The Life and Death of Humor

To John: After writing the essay, I had to have an illustrator colleague bring my image to life - or death!  -Mark
To John: After writing the essay, I had to have an illustrator colleague bring my image to life – or death! -Mark

By Mark E. Smith

Among my all-time favorite people is Callahan – John Callahan. He’s been dead now for going on 6 years, and I’m sure there’s still a hilarious punchline to that waiting to be told… maybe a cartoon of two grave diggers with shovels standing over a grave dug in the silhouette of a wheelchair?

See, Callahan was abused as a child, an alcoholic by his teens, and a high-level quadriplegic by 21 from a drunk-driving accident. There’s nothing funny about any of that – except to Callahan and his millions of readers who understood through his twisted but totally candid cartoons that humor can be among the truest healing forces. I mean, his most famous cartoon was where cowboys on horses in the desert surrounded an empty wheelchair, noting, “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot,” exemplifies where tragedy evolved into humor in Callahan’s life. Many were mortified by the tasteless cartoon; but for those of us who live with disability, it was hilarious.

I’ve seen it so many times, where our pain, when addressed with humor, can become joy. And, making that transition is life-changing. If you can genuinely laugh at something, you’ve survived it. You’d be hard pressed to find a successful comedian who hasn’t experienced trauma, but through that has somehow found humor.

For me, humor has always kept me from the dark sides of life. If you ask me about cigarette smoking, I’ll tell you to go for it. After all, my mother smoked throughout her pregnancy with me, and I was born just fine, right? …The whole cerebral palsy thing was just an uncanny coincidence.

I likewise grew up with alcoholic parents, and they died from it at young ages. Along the way, I spent time accompanying my drunk mom to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as a teenager – because when you’re 16, with cerebral palsy, it’s the one place your slurred speech and uncoordinated body gestures fit in. At times, I wanted to truly participate: “I’m Mark, and I’m not an alcoholic, but I sound like one and sometimes I pee my pants – where’s my AA coin!”

No, there was nothing funny about being born with cerebral palsy or having drunks for parents – it was all tough stuff. Yet, I survived it all, and I can’t help but see humor in most of it now. Humor, in so many ways, is the power to rise above pain, to take back our joy, our spirit.

As they say, that which does not kill us – or does! – only makes for a hilarious punchline. And, as Callahan taught us all so well with his work, if you’re not at the point yet where you can laugh at your own pain, you don’t need to worry – there are plenty of us who will do it for you!

Projecting Oneself


By Mark E. Smith

My friend texts me from a restaurant on New York City’s Upper East Side. He explains that it’s full of those who are ultra-wealthy, and they’re acting awkwardly toward him, as if they’ve never seen a person using a power wheelchair. He further texts that there’s an attractive, older women next to him who seems possibly approachable.

“Say to her casually, ‘I’m just back from London, and I’m amazed at how warm the weather is here,’ and see where the conversation leads,” I text back.

Of course, my buddy has never been to London and, yes, my reply was sarcastic.

We live in a culture where people may make totally uninformed, ignorant presumptions of us – and we can feel it sometimes, can’t we, like my friend in that restaurant. They perceive us as they wish. I mean, think about all of the stereotypes people can make about a gentleman using a wheelchair in public. And, it’s so easy for those of us who use wheelchairs to absorb those. It would be understandable for my friend to want to avoid that restaurant scene and high-tail it out of there. But, there’s every reason to stay.

No matter who you are – disability or not – you have far more control over such situations than you likely know. The fact is, just as others attempt to perceive us, we can completely project who we are, totally reversing the process. My text to my friend wasn’t meant for him to literally lie, but rather to imply gaining comfort in his skin. There was no reason for him not to fit in. It wasn’t up to those in the restaurant to tell him who he was; rather, he had the power to project who he was.

Being humble is among the most admirable traits. However, feeling as though you need to apologize for who you are should never be in our emotions. I use a power wheelchair, with severe cerebral palsy, right down to muscle spasms and labored speech. At 44 – and it took me a long time to get here – I don’t feel awkward in who I am, and I certainly would never apologize for who I am. As I go through the entirety of my daily life, I am who I am, and I’m not making an issue of it, and neither is anyone else, per me. Here I am, as I am, period.

