struggle

By Mark E. Smith

I had the privilege of Ms. Wheelchair International, Yvette Pegues, visiting recently. She’s one, like many of us, who’s not only faced challenges, but continues facing them on a daily basis. As I always value, our conversations became deep and heartfelt very quickly, and she asked me a profound question: How do we express the truth of our struggles?

It’s a question many of us who struggle – whether physically, emotionally or mentally – face every day. After all, how candid should we be about our struggles, and with whom?

For me, I see it as a vital balance. We all have those in our lives who pour out every little problem to everyone they meet. There’s nothing authentic about ”woe-is-me” individuals. However, what is authentic is sharing valid, appropriate truth about our struggles. See, when we genuinely have struggles in our lives, it can feel natural to keep them to ourselves because… well… we don’t want to feel like we’re playing the woe-is-me card. Yet, not only do we benefit from being honest about our struggles, but it can also serve others. The only way others can truly know and help us is by our letting them know of our struggles, and in that process it can be remarkably comforting to others because they, too, have their struggles. For all of us, there’s power in not feeling alone – and that’s what the process of sharing the truth of our struggles does.

My wife and I were at church one Sunday, and a parishioner came up to us and said, “I know it took you more than most to get here this morning, and I want you to know I appreciate that.” His words were kind and empathetic – and remarkably true. He had to have known of disability experience, as it does take many of us hours to get ready in the morning. Nevertheless, what touched me was his emotional extension, having the heart to subtly say to me, a stranger, I know the truth of your struggles.

For those of us who know struggles in our own lives, we can be remarkably intuitive in recognizing it in others. Expressing the truth of struggles that we see in another can be an ultimate act of compassion and connection. No, we don’t need to give a drawn-out soliloquy. Rather a simple acknowledgement that simply says, I truly see you, and you’re not alone in this… can take weight off of the spirit.

Let us not just have the courage to express the truth of our own struggles, but to also have the courage to express the truth of others’ struggles, with compassion and connection. Ultimately, let expressing the truth of our struggles not be about us, but togetherness.

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By Mark E. Smith

We’ve all heard at least some version of among the most traditional wedding vows in modern western culture:

I offer you my solemn vow to be your faithful partner in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow. I promise to love you unconditionally, to support you in your goals, to honor and respect you, to laugh with you and cry with you, and to cherish you for as long as we both shall live.

And, for those among us who are married, ideally we live up to those vows, at minimum.

However, here’s an intriguing question – why don’t we practice such vows toward ourselves, as individuals? Put simply, why are we so reluctant to apply such unconditional love to ourselves? Why don’t we consistently honor ourselves in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow, loving ourselves, supporting ourselves in our goals, to honor and respect ourselves, to cherish ourselves?

I see the struggles of this every day, on a multitude of levels, from family to friends to within the community. Countless life experiences can throw us into emotional tail spins, where our identity – namely, self-worth – degrades. Why is that? After all, when someone we love faces challenges, we embrace, love and respect them. We’re remarkably unconditional when it comes to applying the practice of vows not just toward our spouses, but toward everyone around us. Yet, we’re not so generous toward ourselves, are we? We can see the beauty in others, but not ourselves. We can note the strength in others, but not ourselves. We can compliment others, but not ourselves. And, alas, we can love others unconditionally, but not ourselves.

A lot of this is conditioned into us, whether by a society that suggests it in so many ways – from airbrushed models in magazines to the notion of thinking highly of oneself is “arrogant” – or by being emotionally abused and convinced we’re not worthy. In fact, a startling statistic in the U.S. is that 60% of us have been emotionally abused to a degree that diminishes our self-esteem. When we add all this up, it’s clear that we live in a society where little priority is put on valuing “oneself” in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow. The fact is, many of us are conditioned to not feel good enough, no matter the circumstance.

And, it has to stop. We owe it not just to our spouses and others to practice vows of unconditional love and acceptance, but to ourselves. None of us are perfect, but why not commend ourselves for trying our best at what we do? We don’t invite adversity in our lives, so why not allow ourselves to recognize all is not our fault? We all have weaknesses, but why not be proud of our strengths? No one is better than another, but why not embrace our uniqueness? We love others, so why not love ourselves?

As one who’s struggled with all of the above, I can tell you that making that shift – that is, making the vow to love and honor yourself in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow – doesn’t just improve your life, but also everyone’s life around you. When we humbly understand all that we are worthy of, it makes it so much easier to smile and offer all of us to others in ways that enrich the lives of both.

