dupont

By Mark E. Smith

At a recent dinner celebrating this year’s anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act at the DuPont Circle Hotel in Washington D.C., I sat next to an 18-year-old intern for the National Disability Institute. She was amazingly well versed on the issues currently facing our community, not to mention refreshingly mature for her age. She’s what both the disability community and world need from her generation.

However, as we spoke throughout the eve, an aspect intrigued me: not only didn’t she have a disability, but she had no connection to disability. As a freshman political science major from New Hampshire, this internship popped up, she applied, and got the two-month summer gig in D.C. Yet, how does such a happenstance situation as her internship lead to such understanding and passion toward the issues facing those of us with disabilities. I suspected there was more to her story.

As I asked about her family, it all began adding up. Her mother, a successful C.O.O. for a company you’d recognize, died of cancer three years ago. Imagine the adversity of losing your mother to cancer as you’re in high school. It’s well… unimaginable.

And, there within resided the young lady’s understanding of disability experience. No, not literally – we can’t compare dismal employment rates of those with disabilities to dying of cancer. However, what connected her to us, and me to her, was an understanding of what it’s like to live through adversity.

See, there’s a universality to adversity. It’s not person- or situation-specific. No matter the origin or circumstance, when we’ve known adversity, we innately share that empathy with all who’ve experienced it. If we recognize that there’s no form of adversity any more or less significant than another, then we relate with all of adversity. Adversity becomes part of our shared humanity.

And, so as we sat at the event that eve – she an 18-year-old college student, I a 45-year-old with cerebral palsy – of course we clicked: we’ve both been shaped by the universal nature of adversity.

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By Mark E. Smith

What’s the origin of courage? Is it a conscious decision or an innate response? And, how does it make us rise at just the right moment when needed most?

My soon-to-be 8-year-old daughter has spina bifida and autism. While I didn’t have the privilege of being in her early life – she’s legally my step-daughter – I’ve had the blessing of having her in my life in recent years, where she’s my daughter. And, while our relationship isn’t typical – autism never is – the love and understanding is, just as with my 19-year-old.

My little one has a lot going on medically between her two disabilities, but that all just makes her unique like any child. Due to spina bifida, she’s paralyzed from the tummy, down, and uses a wheelchair. Due to her autism, she has an astonishing vocabulary, but finds it difficult to use it in context and isn’t conversational. In simple terms, she makes us smile nonstop with her constant chatter – Please to meet ya, prairie dogs!, she recently exclaimed in the middle of dinner at a restaurant – but she profoundly struggles expressing what she wants or needs.

She’s also a fearless daredevil, where she doesn’t demonstrate self-protection mechanisms. However, this makes her love motion, including amusement rides. And, so when we recently had the opportunity to take her adaptive horseback riding, we knew she’d love it.

Inexplicably, my wife and I were wrong. As a team surrounded the therapy horse, and my wife tried to place our little one on the saddle, our little one was terrified. In fact, I’d never seen our daughter express fear, but as she clung to my wife, the fear was palpable. Yet, we knew if she could get past that fear, sit in the saddle and ride, she would love it. However, as I watched from the fence feet away, I knew that this had to be our little one’s decision. Yes, she was scared. No, you can’t force courage. But, could our little one find the inner-strength to ride the horse?

After many failed attempts, to the point of all of us adults about to give up, in one last try, our little one saddled up, clutching her mother. As the horse rounded the ring, the unimaginable happened. Our little one exclaimed, I am not afraid!

Was it self-reassurance? Was it a declaration to our group? Was it an affirmation of her life that we never thought she could express?

It was all of those. No, I don’t have the answers for the questions for which I began this story. However, I can tell you most profoundly, though, that all of us there that afternoon heard what few ever hear: the true, literal voice of courage.

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By Mark E. Smith

At this writing, I’ve just spent a week at a summer camp full of kids between the ages of eight and seventeen. It had all you’d expect at summer camp – swimming, fishing, boating, arts-and-crafts, horseback riding, and on and on.