And, that’s what I’ve learned: We teach people how to treat us by both how we view ourselves and what we project. If I’m in a conversation and I spasm, I correct my posture and keep with the conversation. If I don’t make it an issue, typically neither does anyone else. It’s amazing how our reactions and projections can completely dictate how others react to us. Just be you, and you’ll be impressed at how others recognize you as just that.

As for that awkward restaurant scene, how would I handle it? …I would just be myself.

The Most Sacred Trust


By Mark E. Smith

Every week, I take a leap of faith on this blog and write essays that are often very personal and expose vulnerabilities about myself that I know can range from liberating to uncomfortable for readers. Yet, there’s a deep meaning and purpose to it all. Firstly, as a formally-trained writer, I was taught that if you’re truly going to write, you owe it to yourself and your reader to write with unflinching courage, to expose that which others may not dare, all in the name of integrity – the best writing is fearless and scary all at once. Secondly, there’s such power in universal experience, where if through sharing my own vulnerabilities I can help someone else embrace his or hers, realizing that none of us are alone in life’s challenges, that’s a tremendous privilege. I write to connect, and that demands unflinching honesty, candor and authenticity.

However, here’s what might surprise you: I don’t believe that this unyielding, wide-open form of trust should be practiced in our personal lives. The fact is, whether a child or a so-called hardened criminal, there’s a fragility within all of us – our inner-most vulnerabilities. And, they aren’t to be trusted with just anyone. We’re too valuable to risk handing over our emotions to those who may not honor, respect or deserve them.

Many of us know a lot of people, many of whom we call family and friends. For me, I can’t even count how many people I know. All are wonderful people. Yet, if you think about your own friends and family – as I do mine – how many have truly earned your trust to possess the capacity to treat your deepest vulnerabilities with the safety and security you deserve?

Chances are, not many. Unfortunately, we’ve often learned this in the most painful ways. We’ve shared our most vulnerable selves with someone, only to have that person attempt to hurt us with it later in scorn or judgement at the most opportune – make that, malicious – of times. True family and friends don’t use our vulnerabilities against us. Rather, true family and friends treat our vulnerabilities as sacred, those which are to be addressed with compassion, empathy and support.

So, how do we know with whom our deepest vulnerabilities are safe? For most of us, it’s a tiny fraction of those who we know, maybe only one or two people. And, the litmus test can take time, often years. See, true trust isn’t assumed; it’s earned, piece by piece. You share a little, see how that’s handled by someone over time, and if it’s honored, you share a little more, until ultimate trust is earned. Along the way, let us not be guarded, but aware, as if we witness the slightest violation of trust, it’s a sign to put on the emotional brakes and realize that person may be a loved family member or great friend, but not one who we can trust in our most sacred places – again, that’s reserved for those who’ve earned it.

By far the toughest practices of setting boundaries of who’s earned the privilege of being trusted with our deepest vulnerabilities is in romantic relationships because the emotions are so intense and the stakes are so high. In our desire to love and be loved, it’s far too easy to dismiss violations of our vulnerabilities. He only said it out of anger during our argument…. No, there’s never a reason or excuse to use someone’s vulnerabilities against him or her. That’s not love, its betrayal – and that never makes for a relationship you deserve. I married my wife for a lot of wonderful reasons, but the big one was our mutually-earned trust. Sure, we get mad and frustrated with each other, but we know that each other’s vulnerabilities are the sacred boundary line that we respect above all else. I’m also blessed that this ultimate sacred trust holds true with both my oldest daughter and my lifelong best friend.

When it comes to our vulnerabilities, let us seek comfort in others – it’s healing for the soul. However, let us likewise know that our vulnerabilities shouldn’t be entrusted to anyone except those worthy of respecting and cherishing such a gift. See, when it comes to ultimate trust, it’s quality, not quantity, that serves our heart.

