Where the Intertwined Branches Meet

By Mark E. Smith

I was asked how my wife and I maintain a healthy marriage in times of adversity? After all, that’s when most couples struggle, albeit based on health issues, financial crisis, pressures of parenting, or countless other life circumstances. In fact, it’s a topic I’ve pondered and my wife and I have discussed, especially based on recent health issues in our family. So, what have we learned about trotting through the tough stuff in life as a couple?

We’ve identified four key components to successfully facing life’s adversity as a couple that serve us well. I realize there’s no science to this, as each couple and their personalities differ. However, there’s merit to what we’ve learned, sound factors based on our experience.

Firstly, an advantage to any relationship is in knowing whether the individuals can, in fact, address adversity in healthy ways. The fact is, some people can’t. I live and work in disability culture, and I’ve heard many stories of accident and illness, where when adversity struck, the healthy partner left. We don’t like to believe that happens, but it does. It’s not always predictable, but if we know that our partner can handle adversity, it’s a tremendous reassurance. My wife and I both knew adversity as individuals before we met, so there was a confidence that our vows of “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, and in sickness and in health.” If you’re in a long-term relationship, you’re going to experience all of these, and each partner must be committed to moving through them, not caving when times get tough.

Secondly, it’s imperative to tackle the issue, not each other. Too many couples lash out at each other during adversity rather than focusing on the issue. If you can address the problem as a team – pointing at it, not each other – you’ll simultaneously solve the issue and strengthen your relationship. I call it the “high-five effect.” Celebrating victory as a couple is tremendously empowering to a relationship.

Thirdly, respect each other’s individual experience amidst adversity, as they may not be the same. This is an invaluable principle that my wife and I learned the hard way. I was recovering from a health issue and she was placed in the role of caregiver. One morning both of our emotions around the situation came to a head. I expressed mine, she expressed hers, and soon we were in a war of words for whose perspective was right? The fact was, we were both right in our feelings, as our experiences within the circumstance were different based on our roles. We learned to respect what each other was going through based on our individual experiences, not assume that they were the same or that there was only one perspective.

Lastly, it’s vital to not neglect the core normality of the relationship regardless of the adversity. For us, this means that humor, affection, romance, and shared joys remain during even the toughest of times. Ideally this is an intuitive and natural part of the relationship, regardless of circumstance; but, sometimes we should stop and think, “What does my partner need at this moment?”

My wife and I are just a married couple trying to make it through the trials and tribulations of life like everyone else. We’ve faced a bit more adversity than some, and a bit less than others. Yet, despite our lessons learned, there’s still a simple truth to all lasting relationships: Love conquers all.

Welcome to the Here and Now

By Mark E. Smith

As part of the disability community, I’ve long known those with progressive and terminal conditions. While not everyone handles such life paths the same, I’ve been struck by those who express and experience absolute joy while living with their conditions. I’ve thought a lot – and talked with some – about how any of us can experience true joy in the face of exceptional adversity? What I’ve learned, and subsequently practice, is an approach to life that I’ve seen bring the greatest fulfillment, one that we all can live by.

Progressive and terminal conditions can be tough for many because one can get caught up in dwelling on the past while fearing the future. There’s not much room in there for joy in the present when the past and future weigh on us so heavily. What’s more, this very human emotional dynamic isn’t exclusive to a progressive or terminal condition. Many of us can find ourselves dwelling on the past while worrying about the future based on countless life circumstances. So, how do we find joy amidst such daunting circumstances?

The key is found in living emotionally present during any given moment. It sounds like psychological or philosophical babble. But, truly, the past and future aren’t real in the present. What’s happened is past, and what may happen is the future. Yet, neither is occurring now. The only state that we’re truly in and can work with is the present. Therefore, if we want to experience joy regardless of the circumstances that have or may affect us, we simply need to be emotionally present, in the here and now.

For me, this approach to life has allowed me to not only release the past and worry far less about the future, but most importantly, it’s allowed me to savor more moments in my life, being totally emotionally present. This isn’t to say I never think about the past or consider the future. However, there’s a difference between dwelling on the past versus remembering it, just as there’s a difference between worrying about the future versus setting goals or recognizing objectives. The profound advantage to being emotionally present in any circumstance is that we can fully experience the power of a moment without interference. We can purely revel in what is – for that’s truly all there is.

I recall being in a hospital ICU after a major surgery. A lot went wrong, was going wrong, and my future was uncertain. I was with my wife and oldest daughter, and in that moment, I genuinely didn’t have a care in the world. I was the luckiest guy alive because I was with the two loves of my life. What happened or may happen didn’t matter. I was with my wife and daughter, and that was reality, that was the beauty of life surrounding me in the moment.

