By Mark E. Smith

Many couples face adversity. Some come together, while others fall apart. What foremost trait keeps couples together while facing among life’s toughest of times?

I recently worked an Abilities Expo, a consumer trade show for all products related to disability. During the expo, I met countless couples where one partner had experienced a life-changing illness or accident. It was the perfect opportunity to ask, What’s been the single biggest relationship key that’s helped you move through this as a couple?

The answer that most gave surprised me when it probably shouldn’t have: humor. Over and over again, couples told me that shared humor made the toughest situations bearable. And, they nailed it, knowing what all of us should know.

In fact, there are scientific reasons why humor and laughter enhance our relationships. Humor is an intrinsic “mood lifter.” When we smile or laugh, it releases endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals in our brain. In a way, we get a little high when we smile or laugh, so it dramatically points our perception toward the positive, even in the bleakest situations. Therefore, when in a relationship, humor makes uncomfortable situations comfortable and breaks us out of daunting thoughts. If there’s a surefire way to direct a moment or mood as a couple, humor is it.

There is a caveat, however. It’s vital that both people share the humor. There’s no room for jaded or cynical humor. If one person finds humor in a situation and the other doesn’t, it will only make a situation worse. Two people laughing is a shared connection; one person laughing is angering to the other. We must laugh together, not apart.

I met a couple at the show, where the husband is living with ALS. The wife told me, “We can laugh together and cry together. If you can laugh together, you can cry together. But, it’s a lot more fun to laugh together….”

Life and relationships aren’t easy – especially when adversity comes our way. However, among the best tools we can have is humor. If we can laugh amidst a situation, we can address and cope with it. After all, the couple who laughs together stays together.

By Mark E. Smith

In March of 1862, we first saw the phrase, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me, in the Christian Recorder, presented as an old adage. Of course, to most of us, it is a rhyme from our childhood that we sang as a self-affirmation.

However, is it true? I mean, it sounds logical, and we’d like to think we can rise to such self-confidence, but is the saying scientifically true? Can we, as a species, self-evolve to a point where the words of others don’t impact us?

I’ve faced this subject my entire life and have seen merit to both sides of the paradox: We’re innately social creatures, but don’t want to be affected by social scrutiny. As one with a disability, I’ve experienced negative dialogue from others my whole life. What’s more, as a public figure and in working with the public in my career, I’ve experienced the dark sides of dealing with the public. I’ve faced terrible adjectives slung at me. So, how have I coped with all of it?

I’ve believed in dismissing strangers as just that, strangers. If you don’t know me, how can you have a valid opinion about me? Also, two wrongs don’t make a right, so I try to be kind to others even when their words sting. These approaches have worked fairly well, but not flawlessly – for good reason.

Firstly, you and I, as humans, are hardwired as social creatures. It’s ingrained in us to care what others think as a matter of our survival mode. In modern society, the risk factors aren’t as obvious as they were in previous evolutionary periods; we don’t face getting eaten by wild animals when banished from a tribe as we once did. Yet, susceptibility to wanting social approval remains a natural instinct.

Secondly, scientists now know that our physiological connection to others is so strong that words can break us. Researchers discovered that emotional pain and physical pain both trigger the same area of the brain. They performed brain scans of those suffering a romantic breakup, and then subjected them to physical discomfort, finding identical responses in the brain based on emotional and physical pain. Further, research proves that verbal abuse can alter a child’s brain structure, that those who experienced verbal abuse experience the same degree of later-in-life impacts as those who suffered physical abuse.

When we put it all together, words really can hurt us. We can intellectualize all we wish, but to be human is to feel the literal pain of words.

With advancements in technology, it’s vital that we realize the adverse impact words can have. We, as individuals, are in more contact with others than ever in the history of mankind. You can call, email, text, direct message, or video chat loved ones at any time. You can jump on the Internet or social media platforms and say anything to almost anyone. And, it’s dangerous territory. We all know that words can hurt – because we’ve been hurt by them! – but some are still so quick to say the worst to others through the keyboard of a computer or smartphone. It doesn’t matter if it’s family, a friend, a public figure, or a complete stranger – sock it to ‘em with your words online! I’m all too familiar with this troubling mentality of others and guard myself against as much of it as I can. However, what about teens who are at a point where they’re seeking peer approval, but lack the emotional development to cope with the levels of negativity and rejection that come in deluges on social media? Words can devastate lives.

