Stopping the Spiral

By Mark E. Smith

It’s that murky area, the one where a bad day turns into a bad week, maybe a bad month, and we can’t find our way out. These are the scary, dangerous times for many.

I recently had one of those weeks, all emotionally spiraling out of control. A series of deaths around me triggered my own anxiety around mortality – fears of leaving my wife and daughters behind upon my passing – created by a not-so-long-ago health crisis. The anxiety and fear piled on and I felt a confusion, a disassociation, a fear that my life, too, was destined to end sooner than later.

As the week went on, I found myself feeling more and more isolated, even though my everyday life didn’t change. I was surrounded by people – my work, my family, my community – but still felt alone. My wife recognized my behavior, wondering if I was “back there” again? It’s something she’s seen come and go, especially since my health crisis.

I remember sitting alone at our kitchen table one eve, irrationally thinking that all around me was temporary, that this might be the last time that I looked out the windows at the early-summer, green-carpeted hills that surround our home. Just as this lush season will fade, might life, itself?

I grabbed my cell phone and sent a text to my lifelong best friend, asking if he could talk? I knew he could, as whenever either of us reach out, the other understands the importance of answering. And, so for an hour, we talked about what I was feeling, and when I hung up the phone, the spiral was neutralized.

If we are thinking, feeling, introspective individuals, we’re going to experience difficult times in life. At those moments, it’s crucial that we’re self-aware enough to reach out to someone for support, clarity, validation of feelings. We need to be self-aware enough to say, I need help stopping this emotional merry-go-round I’m stuck on.

For some of us, a partner, family member, or friend can offer the grounding perspective we need. For others, where the issues are more clinically based, professional help is needed. In either case, our reaching out is key to our survival.

Now, I know that reaching out is hard and scary. It’s difficult to share that we’re struggling, if not impossible for some. At the very least, by reaching out, we’re exposing our deepest vulnerabilities and extending trust. It can seem harrowing.

However, no one can help us if they’re unaware that we’re struggling. So often we wait for others to come to us out of concern. But, if we’re not showing signs, they can’t be expected to. This can be compounded by the fact that many who are struggling master the art of hiding it — again, showing vulnerabilities is extremely difficult for many. Therefore, it’s vital that we, ourselves, reach out, that we push past our apprehension and fear in our own best interests.

I’ve learned that in my toughest times, reaching out has never failed me. When I’ve reached out, I’ve found the most profound human experience: an embrace.

We all struggle at some point in life, the causes of which are unique to each of us. When we find ourselves there, let us not be ashamed or question ourselves or, worst of all, isolate and hide our struggles. Rather, let us serve ourselves by reaching out to those around us – and experience the power of common human experience. We never need to be alone, nor are we.

Arguing Against Arguing

By Mark E. Smith

Have you ever argued with your spouse or partner, maybe someone not so close, maybe even a stranger in public? Did you ever stop to truly consider what the arguments became about?

I have done all of the above, and while there’s no argument I’m proud of – they all left me feeling ashamed of my own behavior – I deeply value what I’ve learned from such taxing experiences.

See, while arguments always start out with a causation, even if it’s unwarranted or irrational, they quickly spiral to the singular intention of both people trying to simply prove that they are right and the other is wrong. You’re likely thinking, Mark, that’s the very definition of an argument – duh!

Actually, no. The definition of an argument is persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong. What we tend to do, however, is devolve that intention away from the original topic and it becomes I’m right, you’re wrong, period, by both people and the original topic is lost. Put simply, arguments typically shift from that to you.

A lot of us can relate to this by thinking back to an argument where we genuinely forgot what started the argument – but we were furious at the other person, no less. We may chuckle about it later in realizing the absurdity, but it’s hard to stop the slippery slope when we’re on it – in an argument, that is.

The key is to recognize the nature of it all – and strive to avoid the pitfalls. The fact is, if we follow the course of a typical argument, both people are simply wrong in the end. No one wins; everyone loses. A solution becomes impossible, destruction assured.

This isn’t saying that there’s no place for disagreement or that relationships and interactions with others are always harmonious. Of course disagreements arise in our lives. However, let us address them in constructive ways rather than engaging in the destructive. Let us solve problems rather than escalating them. Let us not fall into the trap of arguing, but into the humility of discussing.

If we know this universal truth – that there’s an intrinsic nature of arguments devolving to a damaging degree, and avoiding it – we’re not just closer to actually solving the true issue at hand, but, more importantly, preserving the dignity of all. Maybe we all should argue against arguing.