I apply this same principle to my everyday life. No matter what I’m doing, I strive to be emotionally present, where multi-tasking of emotions rarely exist. Whether I’m talking to my daughter or a stranger, and everyone in-between, I immerse myself in that connection. If I’m at work, I entirely focus on the task at hand. And, as far as going to bed or waking up upset… well… it doesn’t happen, as I’m just thrilled to be with my soul mate, in the present. No, I’m not perfect at any of this – we all have emotions that catch us off guard – but I’m pretty good at being present because I know how it’s amplified the quality of my life and my connections with those around me.

The benefits of being emotionally present toward joy are easy to see. However, it also proves beneficial during very difficult situations. So often during difficult times or decisions our thinking is skewed by past emotions coming up or fear of the future. Yet, when we can be emotionally present and focus solely on the here and now, we can make far more rational decisions. Again, we should focus less on what was and what may be, and more on what is.

None of our lives are perfect. Some of our lives can, in fact, read as nightmares. Yet, if we live with emotional presence, where we keep our pasts and futures in check, choosing to be emotionally present, moment by moment, it’s astounding how many of the moments in our lives reveal themselves as breathtakingly beautiful.

Sinking Ships Save Lives

By Mark E. Smith

I was at my boat dealership readying my boat for its summer launch, when I heard a commotion. It was a guy yelling about some issue with his $90,000 boat, dry-docked next to his Range Rover, with his blond, breast-implanted wife and couple of kids standing beside him. As I tuned in to his yelling, he was furious that the cabin on his boat hadn’t been vacuumed, part of the dealership’s summer launch package. And, as I waxed my boat, I thought, Oh joy – another A-hole who has no clue as to how blessed he is. I should go punch him in the face, and teach him a bit about appreciating life via a broken nose.

Now, there’s a good bet that a tool like him is in debt up to his ears. Still, life has to be a piece of cake when you have luxuries like a sport cruiser, high-end SUV, and breast implants. But, most importantly, everyone in his family seemed strikingly healthy – the biggest blessing of all. Yet, Mr. Tool seemed oblivious to all of it, where apparently his life is so easy – read that, so lacking of appreciation – that his only concern is screaming at a 19-year-old, who makes $8 an hour working his ass off – about his boat not being vacuumed. Again, I say that we tattoo A-hole on Mr. Tool’s forehead just to forewarn everyone he encounters.

Yet, Mr. Tool isn’t unique. We run into people everyday who have zero appreciation for all that’s in their lives. I was in line at Wal-Mart, and heard the clerk ask each person in front of me how he or she was? Each person had something negative to say, whining about this or that. I thought to myself, You’re healthy enough to to be shopping, with enough money to pay for groceries – life is great, so quit your complaining.

So, when I got to the check-out, I asked the clerk if anyone ever gave her an enthusiastic, positive response? Her answer, “Never – you’d be amazed at how miserable people are.”

No I wouldn’t. I know countless people with everything to be thankful for; yet, they make themselves miserable based on a looming lack of appreciation. People with committed marriages are miserable. People with great jobs are miserable. People with supportive families are miserable. People in great health are miserable. In plain terms, people who are blessed beyond belief will tell you how terrible their lives are – and I find it a repugnant mindset.

All of this led me to the question of, Why are people who are so fortunate so miserable and ungrateful?

It turns out that there’s a scientific basis for misery and a lack of appreciation by those who are truly blessed with love, success, and financial security. An article in the August 2010 issue of Psychological Science demonstrates that while the various forms of success in our lives can elevate us by class, status, and wealth, it simultaneously can impair our ability to enjoy or appreciate life, itself. It turns out that when we experience the success that life has to offer, it can numb us toward savoring the seemingly smaller – but ultimately important – parts of life, like being grateful for life, itself. As the study describes, it’s not unlike that “new car feeling,” where most appreciate a new car for a few weeks, but then lose gratitude toward it. Mr. Tool being pissed about his boat is merely emblematic that he’s lost the ability to realize how blessed he is in the most important ways, as with having a loving wife and two healthy kids. He’s allowed himself to lose humility and perspective by being blinded by good fortune.

The key, then, for all of us is to maintain a sense of perspective on our lives. Using myself as an example, I enjoy the material things I’ve earned – and feel blessed to have them, genuinely appreciating aspects like my career, house, boat, and van. However, truly, if I lost everything I have, I’d still be fulfilled as long as those close to me were healthy and happy, with my daughter being number one. You can fire me; burn down my house down; sink my boat; and, crash my van. Heck, give me a horrible disease in addition to my cerebral palsy. But, as long as my daughter is healthy and happy, I have no right to complain about anything, ever.

And, that’s what we all need to do at this moment: Remind ourselves of how blessed we are at the core levels of our lives, and approach the rest of life with a genuine sense of gratitude, right down to just being thrilled to be in line at Wal-Mart with a bunch of miserable people.