The point is, given the world we live in, we need to get better with words. We can care less what others think, despite our nature, and live rooted in reality, not worrying about what some try to project upon us. Few truly know us and it’s ridiculous to invest in what strangers say about us, good or bad. Similarly, we need to use our own words more carefully. Just because some people fill social media with garbage doesn’t mean we should add trash to the pile. In this age of such prolific communication, let us use our words as a crane that uplifts, not a sledgehammer that crushes.

After all, Sticks and stones may break my bones, and words can also break me.

By Mark E. Smith

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

Of course, it’s impossible to look through someone else’s eyes. However, when we’re exceptionally fortunate, others allow us the privilege of knowing their struggles. It’s a gift of trust, one that we should honor with utmost empathy and connection.

Indeed, it’s that connection that’s so unique. For 25 years, as I’ve moved through many paths of adulthood, across a vast geography, I’ve had the humbling privilege of so many sharing their struggles with me. Part of it is that we tend to share our struggles with those who also struggle, and the physicality of my cerebral palsy inherently defines me as having faced struggles, so others intrinsically know I’m in the club, so to speak. Likewise, I hope the other contributing factor as to why so many have shared their struggles with me is due to my expressions of real connections between us.

Now, I wish I could share some examples of the breathtaking, heart-wrenching stories some have shared with me over the years. However, that’s not the way it works. When someone shares his or her most personal stories, you help bear the load, but you certainly don’t violate that confidence. There’s a sacredness to such trust. What I can share with you is the truth I’ve learned in this process….

We never know what someone has been through or is going through. I’ve met individuals from all aspects of life – some of whom you’d never imagine have a care in the world – and the stories shared range from heartbreaking to unfathomable. The cliché is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. As I say, a smile can hide a lot of pain, and a trickle of pain can stem from an ocean.

While we move through our days, we encounter many people. Some are strangers; others are as close to us as colleagues we spend our entire days with. Clothes, bravado, makeup, materialism, humor, status, and so on can create facades that make all of our lives seem like the glossy pages of a magazine – two-dimensional perfection. But there’s a third dimension to many of us, one that includes depth and pain and scars. There’s connection in realizing that. It reminds us that we’re not alone in our struggles and also enables us to treat others with the truest sense of humanity. I can’t judge someone because I don’t know what he or she has been through or is going through. But, I can extend my heart equally to all.

As you move through your days, I hope there are those who you can trust with any struggles you may have. Similarly, I hope that you’re one who others feel safe confiding in. After all, none of us need to be alone in our struggles. Share. Listen. Love.

By Mark E. Smith

I recently spoke on a senate panel on aging. The panelists were heavy-hitters, including a U.S. senator and heads of government agencies. As speakers go, they were the best-of-the-best, both in presentation and knowledge. Then, there was me.

As a speaker, I prefer keynotes, not because I wish to be the star attraction, but because there’s a different dynamic on panels, especially when the other panelists are beyond great. It’s like sitting back stage as a musician and the band before you is phenomenal, and you’re thinking, Man, I can’t live up to what Iggy Pop just did!

What made the recent panel even more challenging was that I went last, so there I sat trembling in my boots – not emotionally, but literally, as I have uncontrollable body movements due to cerebral palsy – as I watched eloquent, brilliant speakers along our table command the room. So, how’d I move through it?

The same way that I always do. Public speaking can be tricky. Yet, if you know your subject, know your audience, and you’re skilled with rhetorical devices, public speaking is a bit of an illusion – it looks tougher than it is. For me, however, there’s a wild card added to the mix: cerebral palsy. My brain sends involuntary signals to my muscles and they do whatever they want, whenever they want. My central nervous system doesn’t care if I’m in bed watching TV or speaking in front of 250 statesmen. If it tells my legs to kick, they simply kick – formally known as a “spasm.” Speaking as a craft is easy for me; doing it with the physical unpredictability of cerebral palsy can be the harrowing part.