However, what was different than any camp I’ve experienced was what occurred at one o’clock every afternoon. The campers – who happen to have a myriad of physical disabilities – gathered in the lodge after lunch for “Pat-on-the-Back Time.” It really should be called “Gratitude Time” because for one-half hour, kids raise their hands and express their gratitude for their peers and counselors at camp, as well as their experiences.

As you might imagine, for us adults, it was a profoundly moving experience each afternoon. To witness children with severe disabilities – many of whom having undergone countless surgeries, many using wheelchairs, all facing exceptional daily adversities – express gratitude from the heart was breathtaking. After all, such children have been through a lot, and face exceptional challenges every day; yet, their expressions of gratitude are unyielding.

Now, you may find those sentiments extraordinary, that children facing such adversities can express such unyielding gratitude toward even the smallest of deed done by another or the most typical of activity – an eight-year-old thanking her counselor for holding her hand in the swimming pool. However, as I sat and listened to their outpouring of gratitude each day, I found the children teaching me more than I ever expected.

See, their gratitude, while clearly an exception in our society, should be the rule. How many times in our careers do we hear colleagues diminishing each other instead of praising? How many times do our children have an accomplishment, and we don’t acknowledge it? How often do we go for days, months, years without complimenting our spouse? How often do we walk away from a cashier or waiter or bus driver without saying thank you? How often do we spend our time wanting instead of appreciating? How often do we dwell on negatives instead of embracing positives? The answer for most is, more often than not. It’s the society we live in – just look around – and it pulls us all down.

The fact is, there’s something really wrong when we, as adults, have to go to summer camp and learn from children how to be more heartfelt individuals of gratitude. And, yet, there’s hope in it all. If children of such adversities can express such appreciation, gratitude and love… we all can.

CHILI

By Mark E. Smith

When I was growing up, we were poor in every way. Yet, no matter my mother’s troubles – from poverty to substance abuse – she always had dinner on the table. No, it was never much. Pancakes or french toast were the norm, with chili-rice a treat, but we never went without. She had no money, but she sure could turn a can of chili and a bag of rice into several nights’ meals. Those dinners may not mean much to most, but till this day I’m grateful for what we had.

What my mother understood – and a life-long value she instilled in me – was the “power of poor.” That single life lesson of making the most out of how little you have has been an invaluable tool toward my successes in life, from addressing challenges of my disability to accomplishments in my career.

During the best of times, life is easy, and struggles are easily overcome. You’ve probably heard the idiom, Just throw money at it! to solve a problem. However, life is rarely that easy. For most of us, we only have what we have – and we either figure out ways to make the most of it.

Yes, there’s enormous power in making the most of it, for that’s all we have. When we live with adversity, it isn’t about what we have, but how creative, innovative and indomitable our spirit is. I may have cerebral palsy, but be darn clear that I’m making the most of it, for that’s all there is. The adversities in my life have inspired me to reach deep and find capacities that I wouldn’t need to strive for if I had limbs that functioned as they should. This reality applies to so many aspects of life. The power of poor brings out our best.

I remember years ago sitting in a product development meeting, and a manager started listing all of the people and money we’d need to put into the project. The colleague next to me whispered in my ear, “No, we need three days and a white board.” …Mr. Money Bags soon left the company. Mr. White Board is on a host of industry leading patents.

In our lives, if we wait for the right amount of money or the right conditions to pursue a goal, it’s likely to never come to fruition, and if it’s all handed to us, it likely won’t bring out the best. Yes, sometimes utilizing the power of poor is a necessity – I suspect that my mother would have relished a ham if she could afford one. However, harnessing the power of poor doesn’t have to stem from literal poverty. Sometimes, with all the resources in the world in front of us, the wise move is to reject the easy route, and simply embrace the creativity, innovation and indomitable spirit within. That’s when we turn a can of chili and a bag of rice into a phenomenal meal.

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By Mark E. Smith

Growth. It’s never linear. I know we want it to be – in our educations, relationships, careers, finances, even in our hearts.

