The Ten-Percenters


By Mark E. Smith

Whenever I meet couples who’ve been married for several decades, I always ask them what’s their secret to a successful marriage?

“You need to weather the storms, the peaks and valleys,” they all essentially note. “You need to compromise and be willing to stick out the tough times. Love will pull you through.”

Interestingly, people always elude to how difficult marriage is, that to make it work, you have to be “too stubborn to quit,” as a gentleman told my fiancee and me on Valentine’s day.

However, while toughing out the bad times and being too stubborn to quit will keep any couple together, is that what anyone really wants in a marriage?

Out of every couple I’ve spoken with over the years, not one has ever told me that the success of their marriage has been due to mutual respect, unwavering trust, and sustained passion. No one’s ever said, “We constantly inspire each other….”

Respect, trust, passion, inspiration — why aren’t these the tenants of decades of a successful marriage? Why are couples accepting “toughing it out” as the key to marriage?

We live in a society with a fifty-one-percent divorce rate, and those who remain married are deemed successful. But, if your marriage is lacking respect, trust, passion, and inspiration, that’s not a success by any stretch.

Interestingly, if you look at the top reasons for divorce – communication breakdowns, infidelity, substance abuse, financial woes, lack of physical intimacy – they all go back to couples violating the four core values I note: respect, trust, passion and inspiration.

All of this leads me to a provocative question: where is accountability in relationships and marriages? There’s no magic to what makes a marriage a dream, a nightmare or a form of merely co-existing in-between: the two individuals’ behavior. Disrespect, infidelity or substance abuse don’t just randomly appear – pathology or not, someone makes the decision at some point to go down such paths. Again, marriages don’t mysteriously self-destruct – one or both partners pulls the pin, so to speak.

However, If you maintain respect, earn trust, fuel passion and foster inspiration, you’re guaranteed to live the most fulfilling life together. On the other hand, if you’re disrespectful, violate trust, defeat passion and uninspire each other, you’re doomed – either to a dissatisfying marriage or divorce. Go ahead and justify being in an unsatisfying marriage all one wishes – kids, money, being too stubborn to quit – but the goal should be living as a truly happy and passionate couple, not simply avoiding divorce. Again, there’s accountability where, as a couple from day one, over decades, you don’t justify or settle for poor behavior, but are dedicated to a lifetime of unwavering respect, trust, passion and inspiration.

Now, I may sound like an idealist, one who doesn’t know the challenges of marriage. To the contrary. I’ve known not only the challenges of marriage, but more so the opportunity within marriage to live to a higher standard. No, I haven’t been willing to accept disrespect, distrust, a lack of passion or inspiration. I’d rather be healthy and happy than in a dysfunctional, relationship. Yet, even more so, I’d rather share a life of respect, trust, passion and inspiration with my soul mate.

I know that some may see my relationship aspirations as unrealistic. I see them as accountable – and unquestionably possible. Of course, if everyone took my hard line toward love, that we shouldn’t compromise core healthy behavior and stay in dysfunctional relationships, the divorce rate might push 90%. But, the 10% of sustained marriages would be blissfully happy, living and loving with unwavering passion and ultimate security. I say, don’t settle, don’t compromise your marital happiness – and find yourself in the right relationship as a ten-percenter.


When We’re De-Elevated


Ny Mark E. Smith

It happened in an instant. In fact, as one who doesn’t experience anxiety and is pretty calm in virtually any situation, I began to panic. There’s a horrifyingly surreal quality to suddenly becoming invisible.

My family and I went to see the famed Rockefeller Christmas tree, and it was more crowded than anywhere I’ve ever been. However, because my power wheelchair has an elevating seat that places me at 5’7” tall, I worked my way through the crowd slowly but surely, eye-to-eye with those moving about, where people smiled at me, gingerly moving aside as needed for my 24”-wide power wheelchair to pass.

As we got closer to the tree, the crowd became so dense that I couldn’t see the ground, merely following the heads in front of me. Then, suddenly, my power wheelchair dropped down a medium-height curb leading to the tree. Although the unexpected curb startled me, all was fine and we continued to the tree, shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowd, finishing with a classic family photo of the tree behind us.

We worked our way back through the crowd, and I watched carefully for the curb, knowing that while I couldn’t climb it while elevated, I could lower my seat to standard wheelchair height and safely drive up it. As I reached the curb, the crowd continued flowing around me – that is, until I lowered my seat. Suddenly, at typical wheelchair height, my world changed. It was literally darker, more confined and, most shocking to me, I became invisible. While the crowd was moments earlier around me at standing height, now people were slamming into me, falling on me, oblivious to the fact that I was “down there.” I’d gone from a person in the crowd to suddenly invisible and of no stature simply by lowering my seat.

