Penciling-In Purpose

maslowshierarchyofneeds-svg

By Mark E. Smith

Abraham Maslow was a well-respected psychologist in the mid 20th century. In 1943, he published a paper in Psychological Review, titled, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Put simply, Maslow explored what made great people… well… great. However, his research didn’t stop there. Over the next decade, he further studied such “exemplary” individuals, as he coined, as Frederick Douglass, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein. He also studied the top 1% of college students. With this data, he then defined an exact hierarchy of five traits that formed a pyramid, where if you had all of the ideal traits – physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization – you reached the ultimate state of “what a person can be.”

With his “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid published in 1954, Maslow garnered a lot of attention. It was sort of among the first self-help paths: follow these steps and you, too, can be a fully-evolved, ultra-successful person. Yet, in the 60 years since, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been questioned. The psychology community agrees there is a hierarchy of needs – breathing obviously comes before love – but many doubt Maslow’s sub-category rankings. For example, does sex come before intimacy, or intimacy before sex, and many argue that Maslow’s hierarchy can vary geographically, from culture to culture. Therefore, there are easily-seen holes in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

As one who’s studied Maslow since college over 25 years ago, I’ve increasingly noted a gap in his pyramid, myself. No, I’m not a psychologist, but one doesn’t need to be in order to understand what we need to be healthy, successful and fulfilled: a sense of purpose.

When we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, nowhere does he note purpose. Yet, we all know what it’s like to question our purpose, why we’re here, why we do what we do? And, when we have the answer – that is, when we feel a sense of purpose in our lives – it’s the ultimate fulfillment. I’d assert that purpose is as vital as breathing, itself. In fact, in the hospice community, we often hear of those seemingly refusing to pass until their purpose is resolved. A sense of purpose most often defines our lives in the end.

Of course, a sense of purpose is found in endless ways. As parents, striving to do best by our children, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of purpose. In our careers, if we feel that we’re truly making an impact, it gives us a sense of purpose. In our communities, if we serve others, it gives us a sense of purpose. The list goes on and on; however, there is a unifying key to all senses of purpose: we must sincerely feel we’re serving others in some way. This doesn’t mean that we need to win the Nobel Prize for medicine to feel a sense of purpose. Rather, it simply means we must feel that our actions, big or small, serve others. If you walk into a field and shovel snow, at best you’ll just get a workout. However, if you shovel your elderly neighbor’s walkway, you’re guaranteed to feel a sense of purpose.

Purpose is also wonderfully contagious, and we should never be cautious about spreading it – let purpose loose! I recently got wonderfully pulled into a flurry of purpose. A gentleman in our community saw his purpose in collecting clothing for our local men’s shelter. He emailed a single person, and she emailed another, and by the time I was added to the email chain, I was awestruck by so many finding their purpose in the project. There were collection bins being set up, locations secured, and I was like, “Heck yeah, I’ll write the PR for you!” When a purpose bus comes by, get on!

I don’t know where you’re at in your life, but for all of us, a sense of purpose is vital. Sometimes we struggle to find it, and that’s OK – having patience often leads to finding ultimate fulfillment. Sometimes, we have a sense of purpose, then lose it – it happens, and let us take time to rediscover it. And, other times we feel our purpose every day. Purpose isn’t a scorecard, but a journey.

As for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I’m writing purpose into the bottom tier because I believe it’s absolutely a foundation of our needs in life.

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Dropping the F-Bomb: Fear

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By Mark E. Smith

Have you ever thought about the power that fear has in your life? No, I don’t mean a fear such as that of public speaking or bugs or heights – those are all trivial. I’m speaking of fears that truly impact us: the fear to express ourselves to our partners; the fear of expressing vulnerabilities; the fear to truly just be who we are; and other such fears that emotionally stifle us.

And, it’s painful and debilitating, isn’t it? How many of us have been in a marriage or relationship, and have an inexplicable – or, sometimes, rightful – fear of expressing our needs or desires to our partners? We lay in bed at night, feeling alone, and our hearts just ache, don’t they?

