From Rocks to Balloons

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By Mark E. Smith

Why do you eat at your favorite restaurant? Is it the food?

And, what’s been your favorite job? Was it because of the salary?

As different as these two questions seem, the answers are one in the same: the people.

The theme to the television classic, Cheers, where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came, tells a life truth – that is, the quality of the people in our lives directly correlates with the ultimate quality of our lives.

From family to friends to colleagues to acquaintances, people in our lives aren’t hard to come by. However, how well do we really vet them? I don’t mean that in a snobbish way, but in a healthy, heartfelt way. Are the people we surround ourselves with bringing positive aspects into our lives or negativity? In fact, even neutrality leans toward negativity because such individuals aren’t enhancing our lives, just existing in it.

My wife and I are working on an ambitious personal project, and it’s required us to assemble a team of varied professionals. Competency is a given, but we’ve also understood that in order for the project to succeed, we needed to assemble the kindest, most empathetic souls. And, it’s worked. Slowly, we’ve seen this diverse cast of characters come together who are truly loving, supportive people. Every get together just elevates everyone’s spirits. The project is the project, but it’s the quality of the people that are elevating not just its success, but all of our lives in the process.

Yet, there’s a process to having quality people in our lives, an awareness that has to occur, especially with those we spend a lot of time with. Not everyone is a right fit. How do we know? We feel it. There are those in our lives who bring an incredible spirit that leaves us feeling great, and others who emotionally pull us down. For me, I go by my “hug factor” – that is, if I feel the natural draw to hug someone after spending time together, that’s someone who’s a great force to have in my life. However, if someone makes me feel some sort of negativity, I know it’s someone to keep at arms length or eliminate altogether from my life. I want to hold on to helium balloons that uplift, not rocks that sink. I likewise, though, strive to equally be a helium balloon to others – and, man, if you get two helium balloons together, a sky of unlimited possibilities is literally yours.

Sometimes this process is innate when we’re lucky; sometimes it takes awareness, which is most common; and, sometimes it requires difficult decisions, setting boundaries. My wife and I have had someone on our project team who by profession had to be involved, but has become a very negative force. No matter the kindness all have extended, this individual has ticked everyone off with rude comments and an overall negative disposition. Needless to say, this individual won’t be invited to the wrap-up party. Yes, we should always extend empathy, but we likewise shouldn’t allow negative individuals to pull us down. And, in leadership roles of groups, it’s vital for morale not to allow one individual to diminish the camaraderie of the group.

Ultimately, we can’t always control who’s in our lives. Yet, we can control how we recognize and interact with them. Observe how those around you effect you and others, and realize that the quality of those in your life directly correlates with the quality of your life. So, let the rocks go, and grab on to those helium balloons. They will elevate your life, as you do theirs.

The Ultimate Equation

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By Mark E. Smith

I’ve known and heard the most inspirational speakers in the world – from Nick Vujicic to W. Mitchell. However, when I heard one of my colleagues recently speak to a group of teens, it stopped me in my tracks and gave me goosebumps. How was it that I’d never heard such profound words come from the world’s best speakers?

“Some call what I have a disability,” he said to the students, noting his going totally blind in his 20s, but now in his 50s. ”However, I just call it a ‘problem,’ because problems have solutions.”

If we expand his philosophy beyond visual impairment or disability, think how liberating that is. So many of us see any form of adversity as a roadblock, end-of-the-line, full stop. I can’t do that because of… fill in the blank. We allow adversity to stop us because we don’t allow ourselves any alternatives.

Yet, what if we follow my colleague’s astounding wisdom, where adversity isn’t a full stop, but simply a problem that needs solving? OK, here I am – how do I solve this?

That single question changes everything, doesn’t it? It takes a situation that’s seemingly out of our control and puts us completely in control. It allows us to turn pessimism into perseverance. Most importantly, it allows us to turn adversity into opportunity.

As I learned in hearing my colleague speak to the teens that day, adversity is a great problem to have – because problems always have solutions.

The Power of Voice

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By Mark E. Smith

What is the difference between speech and voice? Speech is the articulation of sound, and when those sounds are put together in a normative way, the ability to communicate audibly with others occurs.

