By Mark E. Smith
Here’s a provocative question for you: How is it possible that one with a severe disability excels well beyond his or her peers, including those without disabilities?
For example, how does one explain a college student with severe cerebral palsy, who can’t speak or write on his or her own, graduating college, magna cum laude? Or, how does one explain a quadriplegic who rises through the ranks of the banking world to become a vice president? Or, how does one explain how one born without arms goes on to become a world-renown musician?
Truly, if you think about it, we all know of people with severe disabilities who have excelled beyond their peers with and without disabilities – but, how is that possible? After all, those of us with disabilities aren’t inherently smarter than others, and, in fact, we obviously have notable physical disadvantages over others without disabilities – for example, imagine how difficult it would be going through college without the ability to speak or write. And, statistically, those of us with disabilities can have social disadvantages over others in the mainstream, where prejudice and discrimination remain. Therefore, how is it logically possible that without any seeming advantages – and, arguably, having physical and social disadvantages – those with severe disabilities can often excel beyond their peers with and without disabilities?
This question intrigued me as I thought about my own acquaintances over the years who’ve had severe disabilities but excelled beyond most others – and I wondered if there was a common trait that they shared, a trait that many others may not practice, that’s all but guaranteed their success?
As I went back and analyzed the character traits of my successful acquaintances and peers with disabilities, I saw a clear trend toward their all sharing overall outlooks of dedication, perseverance, and optimism; however, they all shared a far greater form of everyday empowerment than most: Gratitude.
Indeed, my most successful acquaintances and peers with disabilities have all demonstrated unyielding gratitude for what life has to offer, fully embracing every opportunity with optimism and zeal, appreciative of every occasion – that is, they’re excited and grateful to wake up in the morning and tackle the tasks of the day.
Where this realization becomes clearer is when we consider “mainstream” culture, and what little gratitude many have – and, specifically, how it holds people back:
A college education is a true blessing, an amazing opportunity that very few on this planet get to pursue; yet, a 19-year-old will fail college because he simply doesn’t want to wake up early enough to get to class on time. He has no gratitude toward education.
A bank teller will begrudgingly perform her job, doing as little as possible, resentful that she only makes $9 per hour, feeling like it’s not worth her time to come to work, believing that she’s entitled to better. She has no gratitude for employment.
A 20-something will show up in Hollywood with a guitar, thinking that he’s going to get gigs because he’s the next big rock star, then gives up when doors shut on him. He has no gratitude toward success.
In your own life, think about all of the complaints of “entitlement” that you may hear from those around you every day. Three-quarters of your co-workers likely complain about their jobs all day; your kids likely want the iPod Touch because the iPod Nano of last season isn’t cool anymore; and, all your neighbor probably does is whine about gas prices and the economy, no matter if they’re up or down. There’s simply little gratitude wherever we look, where many who we encounter feel “entitled” to all in life, regardless of their own efforts and attitude.
However, what I’ve witnessed is that when those with disabilities – or anyone – possess a sincere sense of gratitude, their lives accelerate like rockets, well beyond others in most cases:.
The young woman with cerebral palsy, who can’t speak or write, but is entirely grateful for the shot at a college education, as everyone should be, of course puts her all into it, and graduates magna cum laude.
The gentleman with quadriplegia, who’s genuinely grateful to have an entry-level position at a bank, as anyone should be, of course puts his all into his job and gets promoted up the ladder to vice president.
And, the man born without arms, who teaches himself to play the guitar with his feet, entirely grateful that he can make music, as everyone should be, of course pours his heart into it, and becomes a huge success.
See, when we’re grateful for what we have on all levels – when we know that we’re fortunate, not entitled – it motivates us to live up to our fullest abilities, where opportunities are recognized before limitations, potentials before excuses. Those who are grateful don’t mope, they thrive.