Or, how many of us are living with trauma in our past of some kind, and we fear sharing it with anyone? The result is we feel isolated, needing to keep people at arm’s length, don’t we?

Or, how many of us are dissatisfied with our life paths overall, but we fear telling anyone because we don’t want to rock the boat or upset those around us? It leaves us trapped, doesn’t it?

I’ve faced many challenges in my life, but the absolute most difficult has been conquering such deep emotional fears of expression. And, it remains an ongoing process, where bursts of courage have been allowing me to slowly become more and more open over the years – read that, more honest with myself and those around me. I’ve been on a deliberate and liberating path from emotionally fearful to fearless.

In knowing my struggles and progress in this very personal emotional battle, I recently had the privilege of having a friend confide his fear to me. He was diagnosed two years ago with ALS, which has progressed very rapidly, his now using a power wheelchair and losing physical abilities day-by-day till he passes away. However, he’s been the picture of strength, not only for his wife and children, but for his whole community.

Despite his outward portrayal, he shared with me that he’s been keeping a secret, one he fears telling anyone. As I listened, he paused and said just two words: I’m scared.

Everyone handles adversity in his or her own way. However, any reasonable person who’s slowly dying, leaving behind a spouse and children has every reason to be scared. Yet, out of fear of not being “the strong one” that all labeled him as, he was terrified to express his real emotion, not wanting to let others down, as he put it. Meanwhile, he was struggling on this frightening journey internally alone – fear had him trapped within himself.

I asked, if he was to put his fear aside and share those two words – I’m scared – with his wife, how would she react? His answer was breathtaking: I know she’d reply, “I’m scared, too….”

I haven’t learned if he was able to ever have that conversation with his wife, but I hope he did because I trust it would bring them closer together and allow them to be more open in supporting each other in this process. You can’t have genuinely heartfelt conversations as long as you have fear.

See, that’s what overcoming such fear does – it opens us up. Sometimes we receive a positive response to releasing our deepest fears into the world, while other times a disappointing response. However, the reward of expressing ourselves, despite our fears, is in our actions, not the result. The power, for example, in coming out as gay isn’t in seeking approval; rather, it’s about not living in fear of being oneself. This equally applies to no matter what we’re keeping inside. Expression over fear liberates.

What I’ve learned in my own process – from my relationships to my career – is that life is more authentic when I choose to live openly as myself rather than stifled by fear.

Winds of Life

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By Mark E. Smith

If you’ve ever sailed a boat, you know it’s a combination of skill, faith and patience. Life, I’ve learned, is a lot like that, too. Many times, I’ve set a course in my life, where my abilities were only part of the equation, and having faith that it would all work out in the end – like counting on an unpredictable wind, far from landfall – was all I had to trust.

What might surprise you is that trusting in the wind of life has never failed me. As long as I’ve applied myself – like a sailor heading to sea at the helm – the winds of life have always come to carry me on my course. In the process, I’ve learned to be vigilant and have faith and patience – sometimes maintaining seemingly irrational faith and indomitable patience. But, the wind – that wind! – has always ultimately filled my sails.

Sure, I’ve found myself adrift at points in my life. As Coleridge put it in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner,”Water, water, every where / And all the boards did shrink / Water, water, every where / Nor any drop to drink.” We’ve all found ourselves adrift at points in our lives, waiting, wanting, needing a metaphorical wind to fill our sails and set our lives back on course. Maybe it was after a break-up or when we were broke or while looking for a job or, or, or…. When is my life going to get back on track?!

I’ve been there. And, what I’ve learned is that as long as we stay the helm – holding the course with faith and patience – we are never let down. The wind always comes, always fills our sails, and we always reach our destination, our purpose. We may encounter lulls and rough seas, adrift for weeks, months or years; but, eventually – hands blistered from grasping the helm – the wind comes.

For some in life, they never leave port, not wanting any risk. But, they never reach their intended destination, their potential. For others, they lose hope, giving up the ship, likewise never reaching their destination, their life’s purpose. However, for those among us who have vigilance, faith and patience to stay the course, the winds of life will take us to destinations beyond our dreams. All life asks of each of us is to take the helm and trust that the wind – although often unpredictable – will lead us through whatever journey we are meant for….