However, speech in our lives is very different than voice. Speech is descriptive, whereas voice is emotive. Speech says what’s obvious, voice expresses what’s not. Speech says, My parents passed away when I was in my 30s. Voice says, Although my relationship with both my parents was never healthy, and I long ago came to terms with that, it remains a surreal thought over a decade later that they’re not on this Earth any more – the phone will never ring with a long-overdue call from either of them. Indeed, it’s voice that gives us the ability to express ourselves far beyond the basics of speech.

Interestingly, in knowing peers with progressive conditions – ALS, MS, and such – who “lose their speech,” they’ve often shared after moving to a communication device that it wasn’t the literal loss of speech that was so devastating, but the loss of voice – that is, the loss of communicating emotion to others. It’s one level to lose the ability to ask for a glass of water; however, it’s a profoundly deeper level to lose the ability to spontaneously say I love you to a spouse, or tell a daughter how proud of her you are. That’s voice.

Regardless of our situations, using our voice can likewise be a struggle. The foremost reason we squelch our voice – albeit in the intimacy of a relationship or the public venue of a stage – is out of fear of rejection. Why don’t we tell our partners how we’re really feeling? Why don’t we speak up in that class, meeting or crowd? Why do we prevent ourselves from expressing our voice – what we really want to say – in any circumstance?

The answer is, we fear the rejection that may come with using our voice. However, here’s what’s amazing: we’re never rejected in the end when it comes to using our voice. It may take initial courage to use our voice – sometimes stomach-wrenching courage – but the result is empowerment.

Now, using our voice can seem dangerous. Do I really want to tell my spouse I’m unhappy in our relationship? However, nothing can change unless we change it, and our voice is the ultimate tool for that. Situations may be difficult, but squelching our voice hurts us more. There’s nothing more empowering and liberating in the end than expressing our voice.

The other miraculous effect of voice is that it unites. Shame, guilt, embarrassment, sadness can all squelch our voice. Yet, using our voice to openly share the origins of such emotions can not only, again, liberate us, but can help others. We all have a common humanity, and we’re not alone in our experiences – but we can feel alone. Voice can be the bridge that not only connects us through shared adversity, but leads us through it. Voice allows us to hear someone else’s story and realize that it’s our story, too – we’re not alone.

Voice is among the most powerful tools that we have. Like all powerful tools, voice can seem scary to use. Yet, when we have the courage to use our voice in sincere, constructive ways, it’s life-changing – both for us and others. After all, when we share our voice, we share our common humanity.

Faith, Not Sight

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By Mark E. Smith

I don’t know how it will all workout out. But, I know that it will.

See, what I’ve learned from living through adversity is that it shouldn’t be feared, but trusted. We may not see or understand it in the beginning, but there’s purpose and reason to it. Adversity enters our lives not to defeat, but to empower.

Now, adversity doesn’t work on its own. We must contribute perseverance, tenacity, optimism, introspection, and good ol’ sweat to reap its benefits. However, adversity particularly requires one attribute that we must contribute in order to allow it to elevate us: faith.

Adversity demands that in order to rise with it, we must place faith in it. We must know without a doubt that all happens for a reason. We must believe in a larger purpose. We must trust in ultimate outcomes, even when unknown or unseen. We must have faith in the awe-inspiring power of adversity to serve us, to uplift us, to empower us, to take our lives to heights we never dreamed.

I don’t know where you are in your life. But, from my experience in living through adversity, when you face adversity – and you will, as we all do – it has the power to enrich your life beyond your ultimate wishes. You just have to deliver what it requires – perseverance, tenacity, optimism, introspection, and good ol’ sweat – and a healthy dose of faith that ties it all together. To have faith in adversity is the power to not just survive, but to thrive.

The Kind of World we Live In

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By Mark E. Smith

Every night at 10:00 pm, I flip through the cable news channels. With redundant sound bites and flashing scenes – not to mention partisan political rhetoric – I’m told what a terrible world I live in. If I am to believe them, my life in every fathomable way is on the brink of disaster – and so is yours. If texting drivers and terrorists don’t kill us, our jobs will be downsized and exported, and our children will end up on heroin. But, then they go on to note that if we make one wrong vote, we will lose civil liberties and nuclear proliferation will usher in World War III. However, none of this matters because whatever the latest virus is, it’s likely to kill us before all else.