Given my situation, I view speaking in front of audiences like driving a race car. Driving a car at 150 mph around a race track takes skill, but even more so when the unexpected occurs. Race car drivers win races not based on simply going around a track, but in addressing peril when encountered. Did you see him keep his car from spinning off of the track!

When I’m publicly speaking, it’s the same phenomenon. I have my emotional and mental composure, but I never know what my body will throw my way. The ability to address spasms and uncontrolled body movements without missing a beat while speaking is my real craft. The way I do it is I let go of the mental and emotional constraints others often feel in such situations. When I sat on the senate panel, there was no way I could be as physically composed as the other speakers, so I threw that standard out the window and focused on being the only person I could be: me. I have cerebral palsy and a microphone – hold on to your seats, folks! In these ways, cerebral palsy becomes an asset of originality.

It doesn’t matter if we’re public speaking or living our everyday lives, the minute we let go of social pressures or preconceived notions of who we should be and just be ourselves, as-is, there’s no freer realm to be in. I understand that this is difficult for many. We live in a culture that presents ideals on how we should be. Yet, for many of us, it’s impossible for us to meet those ideals – there’s no product to resolve cerebral palsy – and in the larger scope, nor should anyone feel he or she has to live to such scripted ideals.

See, I view the world as the most spectacular art gallery. Each of our beauty isn’t blended on a single cultural canvas, in a single form, but seen within the borders of our unique frames. Photoshopped images are great; an original Picasso is amazing.

Canada’s Andre Viger (front) and Mel Fitzgerald (left) compete in a wheelchair event at the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles. (CP PHOTO/ COA/J Merrithew)

By Mark E. Smith

I have a home gym. Two or three nights per week, I go into that room in my house, put on old, sweat-crusted weight-lifting gloves, and start wailing away at the contraption. As it bangs and crashes, sounding like some sort of machine from the Industrial Revolution, I push, pull, and grunt. It’s a competition of me versus it. So, what drives me to keep working out, especially as a 46-year-old dad with cerebral palsy who could get away with taking the easy road at this point in life?

When I was an adolescent, I watched the greatest wheelchair racers of all time fly across my TV screen during events like the Boston Marathon and the 1984 Summer Olympics. They looked like gladiators. They had massive upper bodies, and all was squeezed into an ultralight racing wheelchair that they hurled down the road or around the track at insane speeds. Their triceps pumped the wheels like pistons.

Yet, I wasn’t in awe of them. Rather, I was inspired.

See, there’s a vast difference between being awed versus being inspired. When we’re awed, we never imagine that we can do what another person does. It’s like, That’s awesome, but I could never do that. However, when we’re inspired, we’re compelled to get out there and do it, no matter how rational or irrational the thought may seem. That band rocks – give me a guitar. This poetry is astounding – I need a pen. Her words are so eloquent – I’m learning to speak like her. That person has an amazing career – I’m going back to college. Inspiration moves us into action. In awe, we watch. With inspiration, we do.

I realized the profound difference between awe and inspiration in my adolescence, and in being inspired by the wheelchair racers I saw on TV, I said, I’m doing that! Of course, like a 12-year-old picking up a guitar at the Salvation Army with the intent of starting a band and becoming a rock star, I had no ability at that moment to truly become a wheelchair racer, especially given the severity of my disability. But, that’s the beauty of inspiration – it launches us toward something great. We may not know where we’re going to land in our attempt – did Jackson Pollock when he began dripping paint on canvas in 1947? – but we’re bound to go somewhere.

I pushed around in manual wheelchairs for years, struggling merely to become self-sufficient, literal miles from ever being a “racer.” It did, though, help lead me to weight lifting, which I excelled at. I couldn’t push a racing chair faster than a snail, but through tenacity in the gym, I could have an upper body that looked like I did! That spirit continues with me today every time I hit the gym: Why watch when I can do, and why not see how far I can get with my efforts?

All of us see people accomplishing seemingly amazing feats. Some take talent and some take years of hard work. Yet, the people doing them are merely people like each of us and, most often, if they’re doing it, we can take a shot at it, too. Don’t be awed by others; be inspired. After all, the only reason why others are where we’d like to be is because we simply haven’t tried – yet.