The Wet Pants Approach to Life

humility word in mixed vintage metal type printing blocks over grunge wood
humility word in mixed vintage metal type printing blocks over grunge wood

By Mark E. Smith

A friend told me how she knew her fiancé was originally the right guy for her. They pulled up to a grocery store in his car, and she insisted that he go in alone. He never shopped without her and found her insistence odd. Upon his wondering what was going on, she burst into tears, explaining that due to her paralysis and related bladder control issues, she’d wet her pants.

She shared with me that, in the moment, she felt so embarrassed and humiliated, and didn’t know how he’d respond? After all, they’d only been dating a short time.

He hugged her, told her it was alright, then leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes and hummed. She asked what he was doing, and he explained that he was wetting his pants, too, so they could be together in the moment. They both burst out laughing.

What my friend’s story illustrates is what we all need in our lives and relationships, regardless of disability: humility and humor. Truly, if you can live just in that space – with humility and humor – you can gracefully move through even the most awkward of life’s moments.

So often we fall into modes of pride, perfectionism and self-consciousness, and everyone is defeated by it. Perfection in life is a myth, and when we fight against that reality – clinging to false senses of Pride – we and those around us lose. The destructive emotions range from feeling shame to pushing others away.

Yet, when we’re humble and acknowledge that we all have vulnerabilities, and have the capacity to laugh at ourselves in the most trying times, that’s when we’re most receptive and endearing to others. After all, empathy binds two people, and when you can build that connection with humility and humor, in life’s awkward moments, it’s arguably the healthiest approach to such circumstances.

Now, I’m not saying that wetting your pants will lead to true love – although apparently it can. What I’m saying is that living our lives with humility and humor, in spite of adversity, opens us up to others, and them to us. So, let us pass on pride and portrayals of perfection, and find humility and humor in who we are – wet pants and all.

Meals or Feasts?

Gratitude rock

By Mark E. Smith

My life has been somewhat extraordinary in that I’ve known both sides of human experience – that is, what it’s like to live with exceptional adversity versus what it’s like to experience great fortune.

However, while my own life has made me acutely aware of extremes, it’s the individuals I encounter that have raised a profound question for me. In parts of my life, I interact with those facing tremendous adversity, while in others, I interact with those of great fortune. Overall, I’ve witnessed that people are people, and no matter how different two individuals’ life paths are, there’s a uniting humanity – people are people.

Yet, I’ve also witnessed a juxtaposition that’s intrigued me. If I shared that I knew a 40-year-old mother with progressing ALS who was bitter at the world because she would not live to see her children graduate high school, we all could empathize with her. On the other hand, if I shared that I knew a 40-year-old mother of great health and wealth who was dedicated to serving her community, we could empathize with her, as well. In both these scenarios, we could say that both women are doing the best that they can. And, indeed, in some form, I’ve known these women – and likewise men in the same situations – many times over.

But, here’s where the intriguing juxtaposition comes in. I similarly meet those facing tremendous adversity – literally that 40-year-old mother dying of ALS – who approaches every day with grace and joy, appreciative regardless of the devastating blow life has dealt. Meanwhile, I encounter those who are extremely fortunate – with health and wealth and thriving lives – who are bitter, jaded, living with a miserable sense of entitlement, as if the world owes them. How is it, then, that someone facing unimaginable adversity in life can live with such grace, while by contrast, I’ve more than once witnessed someone of great health and wealth throw a tantrum over the smallest, most trivial circumstance? How can this juxtaposition logically occur?

The answer is, gratitude. See, gratitude is the great equalizer – and you have it or you don’t. If you have it, it’s irrelevant what your situation is in life, as you’re grateful regardless of any circumstance. However, if you don’t have gratitude, you’ll conversely be bitter and jaded no matter how fortunate your plight. In this way, what life deals us has no bearing on our outlook – unimaginable adversity or great fortune are of no matter. What dictates our perspectives is whether we have… gratitude.