I know it’s extremely difficult to heal all of the wounds that blur our vision to how amazing we each are, how the words of affirmation we hear from those who know our beauty somehow don’t appear to us in a mirror. And, yet, the true “us” is there, to love in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow. Yes, it’s in honoring such vows toward ourselves that not only elevates our lives, but it’s also the key to elevating our vows toward all others. Let us vow to love and cherish – including ourselves.


By Mark E. Smith

Through my six-year-old eyes, it seemed like a Christmas miracle. One day it was a drugstore parking lot, and the next eve it was a forest of Christmas trees, with strung lights and sawdust covering the pavement like snow. Christmas tree lots have long been common; but. based on my age and where my family was in the course of our lives that year, made that one tree lot appear as a beacon of hope to me when I first saw it through the window of my mother’s old station wagon.

It was a tough year for my mother, brother and me. No, it wasn’t tougher than any other; it was just tougher in a different way. We were used to being broke. We were used to volatility with my parents. And, we were used to not having much of anything, including at Christmas. However, that year, my father was long gone, my mother was drinking more than ever, and the only good  fortune I recall was that a church left several boxes of food on our porch at our little rental on Robinson Street.

But, my mother somehow saved $20, which wasn’t just a lot of money in 1977, but a fortune to us. She loaded my brother and me in the station wagon and drove us to that magical Christmas tree lot. It would be a great Christmas after all – food and a tree. We didn’t want for anything else because just those two aspects, we were warned by our mother weeks earlier, may not happen that year.

We picked out a wonderful tree, and as my mother reached in her jeans’ pocket to get the $20, it wasn’t there. She searched her other pockets, then her purse, then the car, then the lot. But, the $20 dollars was gone. She’d downed a half-pint of vodka before leaving the house, and as the frantic search for the $20 transpired, she became increasingly drunk – stumbling, crying. The gentleman at the Christmas tree lot remained silent as she begged him to let her take the tree. My brother and I likewise remained silent as Mom drove us home without a tree.

Christmas was never normal in our family before or after that. My mother was never sober, and while my friends’ trees were piled with presents, ours was often scarce. Still, we were lucky to get a new winter coat and school clothes most years, sometimes something we wanted, as well. Mom at least always tried in her own ways.

Still, I can never defend my mother’s life choices. Her never being sober on a single Christmas will always be inexcusable to me as a son and a father. Yet, all of those Christmases growing up with my mother taught me invaluable lessons about what Christmas should be. Christmas should be about joy, not struggle. Christmas should be about people, not presents. And, Christmas should be about peace, not volatility. I didn’t have those growing up, but I’ve been blessed in my fatherhood that I’ve been able to bring those attributes to my own family’s Christmases – and along with the love of those around me, a warm meal and decorated tree remain all I could ever wish for. Like my mother, I, too, try in my own ways.

wind-in-sails

By Mark E. Smith

If you’ve ever sailed a boat, you know it’s a combination of skill, faith and patience. Life, I’ve learned, is a lot like that, too. Many times, I’ve set a course in my life, where my abilities were only part of the equation, and having faith that it would all work out in the end – like counting on an unpredictable wind, far from landfall – was all I had to trust.

What might surprise you is that trusting in the wind of life has never failed me. As long as I’ve applied myself – like a sailor heading to sea at the helm – the winds of life have always come to carry me on my course. In the process, I’ve learned to be vigilant and have faith and patience – sometimes maintaining seemingly irrational faith and indomitable patience. But, the wind – that wind! – has always ultimately filled my sails.

Sure, I’ve found myself adrift at points in my life. As Coleridge put it in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner,”Water, water, every where / And all the boards did shrink / Water, water, every where / Nor any drop to drink.” We’ve all found ourselves adrift at points in our lives, waiting, wanting, needing a metaphorical wind to fill our sails and set our lives back on course. Maybe it was after a break-up or when we were broke or while looking for a job or, or, or…. When is my life going to get back on track?!

I’ve been there. And, what I’ve learned is that as long as we stay the helm – holding the course with faith and patience – we are never let down. The wind always comes, always fills our sails, and we always reach our destination, our purpose. We may encounter lulls and rough seas, adrift for weeks, months or years; but, eventually – hands blistered from grasping the helm – the wind comes.