This is how the news media portrays our world night after night. Yet, day after day, my life – the world we share – couldn’t be more different. As one with a severe physical disability, the world of intolerance portrayed by the media that we live in should place me drowning in the bottom of a cruel socio-economic barrel. Yet, I’m not – and, in fact, my world, your world, our world couldn’t be more different than the distorted, sensationalism hyperbole spewed by make-up-strewn talking heads on cable news.

What 45 years of disability experience has proved to me is the truth of humanity. People are kind, accepting, embracing and tolerant. We know that we’re all in this together, and while my adversity is an obvious physical one, we all have known adversity, and it’s among the bonds that unites us. We all want to love and be loved, and as my career has taken me to countless cities and towns across this country, every where I’ve been has demonstrated one universal trait: kindness.

As one with a severe disability, who speaks and looks differently than others, who must turn to strangers for assistance in situations, who flies on planes and lands in cities, I see none of the harsh, cruel world portrayed by the media. I see the flight attendant offer to walk with me through the airport to ensure I find my shuttle van. I see the shuttle van driver insist on tying my shoe. I see hotel clerks ensure all I need is taken care of. I see waitresses intuitively move everything where I can reach it. I see individuals homeless say words of blessing to me. I see strangers in stores, restaurants, everywhere, share the kindest words and hug me.

I don’t know where the media gets its soundbites and images of the bleak world it portrays. But, if they followed me for an hour, in any city in this great country, they’d see the truth: the kindness of the world around us is awe-inspiring. Turn off the TV and get out into it.

To Be Unheard

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By Mark E. Smith

It wasn’t her sharing being diagnosed at just 19 with multiple sclerosis that surprised me, nor was I surprised that now 20 years later, she’s effectively paralyzed from the neck, down. After all, I work in the wheelchair industry, and these are the stories I hear every day. No, I never get used to them, but such stories are the reality of those I serve.

However, what she said at the end of our conversation made my world stop: “Thank you for hearing me,” she said. “It’s been so long since I’ve felt heard.”

My heart paused to comprehend the profoundness of her words. With her disease progressed to the point of full body paralysis, having undergone so many life changes along the way, her biggest concern wasn’t any of that – it was simply wanting to be heard.

How many of us have felt that way – unheard? I have, and what I learned is that to be heard is to be acknowledged as a person, and when we’re not, it hurts. To not be heard is to not get our fundamental needs met. To not be heard is to not have our feelings validated. To not be heard is to not be valued. To not be heard is to not be seen. The pain behind being unheard haunts us to our core. When we don’t feel heard by our partners, by our families, by our communities, it’s really easy to feel as if we don’t exist.

Yet, we do exist – fully, completely, rightfully. And, it’s not that we’re unheard; rather it’s that others – wrongfully – aren’t listening. See, no one truly goes unheard. A heart beating makes the ultimate sound. Yet, many of us don’t listen, where insensitivity or ignorance or prejudice can make us deaf to those around us. The hearts of others are beating; we simply don’t listen to their breathtaking cadence.

When that woman expressed to me her gratitude toward my hearing her, it reminded me of an ultimate truth: To know what it’s like to be unheard teaches us what it’s like to truly listen.

An Unlikely Pair

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By Mark E. Smith

At a recent dinner celebrating this year’s anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act at the DuPont Circle Hotel in Washington D.C., I sat next to an 18-year-old intern for the National Disability Institute. She was amazingly well versed on the issues currently facing our community, not to mention refreshingly mature for her age. She’s what both the disability community and world need from her generation.

However, as we spoke throughout the eve, an aspect intrigued me: not only didn’t she have a disability, but she had no connection to disability. As a freshman political science major from New Hampshire, this internship popped up, she applied, and got the two-month summer gig in D.C. Yet, how does such a happenstance situation as her internship lead to such understanding and passion toward the issues facing those of us with disabilities. I suspected there was more to her story.

As I asked about her family, it all began adding up. Her mother, a successful C.O.O. for a company you’d recognize, died of cancer three years ago. Imagine the adversity of losing your mother to cancer as you’re in high school. It’s well… unimaginable.