From the Maternal to the Eternal

By Mark E. Smith

It’s a simple truth: When it comes to empathy, compassion, devotion, and unconditional love, we men have a lot to learn from the women in our lives.

I love my male counterparts, but the women in my life have taught me more as a man than… well… any man has ever taught me. In fact, women like my wife, daughters, and sister have made me the man who I am. And, I know that holds true for many of my gender.

We can talk about the most remarkable aspects of humanity – empathy, compassion, devotion, and unconditional love – but to truly know them, we must witness them, experience them. Of course men can possess these heartfelt traits. However, I’ve never seen them more exemplified than through a mother to her children, a daughter toward her parents. It’s so natural, so intrinsic, effortless, selfless. I watch my wife comfort our youngest daughter in the toughest childhood moments. I watch her listen without judgment to our oldest daughter as she explores young adulthood. And, I watch as my wife gives me her all in too many ways to ever list. She embodies an emotional intelligence that’s awe-inspiring.

Why do men seem to be less expressive – dare I say, less intuitive? – in this area? Is it cultural or social norms? Is it the way the genders are hardwired?

I hate to break it to my fellow men, but neuroscience has the answers. Empathy, for example, functions very differently between women and men. Empathy occurs in a part of the brain called the insula. When we sense another’s emotions, the insula mimics those emotions and allows us to relate to them as if our own. That’s empathy.

What’s fascinating is that neuroscience proves that while women stay in a state of empathy, men typically quickly leave it and the brain shifts to problem solving. Problem solving is a great trait, but not very nurturing or present in the moment. This is where we see the remarkable capacities that women possess.

Despite the science, we, as men, do have the ability to learn and grow, and the women in my life continue teaching me that such vital emotional intelligence doesn’t have to be gender-specific, but that they can be human-specific.

On Mother’s Day, when I take to heart the women in my life, I realize that their love isn’t just maternal, but eternal.

When Being Our Best Truly Counts

By Mark E. Smith

I live in an inspired cultural niche, one of disability. Every day, I have peers vying against the odds to overcome seemingly insurmountable struggles. What’s long intrigued me isn’t that they do it, but the specific life tool that they use, one that we all have.

Tiffani Ntanos, is a well-known YouTube personality, who became a high-level quadriplegic at age 20 as a result of a diving accident. She’s spent the past six years learning how to live as a quadriplegic. Being in one’s 20s can be confusing enough, and adding a life-changing accident makes it even more difficult. Now, at age 26, she’s living with cancer. Talk about blow after blow. Make no mistake, it’s a daily struggle, but she’s doing it, she’s addressing each vying in life as it comes. She’s had not one, but two of life’s toughest paths, but keeps pushing forward. How?

Tiffani and many of us know the rule of the road when it comes to navigating harrowing challenges: When we’re at our lowest, let us be at our best – for that’s when it counts the most.

Most assume that we’re at our best when… well… we’re at our best. Yet, that’s a misnomer. See, being at our best when life goes smoothly isn’t difficult. It’s actually quite easy. We’re soaring at those fortunate points and it doesn’t require a lot from us.

However, when being at our best truly counts is when we’re in the depths of struggle. We must find the insight to cope, the fortitude to adapt, and the strength to rise. We must not settle for where we are, but strive toward where we can be. We must not accept a defeat, but fight for a win. This all requires our best.

I’ve been at the lowest of the lows in life, and the highest of the highs. I still oscillate between the two from time to time – most of us do, as that’s how adversity in life works. And, it’s at the lows when I learned to be at my best, as we all must do if we’re going to succeed. Dancing around a ring as a boxer is easy. Real strength comes in when you’ve been knocked down and must get up.

When we’re defeated, of course it’s natural to feel defeated. Yet, those who know how to succeed during extreme adversity make the choice to move from feeling defeated to feeling motivated, they know it’s time to be at their best. The key to all of this is living with hope. If we feel motivated, we feel hope, and they fuel each other. Therefore, rarely is it the situation that dictates the ultimate outcome, but our perspective – that is, rising to our best, especially when at our lowest.

Life throws adversity our way from time to time, which can knock us down. That’s not the time to curl up and succumb. Rather, when adversity comes our way, that’s the precise time to double down and say, Man, I’m at my best – I can handle this!

How to Win the Blame Game

By Mark E. Smith

Mathematics has it right: a problem dictates a solution. As emotional humans, unfortunately, we’re often not so constructive: a problem often fosters blame rather than a solution.

