Between 20 and 38


By Mark E. Smith

I recently received an email from an ex-girlfriend – after 18 years. She found me on the Internet, and expressed in her email that she was surprised by how well I have done in life. In fact, she went as far as noting that she was worried about the future for me when we were 20.

I was baffled by her comments that expressed seeming surprise at my life’s course over the past 18 years. After all, between the ages of 20 and 38, people’s lives change enormously – we go to college, build careers, have relationships, and raise families. It’s what most people do – and why my ex-girlfriend would be surprised that I did it, too, seemed absurd to me. I wanted to email her back with a sarcasm that she might recall, and ask, “What do you think people do between 20 and 38? …They grow up!”

I shared my ex-girlfriend’s email with my closest confident, Drewy, and explained to him that I couldn’t figure out why she was worried about my future when we were 20, or why she might be surprised by how my life has unfolded to date?

In his wisdom, Drewy spelled it out well for me. “Mark, you’re looking at this too rationally – of course your life evolved like most between the ages of 20 and 38,” he explained. “But, she may simply remember you as a 20-year-old with cerebral palsy, from a ‘bad’ family. She was boxing you in based on where you came from, not seeing your potential. So, if that’s been her perspective for all of these years, of course she’s surprised at your success.”

Putting all of the pieces together and looking back, I’m sure that Drewy’s insight was on target. However, what’s striking is that while my ex-girlfriend apparently projected limitations on me at 20, they clearly didn’t deter me one bit. Again, looking back, I wasn’t totally sure where I was going in life at 20 – were you? – but I knew that I had tremendous potential, and I was just warming up. I reckoned that she dumped me for a lot of good reasons at the time – my sarcasm could have been one of them! – but, I definitely didn’t care that among them was her perception of my lacking potential to succeed in life. Failure wasn’t an option for me – success, as always, just takes time – so her questioning my potential at 20 was a moot point in the grand scheme of my life. The game of life wasn’t over for me at 20 – rather, it was just beginning!

What I’ve learned is that one of the most amazing facts of life for those of us with disabilities is that no one gets a vote toward our potentials but ourselves. Doctors, family, friends, teachers, employers – ex-girlfriends! – can all count us out if they wish, but what does anyone else’s grim predictions or stereotyping truly mean to us?

Nothing. We determine our paths in the end, not other people. It didn’t matter that my ex-girlfriend may have seen me as a guy from a family where no one had graduated high school. Rather, what mattered was that I did graduate high school, then tackled college with a vengeance. It didn’t matter if my ex-girlfriend may have seen me as a guy from a family that was poor and dysfunctional compared to her own. Rather, what mattered was that I dedicated myself to personal growth and a work ethic that would allow me to strive toward building first-generation emotional health and financial security. It didn’t matter if my ex-girlfriend may have seen me as a guy with cerebral palsy and physical limitations. Rather, what mattered was that I was willing to apply a never-say-die attitude toward any of life’s obstacles. And, it didn’t matter if my ex-girlfriend may have counted me out in life at the young age of 20. Rather, what mattered was that I was willing to assume sole responsibility for my life and do whatever it took to make my way in the world, where hopefully my potential would ultimately make a difference in the lives of others.

I suspect that you, too, may have been counted out, as well, at some point, by someone. See, whenever you tackle the odds – whenever you pursue great endeavors, like thriving with disability – others are bound to bet against you, to count you out. Yet, we have a choice of if and how we allow others’ critical outlooks to affect us. Sure, no one wants to be dismissed or criticized; but, whether we assume the negative outlooks projected upon us by others is truly our choice. We can allow others’ projections to defeat us, or we can allow our drive to elevate us.

In my own life, I strive to contribute as much as I can toward my peers with disabilities; I’m a loyal, dedicated, hardworking employee; I strive to be there for my friends at all times; and, I give everything within me to my daughter. And, when I look at my life from that 3,000-foot perspective, criticism of me – people counting me out due to disability – is little more than a momentary distraction. My point is, just because I’m counted out or criticized doesn’t mean that I’m adversely affected by it. Count me out, criticize me, and I just keep rolling on my empowered paths. Speed bumps may catch my attention, but they don’t stop me.

The same outlook should be practiced by all of us. No matter who you are, if you’re on a path toward success, you’ll be counted out or experience criticism at some point, most closely from a dysfunctional family member with careless words, or from a far stranger staring you down in public. And, at those moments, you must remind yourself of who you are, that you are an individual of enormous potential and value – and whether any one person recognizes that fact is truly of no consequence to you whatsoever in the grand scope of your life. It’s the positive contributions in the world around you that you make every day – as well as your future potential – that matter, and any words of criticism that come your way by those not in the know truly end at the lips of the person who spoke them. You are remarkable in your own right, and never allow anyone to convince you otherwise with his or her senseless outlook. Someone may think that they know you at 20, but he or she has no clue of your successes at 38!

It’s also important to look at those who count you out or criticize you as truly serving as an inspiration, a sign that you’re doing everything right, that you are succeeding. If you have a disability and pursue education, employment, or community involvement, you’ll likely encounter rudeness and criticism at some points – and that’s indirectly a great compliment. Again, all people who extend themselves beyond what others may dare are criticized. When I was attending college in San Francisco, I rode the public buses every day, and there was one particular bus driver – old and crusty – who taunted me for two years straight. “You and your wheelchair slow down my route. I don’t know what good college will do a handicapped kid like you, anyway,” he’d mumble every time I boarded his bus via the lift.

Nevertheless, when he let me off at the campus stop each day, I thanked him for the ride – and he just stared at me, begrudgingly. What he didn’t realize was that I was really thanking him for his criticism of me, for his counting me out. See, if I wasn’t on my way to college each day, he couldn’t have criticized me – every rude remark he made simply reminded me, Mark, you’re heading in the right direction again today, on the bus going to college, on a path of success.

If you pursue great endeavors – no matter if you have a disability or you’re the President – you will be counted out and criticized at some point, and you should welcome the hidden congratulations within it, as with the demeaning bus driver unwittingly validating my mission toward education every day.

Of course, we, too, must avoid a critical spirit within ourselves, as it does come back to bite us. If we’re critical of others, it’s usually because we’re frustrated within ourselves – and that never proves successful. After all, it’s a lot easier to avoid our own issues when we’re slinging criticism toward others. If we’re not succeeding, we let ourselves off of the hook by counting others out, as well. Life, I like to say, is like a window: When the world appears dull and gray, it’s often because we haven’t made an effort to clean our own windows. You can’t feel better about other people until you feel better about yourself. And, the reverse holds true – that is, make others feel better about themselves, and your own spirit will be lifted in return. Keeping our own windows clean makes all of the difference.

Sure, it’s a shame when others don’t believe in us – after all, we all have amazing potential, no matter our background or physical abilities. However, the only real shame is when we, ourselves, buy into others counting us out or criticizing us. Fortunately, we have the ability to not only deflect others negatives projections, but we can actually use them as inspiration to remind us how important it is to stay on the path toward our fullest potential.

The next time someone counts you out, count yourself up – as it clearly means that there’s an extraordinary opportunity for success right in front of you. Perceived underdogs prove as the most stunning winners in the end.

As for my ex-girlfriend, she’s doing exceptionally well – complete with a Ph.D., beautiful daughter, amazing husband, and she’s impacting her community in wonderful ways – just as I knew that she would. After all, at 20, she had the same amazing potential toward the future as the rest of us.


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

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