Dust and Sweat and Blood

critics

By Mark E. Smith

Someone asked me what the hardest part of my career has been? I didn’t have to think twice: Learning to embrace criticism.

Whenever we put ourselves in the public eye, even on a small scale, criticism flies at us. I once read a scathing criticism about Mother Teresa. Why would anyone ever criticize Mother Teresa?

I would have never imagined 25 years ago when I published my first piece in Sports ‘N’ Spokes magazine about racing wheelchair technology that readers would send letters to the editor criticizing me. But, they did. I remember the next month’s issue where a Canadian racer lunched a personal attack on me in the Letters to the Editor section. It hurt and made me second guess myself, not as a writer, but as a person. Then I wrote a piece in New Mobility about the goal of equal rights for those with disabilities, and I again was shocked by the hate mail. By 1995, when my childhood autobiography was published – as wholesome as writing gets – I wasn’t surprised but disappointed at the strangers who didn’t attack the book, but me personally.

With my work becoming so visible online since the late 1990s, and my career and public persona growing exponentially ever since, public ridicule and criticism is something I’ve faced on a daily basis for two decades now. It’s weird turning on your computer each day, seeing complete strangers hating you. But, it goes with the territory of being in the public light.

What’s intriguing about criticism, however, is that it’s by no means limited to those of us in public roles. In fact, among the most painful forms of criticism can come from those closest to us, those who profess to care about us – spouses, parents, siblings. I know because I’ve been there, too.

I recently received an unsettling phone call from a 22-year-old college student with cerebral palsy. He’s striving to graduate college and build a life for himself, but his dad gives him no support, just criticism. I could relate on an eerie level because I was in almost his exact situation, where my estranged father went out of his way several times to lash out at me, mocking me for pursuing my education, criticizing me for “thinking I was better than everybody else because I was going to college.” Sure, it stung, but by that point I couldn’t put any credence in my father whose track record was a tenth-grade education, a walk-away father and an unemployed, life-long alcoholic.

And, that’s the pattern of critics: typically they’re the last people who should criticize anyone. From my public career to my personal life, I’ve never had anyone doing what I do criticize me. It’s always those not doing who criticize. Among the best quotes on this topic is President Theodore Roosevelt’s excerpt from a 1910 speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Researcher and lecturer, Brene Brown, expands upon this, noting, “If you place yourself in the arena, you’re going to get your ass kicked. But, those not in the arena, who aren’t getting their asses kicked with us, have no right to judge. …Take your seats and be quiet.”

From Roosevelt to Brown, I wholeheartedly agree. We can’t put credence in armchair quarterbacks. If you’re on the field with me, taking blows, marred by dust and sweat and blood, I’ll give you due credibility. However, I can’t take beer-belly, armchair quarterbacks seriously – they invest nothing of themselves. If you criticize me, I will hear you out of decency, but I’ve learned that if I truly believe in what I’m doing – and I do – criticism may still feel lousy, but it doesn’t change my inspired path. Some are satisfied by watching and criticizing, but I’m busy doing.

Let us live boldly in the arena, and as the seated critics shout – too cowardly to be in the arena taking blows with us – use it as validation that we’re doing everything right and getting stronger all the time, thriving on being marred in dust and sweat and blood. It takes nothing to be a critic; it takes everything to strive to make a difference. See, the ultimate strength isn’t in ignoring your critics; rather, the ultimate strength is in having the courage to continue moving your life and career forward regardless of what they say.

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No Farther Than Ourselves

By Mark E. Smith

There were many reasons why Kurt Cobain of the band, Nirvana, killed himself on April 5, 1994. Suicide, you see, is often a very complex process, rarely attributed to a sole cause, but most often a culmination of unbearable emotions. However, as fellow musician, Henry Rollins, put it, much of Cobain’s issues leading to his suicide could be traced to “the brutality of the public” – that is, the challenges of being in the public eye, where strangers can be astoundingly cruel, where Cobain, himself, discussed being too sensitive to endure criticism by the public, robbing him of his sense of identity.