Indeed, we’re typically not mathematicians when it comes to solving everyday problems. However, it comes at a high cost, where seeking to place blame not only doesn’t solve a problem, but often makes a situation far worse.

Most of us in a relationship can recall situations where there was a problem at hand, and rather than addressing finding a solution as a couple, we’ve blamed each other. Those arguments didn’t turn out well, did they? They likely only made situations far worse.

My wife and I once argued over the proper place for a TV antenna to work most effectively. It was a simple problem and solution – that is, move the antenna around until the picture is clear and place it there. We both had our opinions on where it should be located, and when it didn’t work, we blamed each other. The more we moved it, the more we argued, to where we were so focused on blaming each other that we became oblivious to solving the problem.

My wife and I blaming each other over a TV antenna not working is a true but ridiculous story. However, we’ve all heard of very serious stories where couples get divorced over, say, finances, where rather than come together for a solution, they blame each other to the very end. Blame can truly lead to tragic outcomes, making a logical solution seemingly impossible.

We see the blame-game dynamic occur a lot in government. There’s no wonder as to why so few problems get solved on Capitol Hill – everyone blames everyone else rather than finding solutions. Locally, where I live, there’s a problem with potholes. The street department blames increased traffic and weather. The citizens blame the street department for not caring. I even heard someone blame automakers for poorly designing cars that can’t handle potholes. Yet, I haven’t heard anyone say, Hey, how about we just focus on fixing the potholes!

Few realize the toll that the blame game takes on commerce, as well. Have you ever had an issue with a product or service, and rather than solving the issue, everyone blames everyone and the situation escalates? Countless hours are spent arguing round and round – wasting time and money – and no one truly seeks a solution. It’s a disturbing dynamic I’ve long tried to earnestly change via my formal business roles, with mediocre success – people are people, after all. What I try to emphasize to my customers, dealers, and colleagues is that we need to solve the problem, that throwing blame around like a proverbial hot potato defeats everyone’s interest. We’ll determine the true causation of the problem in step two, but step one is finding an immediate solution.

On a personal level, once a problem is solved, some can hold on to animosity. I’ve found this to be primarily caused by people investing too heavily in blame to begin with. If a problem is solved, let’s move on, and holding on to animosity only makes us our own victim. Holding on to bitterness over a problem long solved is a tough way to go through life. Again, the goal is to solve a problem, not seek and hold on to blame.

If we want the most successful outcomes when issues arise in life, we have to seek solutions and avoid blame. Water puts out fires; gasoline makes them worse. Let us jump right to solutions, where we all simply do right by each other in the end. That makes for the ultimate solution, no matter the problem.

One Fine Burger

By Mark E. Smith

It’s a simple, quiet place. The confusion and struggle of a younger man are long gone. It’s reminiscent of when I look out through the pane windows of our farmhouse on a wintry Sunday morning. There’s something gentle and still about it all – winter and life.

It’s another Friday night and my wife and I are the early crowd at a local restaurant. It’s the kind of restaurant where some go for special occasions; others are regulars, older folks who have dinner there several nights per week. We’re neither. It’s close to home, and despite its higher-end menu, I prefer to sit at the vintage mahogany bar and get a basket of bread, one fine burger, and just be, with my wife. There’s no complexity to it. It’s all comforting – my wife, the food, the atmosphere.

The owner-chef and I have an understanding. We’re acquainted just enough to be on a personal basis. He’ll sit with us and chat. We’ve been open to the degree that we both have shared that we come from families on the other side of the tracks, as he’s politely put it. When you come from that type of family and get to a point in adulthood where you’re no longer running, no longer hiding, no longer out to prove yourself, and you don’t need to worry about being able to pay the utility bill each month, life becomes easy, almost effortless – at least emotionally. So, what’s the key to moving beyond it all, where you’re no longer running, hiding, or proving, but just being, finally at ease?

I’ve come to understand that there are two sides to living with a difficult past: sometimes we hold on to the past and sometimes it holds on to us. Some of us, with struggle, get to a point where we can, for the most part, let go of our pasts. For me, time has equaled distance in that process. The more that time passed, the less my past affected me. Sometimes we can move beyond all in a literal sense by simply moving our lives forward. Education leads to career, which leads to financial security, just as finding love leads to understanding love, and at some point we transcend from what we knew into what we know, all for the better. That’s the key to the best of my understanding of how to change one’s life and leave the past in the past – we realize that we can work to move beyond what we’ve known, into a life of different possibilities, potentials, and outcomes. It’s not easy, but the time-distance equation makes it possible.

