Bullies, Critics, and Haters

By Mark E. Smith

I’m very fortunate to publish both this written blog and a YouTube video Vlog every week. The content has never overlapped until now, so I saw it fitting this week to post a video as both my blog and Vlog – on a poignant topic that, unfortunately, many of us can relate to….

The Kids Already Have it Right

By Mark E. Smith

I recently presented a disability awareness program in front of 50 or so children. They were young, between the ages of five and 10. It was a Boys and Girls Club summer camp, and in between all of the fun activities that kids typically do at summer camp, the director sought to enlighten them with lessons in diversity. In my case, the diversity that is a disability.

As adults, we can presume the dynamic. Able-bodied children unsure what to make of someone like me: my power wheelchair, muscle spasms, slurred speech, all emblematic of a term they’ve never heard, cerebral palsy. We could also speculate that the children may be initially put off, unsure, maybe even fearful upon meeting me. After all, formal psychology teaches that we naturally fear the unknown, those who are different from us. In fact, I once read a fascinating study that asserted that the reason why strangers may speak to an able-bodied companion instead of directly to one with a disability – a situation my wife and I sometimes experience – is because most gravitate instinctively to the known, avoiding the unknown. So, it would be understandable for the children interacting with me for the first time to have all of these very real emotions.

Yet, this presentation went exactly as the many I’ve given over almost three decades. That is, the children were totally comfortable and accepting of me, of my differences, from the first moment. I mean, surely there must have been a few apprehensive kids, as within any group. However, in whole, I’ve seen children respond to the unknowns of my diversity in a way different from some adults: they immediately embrace it, unencumbered by preconceived notions, seeing people as… well… people.

During my presentations, I give the kids the opportunity to ask me anything. Virtually everyone raises a hand. As I call upon children, one-by-one, the questions are so genuine, it’s a life lesson for all of us. See, while I receive the occasional practical question – how do I sleep or shower? – the majority are ones of commonality seen by the children. What’s my favorite color? What’s my favorite flavor of cupcake? Do I like dinosaurs? They’re not dwelling on differences, but focusing on similarities.

It’s long made me think, where did we, as adults, turn the corner away from such genuine acceptance of others who are seemingly different? When and why did many of us lose such an innate trait as seeing only the commonalities in others, not differences? I’m guilty of it. I, too, note differences when I see them in others, and while I strive to be accepting and open-minded, I can fall into that trap of preconceived notions projected unjustly onto others. Yet, when I think back to my childhood, I didn’t have them then, and I remember being perplexed at times as to why some adults had them toward me as a child with a disability?

According to a Harvard study, while our brain is hardwired to recognize differences, seeing differences in others aren’t heavily engrained in us until around age 10. At that point, we become highly impressionable by societal views and this is how our “prejudices” form. The good news is that we are also capable of receiving positive impressions, as well as unlearn negative ones. It’s ultimately up to us whether we retain the open heart of a child.

For me, I’ve come to understand that my disability awareness talks to children aren’t about them at all – they already see people correctly, where diversity isn’t yet a word that they need to know. Rather, the real lesson is for some of us adults in the room: there’s truly no diversity among us, just our common humanity.

Nights Like the Minetta Tavern

By Mark E. Smith

When I was a child, my stepfather could do no wrong in my eyes. I idolized him, not just as a father figure, but as who a man should be.

Yet, as I overlooked then but realized as I grew older, he was deeply flawed. He was an alcoholic and his relationship with my mother was as mutually as unhealthy as it gets – constant drinking, domestic violence, suicide threats and attempts, drunk driving, and on and on.

However, much as when I was a child, I now, in mid-life, deeply value who he was in the best ways, what he gave me, and most of all, what he taught me.

I recently had dinner at the Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village. It opened in the 1930s and has since been where men like Paul have gone for decades to celebrate life. The mahogany bar, white tablecloths, and red upholstered booths are timeless. It’s easy to imagine its famous past patrons hanging out there – Earnest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, and e. e. cummings, to name a few – drinking, smoking, and eating, boisterous.

