By Mark E. Smith
We often hear of the American Dream, but what does that really mean? In my home, it means a lot – because we’re living it.
This past week, I was in Atlanta, working with the Georgia Association of Medical Equipment Services, advocating at the Capitol and its Legislature for sustained mobility funding and disability-related services.
Before I left, my daughter and I sat at our kitchen table, and laid out our 2013 schedules, finances, and priorities. As a family – even though it’s just the two of us – we must be on the same page, as a team, pursuing my goals, her goals, and most importantly, our goals as a family building a legacy.
At just turning 16, my daughter is on her high school’s honor role, and on an Ivy-League track toward college, leaning heavily toward an ultimate doctorate in psychology. She plays and holds a seat not just in the school band, but regional orchestra, too, and is next auditioning for the state level in March. She’s a member of the National Thespian Society, where she acts, as well as serves as Secretary for her troop, and she’s a gallery-shown photographer. This summer, she’s attending George Mason University, where she was nominated as among the top 250 youth leaders in the country, and she’s also volunteering as a counselor at a muscular dystrophy summer camp. Yes, the kid is freakin’ awesome, nailing life at 16!
My career continues in full swing, where I have more corporate, advocacy, writing, and speaking projects lined up than in the history of my career, and what I’ve accomplished in just the first month of the year makes my head spin. Again, I was in Atlanta last week – recently back from Detroit! – now I have a radio interview, magazine columns (both in print and in process), a MDA Muscle Walk fundraiser, which I’m helping coordinate, an on-going book project, engagements in Nashville, and Los Angeles, and a full-time corporate job, message board, and weekly blog. And, that only gets me to mid March! (Then it’s Capitol Hill time, Abilities Expos… you get the idea….)
Yet, as a family, my daughter and I not only have to annually budget time, but also finances. We take money management very seriously in our home, where it’s not just about wealth-building and security, but “stewardship.” We believe that what we’re blesses with isn’t truly ours, but that we manage it for a greater good. We live totally debt free, put necessity before want, share with others, and give as much as we can to charity. We don’t live with a scarcity mindset, where we hoard for ourselves; rather, we live an abundant mindset, where there’s enough for us to really enjoy life and not worry, but we have the ability to give generously, as we believe giving to others is the absolute most fun that one can have with money (and, it’s the reason why we’re “stewards” of income – that is, to ultimately do good with it for others, as opposed to seeing it as ours to keep).
But, here’s what struck me about our 2013 family schedules, finances, and priorities meeting: We’re living the American Dream. In two generations – mine, now my daughter’s – we’ve changed our family tree beyond what many would deem possible. The number of firsts for us is astounding. Although a non-traditional family of just the two of us – there’s no mother figure in our family photos – we personify the American Dream.
See, it’s easy to look at me in a suit and tie traveling the country, speaking to audiences, or read my magazine columns, or know of my corporate career, or see me sunning on my boat or jetting off to Vegas, and say, Sure, Mark, life is easy for you when you and your daughter have money and opportunity….
However, the fact is, I was born into less than nothing, with the four generations before me living in abject poverty, all addicts, most serving prison time, none with an education, most just to steal and harm whoever they could. As I open some of my speaking engagements, On the day I was born, my grandfather was in prison, a lifelong criminal; my grandmother was a heroin-addicted prostitute; my father was an alcoholic, drinking in a bar at noon; and, as I was born on that day, I wasn’t breathing….
And, my family tree got worse from there. My grandmother called my mother on the phone and shot herself in the head, committing suicide. My grandfather died of a heroin overdose after endless years of prison time. Both my parents were Skid Row alcoholics, dead by the time I was 40. And, it all made sense, going back for generations on both sides of my family.
So, how did my daughter and I end up here today? Well, there’s been a lot of hurt, pain, struggle, and success in-between; but for me, it all started with getting myself in and out of a bathtub at age 11, where I simply learned that with unyielding tenacity and vision, my potentials could extend as far as I wished. I couldn’t just change the direction of my family tree, I could grow my own. …And, I did.
I was the first one ever to graduate high school in four generations. I was the first to go through college. I was the first to never serve jail time. I was the first to have a career. I was the first to own and invest. I was the first to not be an addict of any sort. I was the first to not do what those before me and around me had done, but to live by a radically different moral and ethical compass. I was the first to live the American Dream.
Yet, the climb has never been linear. Many of the ghosts of my heritage have chased me at times. At 17, I awoke in intensive care after my own failed suicide attempt. I got myself horribly in debt in my 20s. And, I have yet to sustain a life-long romantic relationship. Yet, every time I’ve fallen down, I’ve used second chances, which we all have, to make things right. I immediately got into counseling at 17; I worked my way out of debt in my early 30s; and, at this writing, I’m currently in counseling, striving to take accountability for a string of ended relationships, and get this whole love life thing right. Indeed, the beauty of the American Dream is it gives each of us the chance to change the directions of our lives at any time and redefine who we are. Again, we can get knocked down and fall down, but we have the chance and the choice to get up stronger every time. And, I’ve never passed on that opportunity.
And, while my daughter’s life hasn’t been a piece of cake, either – her mother ultimately unable to break free of her past and demons, to the point where she hasn’t been in my daughter’s life – my daughter has taken the torch of the American Dream, and ran with it. What we’ve both learned is that life isn’t what you’ve been born into; rather, it’s what you make of it, and despite hardships and hurt, you can move through it all, day by day, hurdle by hurdle, to success that you’ve earned by simply striving to do right – that’s living the American Dream.