When All Heals Stronger

Terry Waite Released, Nov. 18,1991
Terry Waite Released, Nov. 18,1991

By Mark E. Smith

In 1987, British humanitarian and envoy, Terry Waite, went to Lebanon to secure the release of four hostages. He, himself, was then taken hostage, enduring 1,763 days in solitary confinement – chained, beaten and subjected to mock execution.

Once released, Waite reflected on his experience years later, writing, “Suffering is universal: you attempt to subvert it so that it does not have a destructive, negative effect. You turn it around so that it becomes a creative, positive force.”

Waite’s interpretation of the impact of trauma is one that psychologists have been studying for some 30 years. It’s long been known that trauma – from early childhood experiences to those occurring later in life – can profoundly derail lives in so many destructive ways. It’s extremely hard to psychologically and emotionally recover when life has thrown you devastating blows. I know – I’ve had them. Yet, there’s a fascinating, researched side to trauma that many live, but few discuss: Trauma can serve as a mechanism for positive, personal growth.

Psychologists now formally call this process of turning trauma into triumph Post Traumatic Growth (PTG), which is the opposite of widely-known Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As I put it in context within my own life, I’m not better in spite of adversity; rather, I’m better because of adversity. No, I haven’t welcomed adversity into my life – after all, I didn’t choose my family’s dysfunction as a child or my cerebral palsy – but there’s no question it’s all shaped me into a person I’m proud of and fostered a strength toward successes I likely wouldn’t have otherwise. PTG is when you meet individuals whose lives seem to defy logic, those who’ve experienced trauma and adversity, only to go on to successful, healthy, happy lives.

Interestingly, researchers have found that approximately one-third of those who have experienced trauma or adversity have PTG as a catalyst in their lives. I look at the impact of PTG like exercising weights: adversity conditions us to lift among the heaviest of weights, so the rest of life (read that, far less weight) is easier to cope with and allows us perspectives others may not have. So, what are those perspectives?

Researchers looked at the common traits of PTG – that is, those not sunk by trauma and adversity, but elevated by it – and the common threads are striking: A greater appreciation and empathy toward others; an increased acceptance and comfort within oneself; and, an increased innate ability to live in the present and prioritize what’s truly important, having an unyielding sense of gratitude.

If you consider the emblematic positive effects of PTG, they seemingly go against logic, don’t they? After all, trauma and adversity do lead – at least in two-thirds of the population – to aspects of fear, distrust, resentment, self-defeat and bitterness, to name a few emotions. And, it all makes sense, as such reactions to trauma as PTSD are rightfully more common than not, tapping into totally valid, understandable emotional and mental states. It’s so difficult not to come out unscathed. Therefore, how is it that those with PTG escape the more-typical trauma-based path and actually become healthier, happier, more successful individuals? How has Terry Waite experienced among the worst that mankind can inflict, but has gone on to be a leading humanitarian on a global scale?

No one knows. However, what’s inspiring about research in Post Traumatic Growth is that it clearly shows the capacity of the human spirit to turn tragedy into triumph, where it may not be easily done, but it is possible. We don’t have to be defined by what’s happened to us. As Waite puts it, “Break my body, bend my mind, but my soul is not yours to possess….”

The True Meaning of Weakness


By Mark E. Smith

I love working out because it’s such a humbling experience. See, people often trick themselves into believing that working out is about strength; however, it’s literally an exercise in embracing weakness. After all, if you’re putting your all into your workout routine, you do so till failure, finding your ultimate weakness every time. If you’re doing it right, you never leave a workout accomplished but defeated.

Yet, what’s fascinating about working out is that by consistently acknowledging your weakness, it ultimately makes you stronger. This goes for all of life, where our greatest strengths originate from our truest weaknesses. If we wish to live to our best, we can’t focus only on our strengths, but we have to be wise enough to embrace and pursue our weaknesses.

I come from a lineage of addiction, and I’ve never thought myself stronger than it. I was born into it, science says it’s in my DNA as a genetic component, and was further solidified by the environment I was raised in. By all accounts, I statistically should be – and could be, as it’s never too late – an addict. It would be easy for me to say that I’m too level-headed or strong-spirited to be an addict. But, the fact is, it’s knowing my weaknesses toward addiction that have kept me off of that path. I’ve known my risk factors, and knowing my predisposed weaknesses within me keep me in check. I’m not inherently stronger than addiction, just wisely aware of my weaknesses. If you know you can’t out-wrestle a bear, stay away from bears!

