Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

By Mark E. Smith

In some of our lives, it just follows us. Even if we’re not personally struggling with such a harrowing path, some around us are. And, the challenge that has haunted many of us is in figuring who might be and how to address it?

A common myth is that those who speak of committing suicide never follow through with it. However, this isn’t true. Eight out of 10 people who commit suicide talked about it or gave clues. Anyone with the thought in his or her mind is at risk and such communication must be taken seriously. As one with a family history of suicide, as well as having lost others around me to suicide, I’ve experienced and witnessed its impact since the age of four. Every time it’s re-entered my life, including in the days leading to this writing, I’ve learned a bit more about the causes and possible solutions – as well as the heartbreak when nothing can prevent it.

Many don’t understand why anyone would commit suicide? After all, we all have problems or get down, but the thought of killing ourselves never enters our minds. We intrinsically know that tough times pass, and move forward. Why, then, can’t some people move forward, why is suicide an option at best, or the ultimate solution at worst?

It’s really easy – and too often wrongly done in our culture – to label those who commit suicide as depressed, psychotic, or even manipulative. However, suicide is nowhere near that simple. We know that medical issues like organic brain disease, thyroid issues, and reactions to medication can cause suicidal thoughts. To the positive, when these are properly diagnosed, treatments exist, saving lives.

Yet, what about those who don’t have diagnosable medical conditions? What drives them to suicide? Researchers have found that there’s a certain inexplicable mindset where some simply see “suicide as a problem-solver.”

As troubling as that mindset is, it’s fairly easy to understand. When most of us encounter a problem, we instinctively know it as temporary. It’s actually one of our innate survival skills as humans. For some, though, they have a sort of tunnel vision, where problems aren’t viewed as temporary, but as forever torturous, with no end. And, in that mindset, suicide seems the only effective way to stop the pain because they see no other solution.

So, how can we address those who might be at risk of suicide around us? Firstly, we have to be honest enough to know that we can’t always prevent a suicide. If someone is going to kill themselves, it can be inevitable. But, this doesn’t mean most situations are – and awareness is key. Most who are suicidal don’t truly want their lives to end – they just want the pain to end. The understanding, support, and hope that we offer can be their most important lifeline.

If we know someone who’s struggling, possibly having tunnel vision toward suicide as the only solution – and, again, it’s often hard to define – speaking of other solutions can sometimes help break a mindset of suicide as the only option. It’s not about telling someone to simply move on; rather, it’s about being empathetic and, through communication, hopefully helping one break a tunnel vision mindset of suicide as the only solution. And, being observant to changes in mood and behavior are often emblematic of a medical condition, and guiding individuals toward proper medical care saves thousands of lives each year.

In the end, each person’s path toward suicide is a harrowing one. When we’re fortunate, that path can be changed, an invaluable life saved. For others, suicide is their final act – and the rest of us are left with the heartbreak. Forever.

Author’s Note

Dedicated to Maddie and her parents’ courage to speak about Maddie’s life, love, and suicide. May her struggles save others. Maddie’s obituary 

By Mark E. Smith

Wouldn’t it be nice if our life paths were linear, evolving via steady forms of growth? Just imagine how easy life would be if, from health to relationships to finances and on and on, our lives simply got better and better, with no adversity or rough times in-between.

Now, we all know that life doesn’t work that way – life isn’t linear for anyone. However, what happens if we accept the way life really works? What happens then?

I’ve watched the trees, shrubs, and flowers on my property this past fall, winter, and now spring. And, nature’s reminded me of the course of our lives: often growth occurs from loss and regrowth – phases I’ve experienced in my own lifetime, where I’ve always come back stronger, with a more vibrant perspective.

When we experience disheartening change or loss, it’s understandable to feel like all good things have come to an end. It’s like watching my flowers die in the fall. Then, all often seems hopeless for a bit – I’m never getting that part of my life back. It’s like looking at a mountain of trees without leaves in winter, where all looks eternally bleak. However, soon spring arrives and growth returns, where the trees, shrubs, and flowers have a tremendous growth spurt and colors abound. Nature is magical in its seasons – and so are our lives.

Not unlike nature, our growth isn’t linear. Rather, there are pauses and breaks to it. Our health fluctuates, relationships ebb, and we have financial down times. Yet, if we have faith, knowing that life isn’t linear, but that change and loss soon enough welcome new growth, we can have a life that’s one of anew and success, where the past is stepping stones to an ever brighter future. Indeed, these are the seasons of life.