When I started WheelchairJunkie.com 15 years ago, two aspects surprised me. Firstly, I was surprised by its success. After all, I created the site simply as a small place for my fellow wheelchair users and me to connect. However, its readership didn’t just grow rapidly in the beginning, but has continued growing ever since, where I’ve been forever amazed that such a personal project could reach so many – and I’ve been blessed that others have allowed me the privilege of being part of such a terrific community for much of my adult life.

Secondly, following the launch of the site, I was surprised by, as Rollins put it, “the brutality of the public,” which grew proportionately as the site’s popularity grew. I don’t recall exactly when my readership grew large enough to tip into the realm of my being somehow recognizable enough to become a target of “the brutality of the public,” but at some point relatively early on, a complete stranger emailed me in hatred of who he thought I was or represented. Now, in my 15th year of running the site, based on the vast readership, not a day passes where I don’t awake to an email or message board post where a total stranger – sometimes several – wants to argue with me, condemn me, or literally wish me dead.

However, rather than being distraught over strangers wishing me ill over my public persona – although my public persona isn’t a persona at all – I’ve been intrigued by the phenomenon as it’s occurred for well over a decade in my life. What’s intriguing is the question of why anyone in the public would hate me to the point of wishing my death, or at the very least stating, “I disagree with Mark on almost everything….” If we look objectively at my “public profile,” it’s about as mundane and noncontroversial as it gets. Read my weekly web and print articles and essays, read my message board posts, follow my Twitter and Facebook, and you’ll see that there’s no controversy (most of it is so feel-good or sincerely striving to be helpful that it borders on boring). Still, you’ll see comments directed at me that are antagonistic at best, shockingly graphic in wishing me dead at worst. But, why?

In a parallel, strangers hating me reminds me of what I know about Jennifer Aniston. Year after year, Jennifer Aniston receives among the most death threats of any celebrity. What has Jennifer Aniston ever publicly done that could possibly upset anyone? So, I suppose that if someone as noncontroversial as Jennifer Aniston is among the most hated celebrities, I, as a guy simply striving to help others in a similar situation to mine as one with a disability, shouldn’t be exempt from unexplainable hate from strangers, as well – after all, there’s no rationale to the brutality of the public, strangers merely inappropriately projecting their angst upon us. If you have a large enough audience, regardless of who you are or what you do, the brutality of the public emerges.

Nevertheless, when it comes to enduring the brutality of the public, I have a tool on my side – and you may, too – that most others in the public eye don’t have: Disability experience. See, if you’ve lived with disability for many years or a lifetime like I have, you likely know how brutal the public can be. From time to time, strangers will make assumptions about us based solely on our disabilities, projecting stereotypes and stigmas upon us that are completely irrational. It can be offensive and distressing. Yet, when it occurs, if we’re rational and self-accepting, we’re not offended by someone treating us arbitrarily different based on disability, but we instead recognize that a stranger’s ignorance toward disability is of no ultimate consequence as long as we know who we are. Therefore, there’s a fascinating overlap between disability experience and public experience, where void of rational explanation, strangers make completely inappropriate projections upon us – and it’s our job to not be offended by it, but to just recognize that it goes with the territory of public exposure.

Yet, there’s an even larger picture to all of this, life truths that apply to everyone. If we’re going to find ultimate fulfillment in life, we must be so resolute in our core values – in following our hearts of hearts, our passions of passions – that we’re simply not swayed by outside forces. Praise shouldn’t matter. Criticism shouldn’t matter. Peer acceptance, the support of our families, money, fame, a risk of failure – none of it should matter. If we are to be ourselves to the most true, sincere levels, we can’t be swayed by others – all we can be is who we are, where the brutality of the public is voided by our own unwavering integrity.

Unfortunately, as Kurt Cobain ultimately failed to realize, true singers sing solely for the sake of one’s own soul, not for the praise or criticism of an audience. For, when it comes to seeking acceptance, we should look no farther than ourselves.