Having a disability, my physical weaknesses are always front and center – at least as society recognizes them. After all, we live in a culture of hyper portrayals of masculinity and femininity. Men should be strong and independent, and women should be sexy and elegant. But, physical disability can make living up to those standards not just impossible, but excruciating. As a result, it’s so easy to push disability weaknesses – read that, vulnerabilities – down in denial or shame, especially when it comes to how the so-called weaknesses and our romantic partners interrelate. However, if you’re willing to expose and embrace your seeming weaknesses, it will take your life and relationships to a far deeper, rewarding level.

I’ve always had a whatever-it-takes attitude, and it’s served me well – that is, except when I’ve used it to mask disability-related weaknesses. I’ve spent decades struggling to use the toilet, where poor balance and poor coordination made the transfers a constant nightmare. I could never use the bathroom in the morning because I lacked the balance and coordination, and then in the evenings, falls from transfers weren’t uncommon. In my mind, my thought process was, no matter how hard it all was didn’t matter – I’d rather die trying than accept help. In my skewed, macho mind, what was less manly than having my wife help me transfer onto the toilet?

However, it was tough for my wife to see and hear me struggle. And, one eve, she just came up, tucked her arms under mine, and together we slid me onto the toilet, then off. It took a lot for me to accept that help, but it immediately made my life one thousand times easier. Yes, I had to admit a weakness to myself, that independently transferring onto the toilet was a huge problem. However, as a result, I summoned far more inner-strength and confidence by being secure enough in who I am to embrace such help from my wife – and it’s enhanced my life and our marriage.

From what I’ve learned in my own life, I don’t know why “weaknesses” in our culture are seen in such a poor light. After all, when weaknesses are embraced and addressed, they can be the ultimate form of strength.

Larger Than Our Pasts


By Mark E. Smith

A friend and I were eating at a fast-food joint when a couple sat at the table beside us.

The woman nicely said, “I forgot napkins.”

The guy burst out in anger, calling her filthy names, noting over and over how “stupid” she was.

Yet, she was unfazed by the verbal abuse.

My friend and I were mortified, noting if he does that in public, can you fathom the abuse at home?

“That’s learned behavior,” my friend said. “I guarantee you they both were raised in abusive homes.”

My friend was undoubtedly right. When you come from a realm of dysfunction – albeit, addiction, abuse, divorce, and so on – as a child, you’re four times as likely to live these as an adult, according to the National Institute on Health.

It’s the nature of the beast that psychologists call classical conditioning – learned ways become innate behaviors that go unquestioned by us. Put simply, if you’re raised by a verbally abusive parent, you’re likely to verbally abuse others or accept being verbally abused.

Interestingly, circus elephants are a perfect (but sad) example of this. Elephants are gigantic creatures led around by tiny tethers. They could break free in an instant, but they don’t? Why?

As babies, circus elephants are restrained, where, as hard as they try, they can’t escape. Although they grow to enormous strength, that early conditioning makes them innately believe that they’re forever restrained, even by a shoe-lace-thick line.

The fact is, we’re not much different than elephants, where extremely unhealthy treatment becomes innate behaviors. Family legacies can be wonderful; yet they can also destroy us when unhealthy. However, we truly don’t have to live unhealthy legacies – we can break free of their torturous tethers. No, we don’t see a lot of people do it because it takes so much, literally being so self-aware and courageously strong that you’re willing to question that which is all you know.

I grew up under extremely unhealthy circumstances, and while I was fortunate enough to question them – and that’s the only way to break free of a toxic legacy – I wasn’t totally successful at breaking free of them. I married an addict in my 20s. By my 30s, I knew my daughter was in deep trouble having a parent along the lines of my own, and I had to do two steps to hopefully pull her as far away as I could from that destructive legacy. Firstly, I had to get my ex-wife out of the home. But, secondly – and more importantly – I had to somehow help my daughter dispose of what she innately knew of addiction and cut that as her legacy. She had to do what many people never want to do – namely because it’s so painful – and question why her mom did what she did.