It must be noted that nature has one up on us in that once the right weather hits, spring comes on strong and growth abounds. The springs in our lives can be a little more tricky in that we must invite them with positive actions and thoughts. If we’re in the dumps emotionally – without hope – winter can last a long time. Therefore, it’s often up to us to be the weather changer – again, a little faith and optimism that spring is possible goes a long way.

Life isn’t linear, and we do find ourselves in dormant seasons. However, when we do, let us know that all seasons are temporary, so thrive in the sun and have faith that in even the most wintry of times, spring will return.

By Mark E. Smith

My entire adult life, I’ve tried to grow a full beard – alas, to no avail. I was of the ‘80s generation, where George Michael rocked that close-cropped beard, and nothing was more masculine than that, right? Yet, every time I tried to grow a full beard to trim George Michael style, it always came in thin, and after two weeks, I gave up and shaved. I just couldn’t grow a beard.

However, several weeks ago, at this writing, I found a video by chance on YouTube regarding growing beards, and that piqued my interest. After doing further research, I learned that there’s literal anatomical science to growing a beard. While some men have thicker or darker facial hair than others, the universal fact is, all of our facial hair grows at approximately the same rate – 0.011” per day – and it takes one month to grow a beard. Therefore, I’ve learned, it’s not my genetics that has prevented my growing a full beard, but my lack of patience.

Not unlike my previous beard-growing mindset, I recently heard a great saying: we overestimate what we can do in two weeks, and underestimate what we can do in two years. And, on both fronts, patience and effort play a role.

How many of us have wanted to snap our fingers and somehow magically change an aspect of our life? We don’t want to spend a year getting in shape, two years getting finances in order, three years building a relationship, or four years going back to school to advance our careers. Heck, I don’t want to wait a month to grow a beard! Rather, we just want change now!

Yet, change doesn’t happen at the snap of our fingers. Rather, it takes patience, effort, and time. We don’t get into shape overnight; it takes consistent exercise and training. We don’t get our finances in order based on one paycheck; it takes long-term discipline and budgeting. We don’t build or repair a relationship in an eve; it takes constant introspection, understanding, and communication. And, we don’t elevate our careers in a day; it takes an ongoing practice of professional growth.

However, when we have patience and apply the effort needed, not over two weeks, but, say, two years, we accomplish extraordinary growth and changes in our lives. I wish there was a magic pill that allowed change to occur overnight. However, there’s not. We are fortunate, though, to have a formula that gets us to our goals, aspirations, and dreams: patience + effort + time = success.

I’ve applied this principle to many aspects throughout my life, and it’s never failed. Some successes take longer than planned – I recall spending every day for close to a decade learning to tie my shoes based on my disability – but patience, effort and time always pay off.

Along the way, especially when we don’t see immediate results, we’re bound to get discouraged – and that’s a great sign. We only feel discouraged when we’re truly trying, so recognizing it as a hallmark that we’re making progress is vital to growth. Discouragement doesn’t need to be a roadblock, but a sign that we’re heading in the right direction. Let it lead us past!

Surely, growing a beard is trivial compared to the many profound areas that we struggle with in moving our lives forward. Yet, the core principles are the same. Let us have the strength to invest patience, effort and time into what we desire – and it is then that our dreams and goals become reality.

By Mark E. Smith

As one with cerebral palsy, using a wheelchair, I’ve been blessed. For two decades, I’ve built a career in the corporate business world. That career has allowed me to fly on hundreds of trips, from Hawaii to Spain, to many destinations in-between. I, like most business travelers, crisscross the friendly skies from event to event, working to support my wife and two daughters, pursuing the success most of us wish.

However, on March 27, 2017, on American Airlines, I saw a dramatically different side to the world of air travel that I’ve long known.

See, I’d finished five days working a trade show in Southern California, and as I waited to board American Airlines Flight 121, departing at 11:30 am, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, all was typical. I had my ticket in hand, my wheelchair was tagged for cargo, and I was looking forward to a smooth flight home. Soon, I boarded, as did all of the other passengers, and as we sat buckled in, the Boeing 737 warmed up for departure.