Interestingly, an overwhelming lack of gratitude is what holds back a lot of people with disabilities. Sure, it may seem understandable for an athletic 40-year-old who was paralyzed in a car accident to look around and say, “What’s there to be grateful for? I can’t walk, and I can’t do half of the things I used to…. My life is a cruel nightmare.”
While some may see such thinking as understandable, it’s entirely self defeating. The lack of any gratitude in such a situation will keep one entrenched in bitterness and excuses, never moving forward in life.
To the contrary, in such a situation, those with disabilities who are successful – that is, those with gratitude in life – have an entirely opposite view: I may be paralyzed, but I’m thrilled to be alive, blessed to have my wife and kids by my side, and although it may not be easy, I’m fortunate that I have my education to help me succeed in the workforce….
And, you can bet that when such an individual is in the workforce, the passion and dedication that he puts into his job – that is, gratitude – takes him to the top.
Of course, gratitude isn’t a tool that only those with disabilities can possess – those who don’t have a disability can possess gratitude, as well, and it brings the same success. However, what I’ve witnessed is that severe, permanent disability can heighten one’s sense of gratitude beyond a common perspective. Again, when one faces loss, he or she can become either bitter at what’s lost, or grateful for what remains – and when we’re truly grateful for what remains, we naturally use what we have to the fullest, making the most of ourselves, propelling toward successes that others may never achieve. Put simply, when disability shows us how challenging life can be at times, it’s often easier to appreciate the oppertunities that we have, and use them to the fullest. A motivated man can dig a deeper trench with his bare hands than three lazy men with shovels.
As one with a disability, I practice gratitude everyday, no matter the circumstance. It takes me hours of struggle to get ready each morning, but I’ve always been grateful for it – that is, firstly, I’m forever grateful that I was able to develop the ability to bathe and dress myself, and, secondly, I’m grateful that I’ve always had the opportunity to pursue an endeavor each day, from my education in the past, to my career in the present.
When my colleagues and customers need my assistance, I don’t regret the long hours or resent more work; rather, I’m truly grateful for the privilege to serve others.
When, I’m traveling on business, and my flight’s delayed, I don’t get upset like others in the airport; rather, I’m grateful to be traveling on business in the first place.
And, when I look at my daughter, she is, of course, my foremost blessing of all, where even if I lost all of my physical abilities, my career, and my worldly possessions at once, I’d still feel like the most fortunate person, simply grateful to have her in my life.
Sure, others sometimes look at me and my cerebral palsy, and only see what’s seemingly wrong in my life – my wheelchair, my wracked body, my slurred speech. But, they don’t know how grateful I am that my wheelchair, my wracked body, my slurred speech, has gotten me so far in life – that is, they don’t recognize what I recognize: The astonishing potentials placed before each of us every day, even in the seemingly toughest circumstances.
Now, some might say, “Mark, gratitude toward everyday life is little more than a lowering of expectations, a denial of accepting how terrible life can be, including living with disability. No normal person is grateful for a life involving pain, hardship, and struggle.”
And, they’d be right – for a bitter, jaded, unappreciative, stagnant person, that is. See, there’s a truth to gratitude that such people don’t understand, that without gratitude we only see the worst in life, our limitations, what we don’t have, what we seemingly can’t accomplish: I can’t walk, and it has taken more from me than you could ever imagine. And, such thinking gets us nowhere but deeper into a self-absorbed, depressed, bitter rut.
However, when we have gratitude, it inspires our outlooks and clears a path of seemingly unlimited possibilities: I can’t walk, but this wonderful wheelchair allows me to have a career, raise my family, and have the freedom to take on the world. Gratitude, you see, makes all the difference, inherently allowing us to see paths of potential over bottlenecks of bitterness.
Whether you’re of the richest and the healthiest, or of the poorest and the sickest, there’s always something to be grateful for – namely, life, itself – and when we simply live with a sincere gratitude for the potentials that we have, no matter our circumstance, it’s impossible not to have an optimism and motivation that will propel us to successes that others could never even dream.