But, it’s not the way personal growth works. More importantly, linear growth isn’t what would best serve us. Therefore, by design, growth isn’t linear.

Many aspects of growth in our lives have an idealized route that we conjure in our wishes, our goals. We want to get from A to Z as easily and quickly as we can.

I want to loose 100 lbs.
I want to settle down with the person of my dreams.
I want to become a vice president in my company.
I want to be financially stable.
I want to graduate from college.
I want to be sober.

The I wants in all of our lives go on and on. However, if they were just achieved, how would we grow, what would we learn? See, the beauty of non-linear growth is that it challenges us to embrace perseverance, to learn creative solutions, to have gratitude, to… well… grow.

Personal growth in our lives can be difficult, if not painful at times. It often doesn’t seem fair or just in the stalls, setbacks or unwanted changes of course. Yet, those, in fact, are purpose-filled times. Those are the times when we actually do grow.

In these ways, let us not look at the non-linear times in our lives as unfair or unjust – the stalls, setbacks or unwanted changes of course. Instead, let us recognize their true purpose: launching pads for growth.

forgive

By Mark E. Smith

Among the hardest endeavors of the heart we ever make is to forgive – ourselves.

Although we live with the best of intentions, with tremendous purpose, we’re bound to make mistakes. When we’re on top of our game, the mistakes are small – maybe no one notices but us. However, when we’re not so mindful of how our actions effect ourselves and others, the mistakes can be life-altering, not just for us, but for those we love. In both cases, making mistakes can weigh on us like an anchor, keeping us submerged in shame, guilt, and self-doubt. In a way, we lose trust in ourselves, just as we imagine others lose trust in us.

However, the fact is, while those who care about us and love us are typically very forgiving, the person who most often takes the longest to forgive our mistakes is oneself. Shame and guilt are powerful emotions, not easily shaken. Yet, if we are to move beyond our mistakes, we must truly forgive ourselves. It’s not just the ultimate in humility, but also accountability.

See, when we refrain from self-forgiveness, we’re holding on to our mistake, like carrying a boulder everywhere we go. But, there’s no corrective action involved, just self-punishment. In contrast, in order to forgive ourselves, we have to deeply acknowledge our mistake and grow to trust in ourselves that we won’t make that mistake again. We must allow ourselves to give into ultimate humility. We must allow ourselves to accept ultimate accountability. Those acts of honesty and courage are the cornerstones of self-forgiveness.

Author Stephan Richards writes about self-forgiveness, “When you initially forgive, it is like letting go of a hot iron. There is initial pain and the scars will show, but you can start living again.”

In this way, the ultimate mistake we can make in life is not to offer forgiveness – to ourselves.

lamark

By Mark E. Smith

Among my routine rituals is running my power wheelchair through my company’s test lab “speed trap.” I’ve perfected aspects like tire air pressure, straight-line tracking, and battery type to get my production chair just a scant faster than it’s built to run. In this process over the years, I’ve learned a bit about life, too.

The mathematical equation for speed is [Speed = Distance / Time]. Put simply, how long it takes you to cover an amount of distance is how fast you’re going. As I’ve run my straight-line speed trap hundreds of times – a computer system measuring my distance over time to calculate my speed – I’ve realized it’s a metaphor for life. Our successes and failures are dictated by the same equation, how much or little progress we make over an amount of time impacts our lives.

See, if in our lives, we cover little distance over time, we’re not progressing. Think about our relationships, careers, finances, you name it – if it’s all where it was five years ago, with no progress, our distance over time is dismal. Our lives are stalled or even destructing.

To the contrary, when we make quick, rash, hasty decisions, jumping from one life path to the next, we’re moving so fast that we’re bound to make mistakes. Racing through life impulsively, without considering consequences always results in disasters.

The key, then, is to look at our lives as [Speed = Distance / Time] and find that optimal balance, where we’re making great progress, without making poor decisions or mistakes.

What I’ve learned in the speed trap – and life – is that the right speed is  prudent in practice, but still a little faster than average.