By Mark E. Smith

Have you ever thought, I shouldn’t feel this way because others have it worse than I do? Most of us have reasoned with ourselves in that way at some point. While it’s empathetic toward others and is a coping mechanism, it has a huge downside: self-invalidation.

The fact is, everyone has struggles. However, trying to compare our adversities to those of others is impossible – because we are us and others are …well …others. Your struggles are as valid as anyone else’s because struggling isn’t based on a definable scale; rather, it’s relative to each of our experiences.

I know what it’s like to live with severe cerebral palsy, and I’m fairly emotionally adept at doing so. I’m struck when others express to me that they are inspired by me because as they face their adversities, they know individuals like me “have it much worse.” I understand the good intentions of such sentiments, but I also don’t want others discounting the totally valid emotions around their individual situations, as they very well could be struggling more than I am relative to our own circumstances. I have no idea what another is dealing with, and I never want anyone diminishing his or hers own adversities based on my visible ones.

All of this ties back into realizing that there’s validity in all adversity, in all struggles, for each individual. Just as we are kind enough to give credence to the struggles of others, we must extend it to ourselves, where we don’t compare and create a scenario of self-invalidation, but one of common experience. Adversity is not a measurement or a competition, and there’s certainly no hierarchy. We each have our struggles and no one can say one is easier to cope with than another. It’s all relative and individual.

Now, I’m not saying to wallow in self-pity – that’s at the other end of the scale and can devastate your life. What I am saying is, we shouldn’t dismiss our struggles because others have struggles. Everyone’s struggles should be embraced – including our own.

Ultimately, the truth of adversity is this: There are no struggles more or less significant than others…. Simply different.

By Mark E. Smith

Is the glass half full or half empty? …There’re two sides to every coin. …Or, would you rather a steak that’s 80% lean or 20% fat?

All of those statements are utter clichés, but they tie into a psychological principle that dictates the way we see each situation: framing.

Framing is the psychological process that applies to whether we see a situation as negative or positive. The fact is, in even the worst of situations, we have the choice on how to frame them – that is, to see negatives, positives, or both – and the way we frame them dictates our success in addressing them, literally and emotionally.

I’m a firm believer in framing adversity as a tool for opportunity. No matter what happens, I believe in recognizing the opportunity in it. I once had a home severely flood, and as I evacuated, I told everyone, “It looks like I finally get to remodel….” And, I did get to remodel as a result of the unfortunate circumstance, where the house was far nicer than before it flooded.

So many aspects of our lives are like that: As the flood waters rush in, it’s difficult to see beyond the seeming disaster. However, if we frame life’s adversities so that we can draw positive aspects from them in the immediate and long term, it lessens the impact on us and allows us to move forward.

On top of using positive framing as a tool of coping, it’s invaluable as a tool for learning and growth. If we only see a situation as bad, we’re simply in victim mode – adversity only harms us – and we can’t move forward. However, if we frame adverse situations with at least some positives, we not only take control of the situation, but we learn and grow. Imagine if every time a professional sports team lost a game, they just went back to the locker room and sulked about how unfair the game was. They’d be the worst team in history. No team does that. Rather, they watch replays of the game to determine how mistakes were made, then they strive to improve in those areas. We lost that game, let’s learn from it to win the next.

If you’re not in the habit of framing adversity toward the positive, I know it’s hard. None of us want adversity in our life, and it can weigh us down. Yet, adversity enters our lives at times no matter what – which is why it’s so important to develop the habit of seeing positives. If we only see negatives, it tends to freeze us in place. However, if we can see a positive – even in the bleakest of situations – it allows us to begin moving forward. Most of us have had our hearts broken by an ended romance. Then, a well-meaning friend tells us, Don’t worry, there are other fish in the sea. While that cheesy saying lacks empathy in the moment, the painful end of one relationship most often does lead to a new, joyous chapter of love. In this way, even an ending in our life can eventually frame a wonderful beginning if we allow it.

If we can get to a place in our lives where we can frame adversities in the positive, we can then move forward, learn, and grow. That’s a great frame to be in.