On the other hand, when our past has a hold of us, it’s a harrowing plight, as well. We live in a culture that propagates the belief that anyone can “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” It’s not just physically impossible – try pulling on your shoes to lift yourself off of the ground! – but it’s also emotionally impossible when one’s past has its grip. We can’t expect anyone to just get over it and move forward. Trauma is far more complex to heal from.

We know that the healing process is subjective. Of course, the severity of the trauma plays a role, as does one’s psychological and physical health. Where the subject gets tricky is when, say, siblings grow up in the same dysfunctional family and one is able to move beyond the trauma while another continues in its grip. Similarly, in my world, I often see individuals of the same severe injury or illness, but some cope in positive ways while others struggle in a negative space. Therefore, it’s difficult to say who escapes the grip of trauma.

Regardless, it’s vital to have empathy and utmost respect for both plights. After all, both plights involve just as much struggle. We can’t look at someone who’s moved beyond his or her past and say, You’re lucky, because we know the phenomenal amount of work it took. Similarly, we can’t look at someone who’s struggling in the grips of his or her past and say, You’re just not trying hard enough, because we know that’s not how the process works. Again, one only knows what one knows until one knows differently – and there’s no single or direct or surefire route to getting to that point. If you swam across a channel of water, knowing how tough it was to cross, you can’t look at those still in the middle, struggling, with anything but empathy and respect.

My wife and I try to remember if I ordered my burger medium-rare or medium-well? I don’t recall. I simply know that, regardless of how they’re cooked, such burgers taste better than ever these days.

Counting fIsh

By Mark E. Snith

When I first met Chris at the medical center, I wasn’t sure what was up with him.

Chris sat next to me awaiting blood work. He was in his early 30s, with dreadlocks and crazy-colored basketball ball shoes. A sweatshirt and sagging pants rounded out his urban look.

His first words to me were, “Do you go up and down in your chair for fun?” observing my power wheelchair’s elevating seat that takes me from sitting to standing height.

I gave him my standard answer, that it’s really about increased independence and social inclusion.

“I get that,” he said with enthusiasm. “But, if it were me, I’d be going up and down all day long for fun.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of him. His comment seemed a bit odd but totally sincere. At that moment, though, a nurse came out and embraced Chris with a big hello. I’ve learned that, in medical settings, you can tell a lot about a patient by the way nurses respond to him or her. You sense who’s “family. “

With both of our blood work done, we waited for the results and I observed the way Chris interacted with everyone at the center. Medical centers typically aren’t upbeat affairs. No patient wants to be there and so jovial, happy people like Chris are not the norm. He was as though a door had opened and released all tension in the center as he fluttered about with smiles and greetings for all.

Children are rare at the medical center I attend. It’s not for pediatrics, so children are only there to support a loved one or brought by caregivers who don’t have babysitters. However, there’s a large, commercial aquarium in the waiting area, where children inevitably gather to watch the myriad of fish.

As a little girl stood staring at the fish tank, Chris walked up. He was twice her height, and you could see their reflections in the fish tank as they both stared into the glass, side by side.

“Have you ever tried to count fish in a tank?” Chris asked, pointing at the mixed pool of fish. “Watch…”

Chris began counting the fish one by one, and soon they scattered, to where he could no longer count them.

“You try, “ he said, and she did, the fish scattering again. “See, it’s impossible,” he said and the little girl laughed.

Chris’ girlfriend was with him, and as we waited, he’d jump on the other side of a glass partition and make funny faces. I couldn’t stop watching him and smiling.

Soon, both our names were called for our respective appointments. The center has a giant room with cubicles that administer various care. However, there are four private suites for those with more complex needs or privacy concerns. Based on my situation, cerebral palsy and all, I get a private suite for something as simple as a shot.

As my wife and I entered our private suite, Chris and his girlfriend entered the one next to us. Several nurses followed him in with a cart full of medical supplies like I’d never seen. He told me earlier that he had both multiple sclerosis and cancer – and the suite and the nurses and the cart hit it home to me, with heart-sinking gravity.

One could easily wonder about Chris, how is it that someone facing such profound health conditions and a seemingly unknown future can move through the world with such carefree joy?

In Chris and others, I’ve witnessed the answer: It’s not how much or how little we’re given in life, but how we view it all.