining can also serve as a way to shun responsibility. I know someone who’s complained about his job for 15 years, constantly disparaging the company and complaining about never getting promoted. Someone of action would either pick up the pace of his performance or would find another job. Complaining conveniently shifts responsibility elsewhere, pointing a finger away from ourselves.

It’s the shift away from personal accountability that makes complaining so toxic in our lives. Look what happens when we question a complainer:

If I was in charge, this would never happen!

Ok, but why aren’t you in charge?

The complainer ends up in a bind quickly because a lack of responsibility and accountability is exposed.

With that said, it’s most often pointless to confront a chronic complainer. Again, they are individuals who shun responsibility and accountability. However, we can change ourselves. Let us begin by noting how much we, ourselves, complain – you might be surprised by how often you’re engaging in it once you’re monitoring your own behavior.

Next, let us focus on less complaining and more doing – that’s a surefire way to actually resolve dissatisfaction and mobilize our lives toward the positive.

Of course, the biggest trap of complaining is that we rob ourselves of joy. Complaining is rooted in bitterness and resentment – read that, misery –whereas the surest path to happiness is gratitude.

Therefore, let us see not the negatives in life, but empower ourselves and those around us by focusing on the positives.

Maya Angelou put it best: “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”