By Mark E. Smith
In the late 1990s, my best friend and I had among the most candid conversations. Many people with his condition pass away in their mid to late 30s, and with my friend approaching that age, he was understandably troubled by it – especially since peers he’d grown up with recently passed. Although, I didn’t let on at the time, the realities of the conversation touched me deeply, not only out of fear loosing my best friend, but also in the sense of considering mortality due to complications of disability, a subject that’s pondered with apprehension by many.
Here we are decade later, and my best friend continues giving me a constant run for my money to keep up with his successes. I had the honor of serving as his Best Man exactly a year ago, so he’s currently celebrating his one-year anniversary; he continues his long-time career in the software industry; and, he’s made terrific moves toward long-term financial success. In all bluntness, for a guy who questioned the realities of his lifespan ten years ago, he’s more alive than ever. In fact, it can be argued that my friend is far more alive than many of us, where he demonstrates that living is as much about tomorrow as it is today – a lesson that we all should learn from.
Now, I know that living for tomorrow seems a contradiction to the new-age adage to make the most of today because you don’t know what tomorrow brings – and the unpredictable nature of disability can emphasize that point. However, contrary to pop-motivational rhetoric that says live like there’s no tomorrow, dismissing a long-term outlook is ultimately a very pessimistic, self-defeating perspective, stifling our growth and diminishes the quality of our future, especially when it comes to living with disability.
Interestingly, when we think about the overall will to live – not just in a life-or-death sense, but also toward living an overall passionate life every day – it’s striking how it all comes down to our optimism for the future. I mean, when we feel the most positive, it’s usually because we’re looking forward to something in our future: Climbing the corporate ladder at work; the anticipation of graduating college; finally paying off a car loan; having a child; or, taking a long-awaited cruise next summer; and, on and on. It’s the long-term hallmarks and goals that give us a sense that life is simply worth living because our best days are sure to come.
It is true that some with disability and illness don’t believe that they will maintain any semblance of health long enough to have a future, while others simply feel so defeated by disability that they have no interest in planning a future. After all, if one believes that one’s future will be bleaker than the past due to disability, what’s the point of living for tomorrow?
To dramatically improve one’s life – it’s that simple. While we all must live today to the best of our abilities, living for tomorrow is truly what inspires our lives. And, if we place no emphasis on dictating the quality of our future, surely it will be bleak. See, living for tomorrow moves us forward both in the immediate and in the longterm. In the immediate, a sense of purpose is the surest way to maintain our daily spirits. If one sits at home, feeling that the best days are behind, with no plan for the future, of course misery, depression, and despair set in. However, if one’s working toward a future goal, one can’t help but feel more positive. I can’t wait till the day my car’s paid off – I’ll be that much farther ahead financially. I can’t wait till our wedding day, when we start the rest of our lives together. I can’t wait to graduate college and start my dream career. When we look to our futures with optimism, it’s impossible not to feel more empowered in the immediate.
I’ve been speaking at a lot of colleges recently, and one of my recurring messages that I deliver is recognizing the power of five in our everyday lives, where setting five-year goals gives us an astounding opportunity to bring tremendous change – and toward life wife disability, it can prove even more impacting for some:
The unemployment rate among those with disabilities is approximately 65%, with a median household income of $13,500. However, studies show that those with disabilities who have a bachelor’s degree have the same employment success as those without disabilities, experiencing an unemployment rate of 6%, with a median income of $51,000. Therefore, one with a disability can go from a high school diploma to a bachelor’s degree, from unemployment to employed, from living in poverty to a meaningful income – all in just five years. That’s astounding change, in a relatively short amount of time, simply by living for tomorrow.
A terrific universal example is that the average household income-to-debt ration in the U.S. dictates that, with focus, all household debt, except for the mortgage, can be paid off within three years. Therefore, an average household can not only be debt free, but have savings in the bank – all in just 5 years. Again, that’s an amazing change in one’s life by living for tomorrow.
I, myself, have always used goal setting and the power of five to remain remarkably optimistic and keep momentum in my life. In junior high, I knew that with very little family support, I had to ensure that I was as physically independent as possible by the end of high school, so that I could go out and live on my own. By graduation, I was astoundingly independent for someone of my disability severity level – it took about five years for me to accomplish. When I enrolled in college, I wanted to obtain my degree, publish a book, and have a job in the education field – it all occurred within about five years. I knew from our first date at age 22, that I wanted to marry my wife and have children, and eventually it all came true – within around five years. When I set my sights on graduate school, then changing careers, moving my family across country to take a role in the wheelchair industry, it all came to fruition within five years. Five years, it’s proven to me, allows us to make amazing changes in our lives, and when we work toward our goals, it inspires our everyday – that is, it’s hard not to be enamored by the lure of a promising future.
Surely, some with progressive disabilities or terminal conditions can have a hard time finding enthusiasm toward the future, where health declines are foreseeable, suggesting that the best of life is behind, where looking to tomorrow may seem scary, with a five-year vision seeming impossible. However, the positive impacts of living for tomorrow don’t change. My mother-in-law recently passed away from cancer. A big question upon her terminal diagnosis was, how long did she have to live? The doctors and hospice nurses all told us the same prognosis, that because her cancer was throughout her body, there was nothing medically that could save her life. However, they couldn’t give us an actual life expectancy. Instead, they explained to us that beyond the realities of the body, an “undefinable” comes into play – known commonly as the will to live – where some in my mother-in-law’s condition die hours after diagnosis, while others live for a year or more. “I’ve seen a woman in outwardly good shape say goodbye to her family, then died that night, while I’ve seen another woman who just refused to die and lived beyond any medical explanation for three years,” a hospice nurse told me.
When I asked the nurse if she saw a common factor among those who lived longer than others, the nurse was adamant in her reply: “Absolutely,” she said. “It’s just the will to live that makes the difference. Many patients, even when unconscious, hold on until their families have a chance to come say goodbye. Of those who live well beyond where they medically should have died, they’ve usually held out for the wedding of a child or the birth of a grandchild or other monumental, joyous life event.”
It’s interesting, then, how even in the most terminal of situations, living for tomorrow empowers our lives till the very end. And, if we have the intrinsic capacity to actually prolong our own passings, no matter by hours or years, it makes the potential for positive foresight in our everyday lives seem limitless, where goals toward education, career, family, finances, and community seem easily achievable in the long term.
The fact is, I’ve never meet an inspired, engaged, successful person who wasn’t living for tomorrow – including those with disabilities, no matter progressive, terminal, or otherwise. Taking initiatives to set goals for our future literally improves our lives by giving us a sense of control and empowerment, keys to dealing with disability and all areas of life.
No, there are no guarantees that we will achieve all of our goals in any of our lifetimes. However, if you’re reading this today, I can guarantee you that tomorrow will surely come – and you now have the perfect opportunity to set goals of what you’ll accomplish to bring positive change in your life. Better yet, I say aim high, and shoot for the five-year plan – after all, life snowballs for those actively pursuing it, where in no time, you can transform the challenges of today into the successes of tomorrow, where even the most seemingly insurmountable challenges can be overcome in a just few short years.