For some in life, they never leave port, not wanting any risk. But, they never reach their intended destination, their potential. For others, they lose hope, giving up the ship, likewise never reaching their destination, their life’s purpose. However, for those among us who have vigilance, faith and patience to stay the course, the winds of life will take us to destinations beyond our dreams. All life asks of each of us is to take the helm and trust that the wind – although often unpredictable – will lead us through whatever journey we are meant for….

humility word in mixed vintage metal type printing blocks over grunge wood

humility word in mixed vintage metal type printing blocks over grunge wood

By Mark E. Smith

A friend told me how she knew her fiancé was originally the right guy for her. They pulled up to a grocery store in his car, and she insisted that he go in alone. He never shopped without her and found her insistence odd. Upon his wondering what was going on, she burst into tears, explaining that due to her paralysis and related bladder control issues, she’d wet her pants.

She shared with me that, in the moment, she felt so embarrassed and humiliated, and didn’t know how he’d respond? After all, they’d only been dating a short time.

He hugged her, told her it was alright, then leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes and hummed. She asked what he was doing, and he explained that he was wetting his pants, too, so they could be together in the moment. They both burst out laughing.

What my friend’s story illustrates is what we all need in our lives and relationships, regardless of disability: humility and humor. Truly, if you can live just in that space – with humility and humor – you can gracefully move through even the most awkward of life’s moments.

So often we fall into modes of pride, perfectionism and self-consciousness, and everyone is defeated by it. Perfection in life is a myth, and when we fight against that reality – clinging to false senses of Pride – we and those around us lose. The destructive emotions range from feeling shame to pushing others away.

Yet, when we’re humble and acknowledge that we all have vulnerabilities, and have the capacity to laugh at ourselves in the most trying times, that’s when we’re most receptive and endearing to others. After all, empathy binds two people, and when you can build that connection with humility and humor, in life’s awkward moments, it’s arguably the healthiest approach to such circumstances.

Now, I’m not saying that wetting your pants will lead to true love – although apparently it can. What I’m saying is that living our lives with humility and humor, in spite of adversity, opens us up to others, and them to us. So, let us pass on pride and portrayals of perfection, and find humility and humor in who we are – wet pants and all.

family16

By Mark E. Smith

The philosopher, Laozi, founder of Taoism, asserted, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

How many of us have felt trapped in our existence at points in our lives, where circumstances dictate who we are? So much of our lives can be painfully defined by such aspects as our physicality, our family history, our socio-economics, and what’s projected upon us. I know, as I’ve spent my whole life as “one with cerebral palsy,” where from the moment of my birth, I was told what I am. If we go back in time, or even today, as some may still see me, seemingly incapable on realms ranging from the physical to the mental. And, in some ways, they are right. After all, as one with cerebral palsy, my wife does help me on and off of the commode, and, no, I can’t physically even write my own name.

I could have spent my whole life buying into what I am. We all could, no matter our circumstance or situation. However, there’s nothing to gain by buying into “what we are.” Rather, we have everything to gain by striving toward what we might be. I often recount the story of being thrust from an institutionalized school as a seven-year-old to being one of the first publicly mainstreamed students with a severe disability in the U.S. I had no support, but I did have two choices: I could be the child with severe cerebral palsy who many thought belonged in an institutionalized school – after all, that’s who I literally was. Or, I could push toward who I might be – that is, in my young mind, a “normal kid in a normal school.” Everyone knew what I was, but few believed in who I might be. At seven, I didn’t know who Laozi was, or even the gravity of what I was pursuing. The power of the human spirit drove me toward who I might be.

Here’s the key that I now realize: no matter where we find the courage, consciously or intuitively, we must believe in our power to rise above what we are in order to achieve what we might be. I know it’s hard. In ways, it’s easier as a child because the human spirit is naive to how brutal life can be. As adults, time can wear on us – broken and battered. Toxic relationships, dysfunctional upbringings, social pressures, and on and on can all weigh us down, teaching us what we are, in ways that defeat us instead of inspiring us. There was a period in my 30s where I looked in the mirror and saw what I was: a divorced, full-time single dad with severe cerebral palsy. That’s a grim prospect on the dating scene. What woman would ever take on that mess?

But, that wasn’t what I had to be. What I might be is a loving father, and a man who grew and learned from his past marriage, where life-long cerebral palsy instilled in me attributes of perseverance, self-confidence and empathy toward others who’ve faced adversity. Who I might be was once again what I looked toward, and while change didn’t occur overnight, it led to finding my wife and a second daughter, where my life has remained on an empowered, blessed trajectory encased by love for years now.

See, whenever we find ourselves trapped or discontent with what we are, it’s an opportunity to pursue what we might be. We don’t have to settle for where we’re at. We can strive toward what we might be. Is it easy? No. Is it scary? Yes. Might we fall short in the attempt? Absolutely. Yet, as one who’s found himself at such crossroads many times, indeed, it is only when I’ve let go of what I am that I’ve moved closer to what I might be.