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.

Doing Best Is Seeing Best

By Mark E. Smith

My wife and I were at church and a gentleman came up to us.

“I know it took your family more than most to get here this morning and I want you to know I appreciate that,” he said.

Based on his genuine demeanor, his words weren’t patronizing but compassionate and empathetic. Between my disability and our youngest daughter’s, it does take a lot for our family to get ready each morning.

What struck me about the gentleman’s kind words was that rather than being oblivious to our challenges or, worse yet, stereotype or judge us as that family with the wheelchairs, he saw us as real people doing our best.

Often, we see strangers who may appear out of the norm. Many of us are quick to make assumptions or judge others. I’ve done it and strangers do it to me. But, we know it’s not right. So, what’s the life-inspiring alternative?

What if like the gentleman at church, we simply extend everyone our sincere belief that most do their best? It changes the whole dynamic, doesn’t it? We go from judging to respecting, from differentiating to embracing. We rightfully apply a sense of humanity to all. As I always say, we never truly know what anyone is going through. Why not extend him or her the benefit of the doubt?

Being a semi-public figure, I have critics, people who, more bluntly, despise me. I recently met one at an event. The individual started out very hostile toward me, but by the end of the conversation the individual, who had a disability, explained that living with a disability is so hard that death would be a better alternative. The individual had expressed tremendous anger at me online, but I then in person understood that the anger wasn’t about me at all, but toward the individual’s own circumstance. The person was simply doing the best to cope, even though it wasn’t the healthiest way.

So frequently, we take strangers’ actions toward us personally and become angry or hurt. But, again, we have the ability to extend empathy and compassion. As one with a disability, I’m often a magnet for odd comments from strangers and I don’t take it personally, but presume that they’re doing their best. My wife and I once had a doctor, born and raised in another culture, ask us a myriad of questions about our family and life. He screamed, Congratulations!, after each answer. We weren’t offended, but recognized that he wasn’t raised with disability awareness, that he was doing his best. He genuinely meant well.

Yes, it’s true that there are people doing really lousy things. But, most people are truly doing their best. They may come from backgrounds and lifestyles different from yours or mine, with behaviors and ideologies we’d never engage in. Yet, there are reasons for why we each are who we are, and it’s vital to extend empathy and compassion to others, just as we wish extended to us.

The fact is, if we wish to see humanity at its best, we must first see the best in humanity.

Paths of Less Resistance

By Mark E. Smith

Water is wise. When it encounters an obstacle, it doesn’t fight it. It goes around it. Water always finds the absolute path of least resistance. From a trickle to a raging river, water effortlessly finds its destination every time.

We live in a culture where fighting every adversity is our calling card. If your relationship isn’t going well, fight for it. If you’re diagnosed with a health condition, fight it. If you don’t like where you are in life, fight your way out of it. But, does all this fighting work or is there a wiser path?

We’ve all sat in traffic and seen that one driver going out of his or her mind by switching lanes, honking and acting as an agitated mess, all while going… well… nowhere. Fighting traffic only upsets the person fighting the traffic – there’s no impact on the traffic.

Many circumstances in life are like sitting in traffic. Fighting the circumstance gives us no more control or resolution. It merely makes a circumstance harder on us. Why are we fighting that which we can’t control, why are we stalling ourselves against immovable forces instead of pursuing a path of less resistance?

Now, I’m not suggesting to concede all. Of course there are circumstances where we should rise to the occasion. Yet, like water, let us be wiser in knowing when to follow paths of less resistance. I lost a dear friend to multiple sclerosis and among the lessons he taught me through his actions and outlook was that his life was lived each day as it came, not battled.

Not every adversity requires a fight. Some, in fact, are conquered by developing the wisdom to flow effortlessly with the streams of life, where paths of less resistance truly do prove the most successful force.

It’s Not a Scorecard

By Mark E. Smith

Someone asked me if struggling ever ends? After all, it seems like for many of us, no matter how far we get in life, adversity still finds us.

It’s a fair question, especially when we’ve spent decades striving to get ahead in life, yet struggles still arise. Maybe you’ve been there. You seemingly have all in order, then adversity strikes – again. Why is that?

Firstly, life is not purely positive or negative, but an ebb and flow of both. Just as all is better, all will get worse. Just as all is worse, all will get better. The key is to find blessings in life not just when we’re on a winning streak, but also when on a losing streak. The blessings are always there; we just need to see them, even during the bleakest of times. In this way, we then maintain gratitude no matter the phase of our life.

Secondly, struggles are intrinsic to life pursuits. If we are to thrive, we are going to likewise experience adversity. You can’t face challenges in a career without having a career. You can’t feel heartache without being in love. You can’t know how difficult it can be to raise children without having children. You can’t know health adversities without a semblance of health. In these ways, the more we live, the more we will intrinsically know struggle.

I, too, once wondered when the struggles would end? Then I realized that life is a process, not a scorecard.

Our Third Dimension

By Mark E. Smith

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

Of course, it’s impossible to look through someone else’s eyes. However, when we’re exceptionally fortunate, others allow us the privilege of knowing their struggles. It’s a gift of trust, one that we should honor with utmost empathy and connection.

Indeed, it’s that connection that’s so unique. For 25 years, as I’ve moved through many paths of adulthood, across a vast geography, I’ve had the humbling privilege of so many sharing their struggles with me. Part of it is that we tend to share our struggles with those who also struggle, and the physicality of my cerebral palsy inherently defines me as having faced struggles, so others intrinsically know I’m in the club, so to speak. Likewise, I hope the other contributing factor as to why so many have shared their struggles with me is due to my expressions of real connections between us.

Now, I wish I could share some examples of the breathtaking, heart-wrenching stories some have shared with me over the years. However, that’s not the way it works. When someone shares his or her most personal stories, you help bear the load, but you certainly don’t violate that confidence. There’s a sacredness to such trust. What I can share with you is the truth I’ve learned in this process….

We never know what someone has been through or is going through. I’ve met individuals from all aspects of life – some of whom you’d never imagine have a care in the world – and the stories shared range from heartbreaking to unfathomable. The cliché is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. As I say, a smile can hide a lot of pain, and a trickle of pain can stem from an ocean.

While we move through our days, we encounter many people. Some are strangers; others are as close to us as colleagues we spend our entire days with. Clothes, bravado, makeup, materialism, humor, status, and so on can create facades that make all of our lives seem like the glossy pages of a magazine – two-dimensional perfection. But there’s a third dimension to many of us, one that includes depth and pain and scars. There’s connection in realizing that. It reminds us that we’re not alone in our struggles and also enables us to treat others with the truest sense of humanity. I can’t judge someone because I don’t know what he or she has been through or is going through. But, I can extend my heart equally to all.

As you move through your days, I hope there are those who you can trust with any struggles you may have. Similarly, I hope that you’re one who others feel safe confiding in. After all, none of us need to be alone in our struggles. Share. Listen. Love.