Seated in row 24, my attention was called away from looking out the window, to a large group of American Airlines’ flight attendants, gate agents and ground crew – a sea of varying uniforms and two-way radio chatter – coming up the aisle. Without speaking to me, they asked the two women sitting next to me to move from their seats, explaining that they were removing me from the plane. I was immediately alarmed, not knowing what was going on, and asked what the issue was? Everyone in the American Airlines group paused and the entire plane was voiceless – just the mechanical hum of the 737.

I looked from one person to the next to the next, and all just stared. Finally, a flight attendant exclaimed, “This plane isn’t leaving without him!” and sat beside me. Her sudden burst of emotion confused me even more. I was then told that communication between the captain and ground crew instructed that he wouldn’t accept me and my wheelchair on the flight.

I was dumbfounded. American Airlines personnel were refusing to transport me because I am a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair. This scene was unquestionably a violation of a number of federal laws, and I was stunned that it was happening to me. However, in that moment, I kept all emotions in check, explaining that my wheelchair was, in fact, airline compliant, easily transported with a compacted size of merely 24” wide by 32” high, that it’s always easily loaded, that I often fly for business. The American Airlines group’s response was simply to continue removing me from the plane in a hurried fashion – Captain’s orders. I knew then that there was no reasoning with this dehumanizing situation. Compliance was clearly my only option, as is often the insidious nature of blatant discrimination.

As I scooted across the seats toward the crowd, having to transfer into a dolly-like chair so that they could roll me off of the plane, all of the other passengers watched, silent. Although many clearly heard that I was being removed because American Airlines didn’t want me and my wheelchair on the flight’s manifest, no one questioned why, in 2017, a businessman with a disability was being ejected from a plane? In that moment, I realized the gravity of it all: I was being stripped not just of my civil rights, but of my humanity. For the first time in my life, in the microcosm of that American Airlines Boeing 737, I was discarded as a human being – literally.

Think for a moment how surreal and painful it was for me in that cabin, where one minute I was a businessman traveling home to his wife and children, to the next moment of being displayed to rows of countless passengers as less of a human due to using a wheelchair. Imagine how emotionally breaking that is.

They rolled me down the aisle, off of the plane, and parked me on the gangway, totally immobile, strapped to a dolly chair, as the plane pulled away. I was discarded cargo.

As I sat there truly helpless, unable to move, not knowing how or when I’d get home – or even where my wheelchair was – I realized that I had to make an emotionally life-saving choice. I could allow American Airlines and its personnel to strip me of my dignity and degrade my humanity. Or, I could take control of my true being. Instead of expressing anger, I could maintain grace. Instead of experiencing anxiety, I could evoke strength. And, instead of external tears, I could hint an internal smile. And, with that, there I sat, deep in introspection, hearing the plane fly away, absorbing the fact that I, based on disability, was deemed less than human by American Airlines and its personnel.

As I waited in the unknown, I was comforted by words I heard long ago by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

By Mark E. Smith

Have you struggled to find the reasons? I have. See, whenever we face physical adversity or emotional trauma – and I’ve faced both – we often struggle to find the reasons. The search for reasons often manifests itself in blame or guilt (and guilt is truly just the word that means we blame ourselves, so it’s all blame!).

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been through adversity or trauma and, in the search for the reasons, blamed someone, some event, or yourself. My hand is raised because when we experience adversity or trauma, going into a state of blame is a natural reaction and coping mechanism. Blame is a way we try to find the reasons for whatever has happened to us.

I remember being 13, in a fishing boat with my stepfather, who had his issues, but genuinely loved me. As we fished on a still lake in Oregon one summer afternoon, he shared with me his struggles with who was to blame for my having cerebral palsy? As he pointed out, on the one hand, the overdose of the epidural during my birthing process could have resulted in my loss of oxygen and, subsequently, cerebral palsy. Yet, my mother was open with him about her having smoked and consumed alcohol throughout her pregnancy, which also could have been the causation of my condition. “It’s just so horrible that either of those did this to you,” he said, fiddling with his fishing line.

It was a fitting conversation because I was at a point where I, too, was looking for the reasons that explained our current life and there was a lot of blame going around in my head. My mother and stepfather loved me, but they were a mess in every possible way. They were drunk, high, volatile and broke. And, in my teen mind, I had a lot to blame, including myself.

