The Necessity of Challenge

By Mark E. Smith

Have you noticed how life has an uncanny way of placing lessons in front of us?

I was flipping through the channels, and came across a story about Kyle Maynard, born without arms or legs. Now in his mid-20s, Kyle not only was a high school championship wrestler, but went on to attend the University of Georgia, won ESPN’s Espy Award, appeared on every major talk show, authored a book, became among the top motivational speakers, modeled for Abercrombie & Fitch, opened his own CrossFit gym, and most recently fought in a sanctioned mixed martial arts fight.

So, I watched the quick story about Kyle, not thinking much about it because in the circle many of us travel, we’re all just doing what he’s doing – that is valuing what abilities we have, and making the most of them, consistently embracing new challenges.

However, here’s where the unexpected life lesson comes in: I changed the channel to NBC, where The Biggest Loser was on – a reality-type show about losing weight. And, I immediately encountered a 350 lb. woman crying that she couldn’t run on the treadmill. Meanwhile, the fitness coaches were screaming at her. Admittedly, in one of my most judgmental thoughts, I wished I could have been there screaming at her, too, as she should have been absolutely ashamed of herself. She was born with 100% of abilities – all four limbs, the ability to walk, and all – and she was crying over having to jog on a treadmill, all because she refused to rise to the simplest challenge. I went as far as to presume that the reason why she was obese was due to a lack of will toward facing any challenges, that eating was an escape to avoid any issues in her life – it’s psychology 101.

Now, before you judge me by stating that obesity is a disability that can’t be prevented, you need to know two facts: Firstly, according to U.S. and Canadian studies, “At an individual level, a combination of excessive caloric intake and a lack of physical activity is thought to explain most cases of obesity. A limited number of cases are due primarily to genetics, medical reasons, or psychiatric illness.” Therefore, obesity, primarily, is totally behavioral and preventable in most cases.

Secondly, The Biggest Loser only takes contestants who have behavioral obesity, so the woman crying about running on the treadmill wasn’t doing so for physical reasons, but out of an utter inability to tackle even the easiest challenge.

For me, the juxtaposition was profound: Kyle was born with no arms or legs and has taken full accountability for his life, filled with gratitude toward what he’s been given, gladly embracing ever-increasing challenges. On the other hand, the woman on The Biggest Loser was born with full physical abilities, ate herself to obesity, avoiding accountability, and took her life for such granted that she didn’t even have the willpower to run on a treadmill. What’s wrong with this picture?

Actually, the side-by-side comparison of Kyle and The Biggest Loser woman exemplifies a much larger picture of what’s going on today in America – that is, we’re seeing those with among the severest disabilities thrive to astounding success while much of the mainstream seems complacent in their lives. Biologically, it defies logic – that is a person with a sever disability shouldn’t excel over an able-bodied person, as the able-bodied person has every physical advantage, but we see it happening time and time again.

Yet, we know scientifically that our success at virtually any endeavor – even the most physical ones – has far more to do with the mind than the body. See, Kyle’s success is based on his lifelong mental skills of facing challenges, whereas The Biggest Loser contestant had no concept of facing challenges because she’d likely avoided them her whole life.

And, this is where we see the true reason of why those with severe disabilities can excel over the able-bodied mainstream – we know how to face challenges by nature of our everyday lives, and we’re not intimidated by whatever comes our way. See, challenges are like exercise – the more we face them, the stronger and more adept we become. And, when you’ve spent your life overcoming disability-related hurdles, you’re strikingly equipped to face virtually any challenges that come your way. Any limits in life can quickly disappear with such a highly-evolved skill set.

We had a snow and ice storm recently, and like every other day, I simply drove my power wheelchair to work – no big deal in my mind. Sure, I’ve been in some very bad conditions (even a State of Emergency once), but I truly don’t care what the weather is or how treacherous the conditions – I’m going to work because it’s simply what I do everyday, and no matter how bad the weather, it doesn’t phase me.

However, some people in my region don’t go to work in such storms because they somehow see it as too risky. In literal terms, I can drive my power wheelchair to work in the severest weather without a second thought, but others refuse to drive their heated 4-wheel drives. This fact goes back to the more challenges that we face, the more adept we become – and the less likely we are to see excuses in any circumstance. I know that I can survive the worst weather because I’ve done it. However, the person in the SUV who’s never moved beyond such a challenge has a far more limited view of what’s achievable. If much of life has been a physical cake walk, few develop the ability to face notable challenges, and it sets them at a disadvantage. However, if we’ve constantly faced – and embraced – challenges, we not only become proficient at persevering and facing challenges, but we also pursue opportunities that others pass upon.

While some of us have had little choice in whether we faced obstacles, we still at some point learned to embrace them, recognizing the empowerment that comes from the process. And, what’s vital – and personally inspiring – is to never stop seeking new challenges, ones that further broaden our potential, where the world around us becomes truly boundless. In my own life, I continue facing the challenges of my cerebral palsy – a never-ending life lesson on facing all-day adversity – but I’m likewise always placing additional challenges upon it, making my life seemingly much harder than it needs to be in the short term to ensure absolute empowerment in the long term. Unlike millions who think working 9 to 5 is enough, not doing much more in life, I know that I can push myself mentally, emotionally, physically, and intellectually much farther, where I simply don’t stop where others do. Driving my power wheelchair to work in the snow doesn’t phase me. I’m glad to stay up till 2:00 a.m. getting a writing job done. I’ll travel cross country by myself. I’ll go to work with a 102-degree fever. I’ll workout in my gym even after even the most exhausting day. I assume absolute financial accountability, living debt-free. I’ll throw myself off of my boat and work on my swimming, once thought impossible. And, I do all of this because it keeps me in the best overall shape possible, where I know that life is going to send more challenges my way, and when it does, I’ll simply say, Bring them on – I’m equipped to handle them.

For many, with and without disabilities, it’s tempting to make life as easy as possible. But, again, such a passive approach in life is counterproductive. If you want to truly get somewhere in life, make it as challenging as possible. For parents and caregivers, don’t be so quick to assist your loved ones with disabilities – if a task is just outside their abilities, let them struggle to accomplish it, rising to the challenge. As those with disabilities, ourselves, let us not ask for help, but struggle to accomplish a task, where we learn tenacity in facing challenges and breaking barriers. And, for all of us, challenges should rule our lives, where we’re primed to work two jobs, attend night school, hit the gym, go to work no matter what, and not ever use an excuse not to push ourselves beyond what others might perceive as illogical.

Every time that we face a challenge, we push the boundaries of our lives a little further. Why waste your life crying on a treadmill when by simply pursuing challenges, you can broaden your life on a limitless scale.


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

3 thoughts on “The Necessity of Challenge”

  1. Mark,
    Once again, your writing teases out the true essence of our human nature both good and bad. Wheels or legs, out-going or shy, motivated or retiring, you are able to coax out real issues for all of us to consider. Thank you!

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