And, there within resided the young lady’s understanding of disability experience. No, not literally – we can’t compare dismal employment rates of those with disabilities to dying of cancer. However, what connected her to us, and me to her, was an understanding of what it’s like to live through adversity.

See, there’s a universality to adversity. It’s not person- or situation-specific. No matter the origin or circumstance, when we’ve known adversity, we innately share that empathy with all who’ve experienced it. If we recognize that there’s no form of adversity any more or less significant than another, then we relate with all of adversity. Adversity becomes part of our shared humanity.

And, so as we sat at the event that eve – she an 18-year-old college student, I a 45-year-old with cerebral palsy – of course we clicked: we’ve both been shaped by the universal nature of adversity.

Camp Gratitude

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By Mark E. Smith

At this writing, I’ve just spent a week at a summer camp full of kids between the ages of eight and seventeen. It had all you’d expect at summer camp – swimming, fishing, boating, arts-and-crafts, horseback riding, and on and on.

However, what was different than any camp I’ve experienced was what occurred at one o’clock every afternoon. The campers – who happen to have a myriad of physical disabilities – gathered in the lodge after lunch for “Pat-on-the-Back Time.” It really should be called “Gratitude Time” because for one-half hour, kids raise their hands and express their gratitude for their peers and counselors at camp, as well as their experiences.

As you might imagine, for us adults, it was a profoundly moving experience each afternoon. To witness children with severe disabilities – many of whom having undergone countless surgeries, many using wheelchairs, all facing exceptional daily adversities – express gratitude from the heart was breathtaking. After all, such children have been through a lot, and face exceptional challenges every day; yet, their expressions of gratitude are unyielding.

Now, you may find those sentiments extraordinary, that children facing such adversities can express such unyielding gratitude toward even the smallest of deed done by another or the most typical of activity – an eight-year-old thanking her counselor for holding her hand in the swimming pool. However, as I sat and listened to their outpouring of gratitude each day, I found the children teaching me more than I ever expected.

See, their gratitude, while clearly an exception in our society, should be the rule. How many times in our careers do we hear colleagues diminishing each other instead of praising? How many times do our children have an accomplishment, and we don’t acknowledge it? How often do we go for days, months, years without complimenting our spouse? How often do we walk away from a cashier or waiter or bus driver without saying thank you? How often do we spend our time wanting instead of appreciating? How often do we dwell on negatives instead of embracing positives? The answer for most is, more often than not. It’s the society we live in – just look around – and it pulls us all down.

The fact is, there’s something really wrong when we, as adults, have to go to summer camp and learn from children how to be more heartfelt individuals of gratitude. And, yet, there’s hope in it all. If children of such adversities can express such appreciation, gratitude and love… we all can.

Forgiving – Ourselves

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By Mark E. Smith

Among the hardest endeavors of the heart we ever make is to forgive – ourselves.

Although we live with the best of intentions, with tremendous purpose, we’re bound to make mistakes. When we’re on top of our game, the mistakes are small – maybe no one notices but us. However, when we’re not so mindful of how our actions effect ourselves and others, the mistakes can be life-altering, not just for us, but for those we love. In both cases, making mistakes can weigh on us like an anchor, keeping us submerged in shame, guilt, and self-doubt. In a way, we lose trust in ourselves, just as we imagine others lose trust in us.

However, the fact is, while those who care about us and love us are typically very forgiving, the person who most often takes the longest to forgive our mistakes is oneself. Shame and guilt are powerful emotions, not easily shaken. Yet, if we are to move beyond our mistakes, we must truly forgive ourselves. It’s not just the ultimate in humility, but also accountability.

See, when we refrain from self-forgiveness, we’re holding on to our mistake, like carrying a boulder everywhere we go. But, there’s no corrective action involved, just self-punishment. In contrast, in order to forgive ourselves, we have to deeply acknowledge our mistake and grow to trust in ourselves that we won’t make that mistake again. We must allow ourselves to give into ultimate humility. We must allow ourselves to accept ultimate accountability. Those acts of honesty and courage are the cornerstones of self-forgiveness.

Author Stephan Richards writes about self-forgiveness, “When you initially forgive, it is like letting go of a hot iron. There is initial pain and the scars will show, but you can start living again.”

In this way, the ultimate mistake we can make in life is not to offer forgiveness – to ourselves.