My daughter is now in college, and beyond all of her amazing accomplishments, the one I’m most inspired by is the courage she’s investing in breaking free of a dysfunctional legacy and creating another of self-awareness and emotional health. As a psychology major, she’s investing not just in her coursework and community, but in herself. The candor and awareness – sometimes the struggle – that I see in her papers is breathtaking:

I hid behind the white bedroom door at around 9 p.m. on that weeknight. I had school the next morning. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling as I stared into Dad’s dark brown eyes, both waiting for the police and my aunt to arrive. Yet, I’d never seen my father’s heart more heavy than in that moment. It was clearly a breaking point of fear and guilt and decision.

On the other side of this – the emotions, the door – was my mother. She was on the other side of that door, kitchen knife in hand, trying to get in, to get us. At that point, I realized that I had lost my mother for good to addiction.

The realities of addiction were imprinted on me – forever. They started when I was three, escalated in my adolescence, and remain chilling today when I have the strength to think about them.

…As for my mother, she’s no longer battling addiction, but in hospice dying from it – a mind and body destroyed. As for me, I’m still battling her addiction as part of my past, but with a better understanding not to make it part of my own future, but to help those where there’s still hope to break the cycle. That’s the best I can do with my legacy of addiction.

See, that’s the key to untethering ourselves from potentially life-destroying legacies: If we question them, it’s impossible to relive them. What happens if a 6,000lb grown elephant questions its tether? It breaks free. There’s a moment where we, too, can break free in realizing we don’t have to live that way – we can be larger than our pasts.

At the Heart of Smiling


Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing. ― Mother Teresa

By Mark E. Smith

My father-in-law, a retired pastor, told me a great story over dinner.

He said, “My best friend, Gary, and I were both pastoring, and I noticed that at the end of services, everyone hugged Gary, while they only shook my hand. So, I asked Gary why that was? Gary replied, ‘You stick out your hand, while I open my arms….’”

What the two pastors were really discussing was that we receive what we offer. If you want a hand shake, put out your hand and you’ll get one. If you want a hug, open your arms and you’ll get one!

For me, I’ve always smiled. From as young as anyone can recall of me, I was always smiling. Part of it is my innate disposition, but the other part of it, as I’ve come to understand, is an appreciation for life. I’ve been through my share of adversities – and will forever struggle with some – and it’s gratitude toward all of it that keeps a joyful smile on my face.

However, smiling is more than only about my disposition or gratitude. It goes back to the conversation the pastors had. Truly, if you want to see the world smile, smile at it. I often share this story. I was at Walmart with my sister several years ago, and she noted how friendly and nice customers and employees were to me – the complete opposite of her experience of everyone being somber. I asked her to watch as we continued shopping. Per my usual, I smiled and made eye contact with complete strangers where that led to an exchange of a friendly how-are-you? “Just smile at people,” I said. “It changes everything.”

I’m at the point now where I smile at pretty much everyone. On my route to work, a crossing guard shared with me that she learned who I was by asking a friend in the neighborhood, “Who’s the guy in the power chair who’s always smiling?” If I’m at a stop light in my van, I’ll smile at those in cars next to me, and it’s amazing how a gruff guy’s demeanor will change or a woman will blush – a smile is a powerful exchange.

And, there’s science to this all. Firstly, smiling triggers a happiness feedback loop in our brain, so whether we smile because we’re happy or we become happy because we smile, it works. Secondly, numerous studies have shown that smiling increases our success, from home life to career. The average person smiles 20 times per day, whereas ultra-successful people smile 40 to 60 times per day. Smiles are warm, inviting and sincere – they’re a people magnet because we’re drawn to happiness.

Of course, I do run into being stereotyped sometimes based on my smiling. Well-meaning individuals noting my cerebral palsy come right out and ask, “How is it that someone in your predicament can find a reason to smile?”