From as young as I can remember until her death, my mother swore that my biological father left because of my disability. So, as a child and as a teen, I held in a lot of blame. I blamed my father for leaving, but I also blamed myself for my cerebral palsy causing him to leave, which led to the dysfunctional dynamic of my mother and stepfather, and the scarring chain of events went on and on.

Yet, while I looked for the reasons to blame for my home life, interestingly I didn’t seek blame toward my disability, itself. In fact, I was at an age where I was developing physical independence, and I found that the more I accomplished in spite of cerebral palsy, the more my esteem developed. The adversity of severe cerebral palsy wasn’t detracting from my life, but it was enhancing it. Cerebral palsy proved to be my lifesaver in a youth that was otherwise spinning in chaos. Among all of this, a life truth that many have found over the centuries also revealed itself: cerebral palsy didn’t happen to me, it happened for me. Cerebral palsy, which was expressed to me as a negative, was manifesting itself in my life as a positive.

As I grew out of my teens and into my 20s, my personal momentum stayed on track. However, I continued internally struggling with my parents and upbringing. I was still looking for the reasons, and that process transcended from blame to resentment to disdain.

Then, my daughter was born. I was in the delivery room, and was blessed as the first to hold her. At that moment, all of my issues with my parents, for the most part, washed away. I was no longer concerned with being someone’s child, but rejoicing in being a father.

Friends of mine were also starting families around that time and expressed fear in whether they’d make good parents? I told everyone that I had no fear because if I simply gave my daughter that which I longed for as a child – parental presence, stability, unconditional love, modeled emotional health, and so on – all would fall into place. It was at that point that the truth about adversity again spoke to me: my dysfunctional upbringing didn’t happen to me, but for me. I was a better father because of the adversity I faced in my own family growing up.

I don’t want anyone to experience adversity or trauma. However, when we do, there’s no need to search for reasons or blame. We know the reason: it makes us stronger. We face adversity and trauma because it dramatically improves who we can be. No, it’s not any easy process, and because we may struggle with it doesn’t mean we’re weak. To the contrary, we struggle with adversity and trauma because we’re building incredible strength. It’s the gym of life, where the further we’re pushed, the stronger we become. And, once we get to the other side – realizing that adversity and trauma don’t happen to us, but for us – we have a solace and strength that takes our lives to heights we never dreamed.

speak-up-quote

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.

struggle

By Mark E. Smith

I had the privilege of Ms. Wheelchair International, Yvette Pegues, visiting recently. She’s one, like many of us, who’s not only faced challenges, but continues facing them on a daily basis. As I always value, our conversations became deep and heartfelt very quickly, and she asked me a profound question: How do we express the truth of our struggles?

It’s a question many of us who struggle – whether physically, emotionally or mentally – face every day. After all, how candid should we be about our struggles, and with whom?

For me, I see it as a vital balance. We all have those in our lives who pour out every little problem to everyone they meet. There’s nothing authentic about ”woe-is-me” individuals. However, what is authentic is sharing valid, appropriate truth about our struggles. See, when we genuinely have struggles in our lives, it can feel natural to keep them to ourselves because… well… we don’t want to feel like we’re playing the woe-is-me card. Yet, not only do we benefit from being honest about our struggles, but it can also serve others. The only way others can truly know and help us is by our letting them know of our struggles, and in that process it can be remarkably comforting to others because they, too, have their struggles. For all of us, there’s power in not feeling alone – and that’s what the process of sharing the truth of our struggles does.

My wife and I were at church one Sunday, and a parishioner came up to us and said, “I know it took you more than most to get here this morning, and I want you to know I appreciate that.” His words were kind and empathetic – and remarkably true. He had to have known of disability experience, as it does take many of us hours to get ready in the morning. Nevertheless, what touched me was his emotional extension, having the heart to subtly say to me, a stranger, I know the truth of your struggles.

For those of us who know struggles in our own lives, we can be remarkably intuitive in recognizing it in others. Expressing the truth of struggles that we see in another can be an ultimate act of compassion and connection. No, we don’t need to give a drawn-out soliloquy. Rather a simple acknowledgement that simply says, I truly see you, and you’re not alone in this… can take weight off of the spirit.

Let us not just have the courage to express the truth of our own struggles, but to also have the courage to express the truth of others’ struggles, with compassion and connection. Ultimately, let expressing the truth of our struggles not be about us, but togetherness.