Author Melody Beattie writes, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend….”

Therefore, if we are to understand the true origins of fulfillment in our lives and whether we find true contentment, we don’t need to weigh the scales of adversity versus good fortune. Rather, to understand fulfillment and contentment in our lives, we merely need to consider the levels of sincere gratitude we possess.

The Solemnity of Serving

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By Mark E. Smith

A presidential candidate was asked if it was difficult to balance service to others with self-gratuity – that is, serving others simply to serve others versus serving others to benefit oneself in return?

The candidate’s answer was honest, but unimpressive: “I’ve always struggled with that balance.”

Ultimately, by nature, we can’t fault any politician for being self-serving. After all, politicians need the support of others to achieve their goals – they must, even with the best of intentions, give in order to get, as well as vice-versa.

In our personal lives, we’re far more fortunate. We can serve others simply to serve – among the truest liberties in life. See, when we give of ourselves, there’s no catch, no other concern, just the opportunity to serve another, and that’s the ultimate freedom – no strings attached.

Now, some might argue that the personal satisfaction of serving is self-gratuitous. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. I assert that in the truest sense, serving is an action made, then released. It doesn’t change how we feel about ourselves or effect our lives – we just carry on.

Interestingly, religions differ on this topic. Under Buddhism, the Law of Cause and Effect says, “The kind of seed sewn will produce that kind of fruit,” so simply doing right by others is doing right by ourselves – that is, we can’t escape karma. Serving others is to serve ourselves in the end.

Christianity, however, has another take on how we should handle serving others. In a translation of Matthew 6:3, it’s said, “But when you do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does,” meaning that good deeds should be kept secret, not done for praise.

In the end, serving others has a very simple universal truth: Whether you’re a politician, altruist, Buddhist, Christian or one of a million persuasions in-between, serve others because it’s the most sincere act we can extend to other human beings.

Projecting Oneself

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By Mark E. Smith

My friend texts me from a restaurant on New York City’s Upper East Side. He explains that it’s full of those who are ultra-wealthy, and they’re acting awkwardly toward him, as if they’ve never seen a person using a power wheelchair. He further texts that there’s an attractive, older women next to him who seems possibly approachable.

“Say to her casually, ‘I’m just back from London, and I’m amazed at how warm the weather is here,’ and see where the conversation leads,” I text back.

Of course, my buddy has never been to London and, yes, my reply was sarcastic.

We live in a culture where people may make totally uninformed, ignorant presumptions of us – and we can feel it sometimes, can’t we, like my friend in that restaurant. They perceive us as they wish. I mean, think about all of the stereotypes people can make about a gentleman using a wheelchair in public. And, it’s so easy for those of us who use wheelchairs to absorb those. It would be understandable for my friend to want to avoid that restaurant scene and high-tail it out of there. But, there’s every reason to stay.

No matter who you are – disability or not – you have far more control over such situations than you likely know. The fact is, just as others attempt to perceive us, we can completely project who we are, totally reversing the process. My text to my friend wasn’t meant for him to literally lie, but rather to imply gaining comfort in his skin. There was no reason for him not to fit in. It wasn’t up to those in the restaurant to tell him who he was; rather, he had the power to project who he was.

Being humble is among the most admirable traits. However, feeling as though you need to apologize for who you are should never be in our emotions. I use a power wheelchair, with severe cerebral palsy, right down to muscle spasms and labored speech. At 44 – and it took me a long time to get here – I don’t feel awkward in who I am, and I certainly would never apologize for who I am. As I go through the entirety of my daily life, I am who I am, and I’m not making an issue of it, and neither is anyone else, per me. Here I am, as I am, period.

And, that’s what I’ve learned: We teach people how to treat us by both how we view ourselves and what we project. If I’m in a conversation and I spasm, I correct my posture and keep with the conversation. If I don’t make it an issue, typically neither does anyone else. It’s amazing how our reactions and projections can completely dictate how others react to us. Just be you, and you’ll be impressed at how others recognize you as just that.

As for that awkward restaurant scene, how would I handle it? …I would just be myself.