I just smile and reply, “A life where you smile at the world and it smiles back at you is a fortunate predicament to be in….”

The True Origin of Civil Rights

civil rights

By Mark E. Smith

At this writing, it’s the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – and if you’re among my readers who thinks it doesn’t pertain to you because you don’t have a disability, then you should especially keep reading.

See, the ADA isn’t merely about ramps and access to public transportation, but it’s literally civil right legislation. Its intent is to protect those with disabilities from all forms of discrimination. In so many ways, it’s an add-on to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin – but it doesn’t include disability. Hence, in part, the ADA.

In this spirit, on the 25th anniversary of the ADA, I don’t see it merely as a milestone toward social inclusion of those with disabilities, but an opportunity for larger questions: Can we legislate acceptance, and what’s the ultimate solution to civil rights for all?

I’ve spent about half of my life both pre- and post ADA. Yes, I’ve seen vast societal shifts in inclusion and infrastructure toward the positive over the past quarter century via the ADA, just as I’ve seen greater acceptance of all so-called minority classes. The United States is a far better place post the Civil Rights Act and ADA.

However, I personally still encounter those who stereotype me and, yes, the occasional instances of discrimination based on my disability. And, I’m not alone. From in our personal lives to watching the nightly news, who among us doesn’t still witness racism, sexism, antisemitism and every other labeled form of discrimination we’ve ever had?

What I’ve learned in the second half of my life, as a member of a “protected class,” is that while you can legislate socially-inclusive processes and infrastructure, you can’t legislate tolerance or acceptance, you can’t legislate what’s in someone’s mind and heart. Prejudice can’t be legislated out of someone.

I hear rumblings from the local diner to Capitol Hill that the remaining solution to prejudice and discrimination is additional legislation. However, there’s really only one ultimate solution.

As much as we see civil rights as a societal issue, it’s not. Rather, civil rights is a personal issue, and it’s ultimate solution is found within each and every one of us. Yes, we can legislate public policy, and rightfully so. However, we, more importantly, must engage our minds and open our hearts, to where civil rights isn’t just an ethical societal concern, but more so a personal moral standing, where we simply see all others as equal as ourselves.

Three Words


By Mark E. Smith

The ultimate liberation of the spirit comes when you look into the mirror, realizing that you can’t change who you are – based on any number of factors totally beyond your control – and you just say to the world with pride and contentment: Here I am….

Say Anything


By Mark E. Smith

When you have a disability like me, you get used to some referring to you as “brave.” Yet, there’s nothing intrinsically brave about disability, in itself. You have it, life goes on, no place for bravery.

However, the human experience requires tremendous – sometimes, stomach-churning – bravery if we are living authentically to our best. My daughter, at this writing, has three weeks to decide if she’s attending Pratt in New York City to major in photography, or George Mason in Washington D.C. to major in psychology. Those are not only two completely different college experiences, but totally different life paths. Imagine the bravery it takes for an 18-year-old to make such a decision.

Bravery, after all, is an inner-feeling spoken – there’s nothing scarier than that. For example, while my daughter deliberates colleges, there’s little on the line. However, once she discloses her choice, she’s committed to it – it will take bravery for her to utter the words, “Dad, I’ve chosen….”

But, let’s go deeper, let’s think about the bravest moments in our lives, feelings spoken. What do they sound like?

I’m falling in love with you.

I love you, but I’m not in love with you.

I just had to come over here and introduce myself.

I’m sorry.

I was wrong.

I wish I was who you need me to be, but I’m not.

I’m scared.

I need help.

I want a divorce.

Will you marry me?

I can’t.

I’m doing it!

The list goes on, and the words are different for each of us at vital turning points in our lives. Yet, the definition is a universal truth: bravery is a feeling spoken.

Here’s the real question, though: if bravery is a feeling spoken, what’s its impact on our lives?

Authenticity to ourselves. If we want to truly be ourselves, we must… well… be ourselves. We must be honest with our feelings, honest enough to vocalize them even when so much is at stake, when our deepest, sometimes scariest feeling are vocalized – and that takes the ultimate bravery.