As I sat with my family and friends at a table in the middle of the Tavern, I drifted off from our own decadent meal and storytelling to thinking of Paul. I gazed at the signed, black-and-white pictures of old-time prizefighters on the walls, and was reminded of growing up watching boxing with Paul. Then, there was the Hemingway connection, who, in many ways, Paul embodied – bearded, smoking pipes and unfiltered cigarettes, playing dice at bars, drinking straight whiskey by the glass full, while discussing larger-than-life adventures.

Paul raised me in that spirit, creating larger-than-life memories. He took me to a bullfight in Mexico, offshore fishing in California, game hunting in Nevada. Then there were our trips to Hawaii and Spain. It was all spectacular and, in looking back, always hinged on the cusp of disaster, often fueled by alcohol – that’s how men like Hemingway and Paul lived. And, I, as a boy with severe cerebral palsy, was along for the wild ride.

I was infatuated with it all – not just in the adventurous life, but in Paul embracing me fully as his son, profoundly affecting me after having been all but abandoned by my biological father.

But, there still was that dark side. When you grow up with a Hemingway or a Paul as a father, you witness that which no child should witness: the insanity of a drunk. As I grew into my 20s and 30s, this juxtaposition became increasingly evident. Is a great man who’s deeply flawed truly great? I struggled with this question into early adulthood.

Eventually, Paul lost virtually everything, and he moved into my house, sleeping on our couch. He came home drunk night after night, and I was torn between him, as the father I’d always loved, and the health of my young family being negatively impacted by his behavior. I saw the amazing man I’d grown up with also be that man with my toddler daughter – that is, an amazing grandfather. But, the drinking was then beyond unacceptable to me.

The dilemma was seemingly solved when I moved across the country and we agreed to let Paul remain in our old house for at least a year, till I sold it, my brother watching over him to a degree. That distance gave me time and space to understand Paul’s complexities and the complexities of my emotions.

Paul later visited us annually, and although he still drank and his potential was forever faded, he never stopped loving me or gushing with pride in who I’d become, right till his death. And, my love for him likewise never wavered. There’s no better gift a father can give his son than acceptance, and that remains life-inspiring for me.

I returned to the conversation at our table, looking at my wife and youngest daughter – both of whom radiated the energy of the room – and I realized that what Paul taught me was that we don’t need to be perfect to make a profound difference in the lives of those we love. We just need to love, and that can be enough.

I finished my single glass of wine, admitting that I can’t hold my liquor like Paul, but in other ways, I’m every bit the man he raised me to be: I, with my family, making memories at the Minetta Tavern.

Allowing Time for the Seasons of Life

Mark E. Smith

We all know the merits of time management in our daily lives. But, what about in our emotional lives? How skilled are we at managing that time?

If you’re like me, you’ve been impatient at points in your life, where you’ve wanted what you’ve wished, now! Yet, life rarely unfolds at the speed we wish. After all, most of us have an idealized version for our lives in our mind, but it never comes together fast enough, does it? At best, it can seem like all takes forever to come to fruition, and at worst, it seems like nothing will ever happen for us.

What I’ve learned is to give ourselves the time it takes for life to reveal its paths. I’ve been there at different points, wanting career, love, happiness, health, and on and on – to happen immediately. I never wanted to wait for it; I wanted it now!

However, I’ve realized that life has its way of delivering the right opportunity at the right time. It’s not to be forced. This isn’t to say that we should just sit and wait. We must pursue what we wish through action. Nothing worthwhile ever simply appears. However, it’s important not to put a time frame on many of our hopes and dreams, as it will merely frustrate us. Farmers don’t merely harvest. Rather, they plant seeds, tend their crops, and trust in Mother Nature’s delivery.

Life has its own timing, and if we strive toward what we want, with faith that life will deliver it when we’re truly ready, that’s a far easier road than dwelling in the doubt or frustration that’s fueled by impatience.

To every thing, there is a season, and a time to every purpose….

At other points in life, we may even feel lost, especially during or after a major life change, wondering, When will life feel normal again? It’s vital that we allow ourselves the time needed to find our way again. Feeling this way is normal and time does heal most. But, we must recognize that time is needed to learn, grow, or heal.

In these ways, when it comes to emotional time management, the only managing we should do is allow ourselves time – no matter how much time that takes.

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.