I yelled to my fiancee for some sort of help and in a panic, I charged the curb, clipping people along the way. For me, in among the rarest moments I’ve experienced, it felt like it was life or death – I was both fighting and fleeing.

Once up the curb, I quickly elevated my seat, and as people immediately began safely flowing back around me, I took a deep breath, composed myself, and realized a universal truth: Being invisible to society is terrifying.

For me, that was an experience I’ve culturally known in other ways as a man with a disability. Beyond the change in physical stature I described with my elevating seat, I’ve more readily been de-elevated in social stature at times. However, the de-elevation of who we are – where we become invisible in an instant based on ignorance, stereotyping and discrimination – is a disturbingly universal one.

Imagine how it feels as an African-American trying to hail a cab in a big city, and empty cabs pass you by. Imagine being gay at a dinner party where rhetoric arises, condemning homosexuality. Imagine being a woman shopping for a car, and the salesman only speaks to your husband. Imagine walking into a clothing store as one of a plus size, and the sales people ignore you. Imagine being in bed with your spouse, and he or she turns his or her back to you as you’re trying to communicate. Or, imagine being homeless on a Los Angeles sidewalk, and no one even looks at you as they pass. So many of us can relate with being de-elevated to invisible.

Yes, I was fortunate amidst the crowd at Rockefeller Center that eve because, at the touch of a button, I elevated back to being seen. However, life for many – including me as one with a disability – often isn’t so easily resolved. When we’re dismissed by others and made to feel invisible, there is no button to push. Rather, the experience of being made invisible based not on our character, but based on the ignorance, stereotyping and discrimination of others… well… just hurts.

Traveling Park Avenue


Mark E. Smith

I’ve spent my time on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Park Avenue. I’ve parked my van in the garage that serves 720 Park Avenue, the building with the highest concentration of billionaire residents in the world, where the cars around me were Bugattis and Hennesseys – cars that cost more than homes. And, I’ve played with my kids in the park along 5th Avenue, where the only guardians around us were au pairs wearing designer clothes, carting kids around in Mercedes and Porsche SUVs. It’s seemed both comfortable and unfathomable to witness such wealth.

However, Park Avenue doesn’t stop at the Upper East Side. No, it picks up again in Brooklyn, among the poorest congressional districts in the United States. And, in my experience, among the wealthiest, too. See, in Brooklyn, wealth is everywhere. You can stop anyone virtually anywhere and they’ll point you in the right direction, offer you a bite to eat, carry your bags. The African Americans, Hasidic Jews, Latinos and Caucasians live, for the most part, as brothers and sisters – race, religion, ethnicity, social economics don’t matter on the streets of Brooklyn. If you’re there, someone will help you out, sharing what they know, giving you what they have.

Park Avenue, from Manhattan to Brooklyn, has taught me that wealth isn’t about what you have. Rather, Park Avenue has taught me that true wealth is about what we share.

Prize Fighting


Mark E. Smith

As I lie on my bed in the surrounding silence, I should be angry, frustrated, maybe even panicked. I just literally beat the hell out of myself – scraped, bruised, exhausted – in three failed attempts to simply use the commode.

See, as one with cerebral palsy, in order to use the commode, I have to go from my power chair to my bed to my manual chair to the bathroom to the commode, keeping my balance on the commode, then back to my manual chair to my bed to my power chair. On my best days, it takes 20 minutes; on an average day, 40 minutes; and, on this day, after one and a half hours, I’ve not accomplished getting on the commode. I’ve tried three times, my uncooperative body struggling with every transfer, slamming me off of the commode, against walls, on the floor over and over.

Yet, as I lie here on my bed, I’m not angry, frustrated or panicked. While physically I’m uncomfortable, to say the least, I’m genuinely happy, full of gratitude. As poorly-functioning as this body is, it always gets me through. It’s the body of a prize fighter. It can get knocked down, bloodied, counted out by others, but it never quits and always gets back up.

For the moment, like a jaw-stung boxer dizzied on the canvas, I lie here with all things good streaming across my closed eyes. I think about the upcoming Christmas holiday – I’ve done no shopping yet, but I’m excited to give very meaningful gifts from a list I’ve been covertly gathering from those I love. I think about my daughter’s pending college applications to NYU and Cornell and the University of Pittsburgh, pondering if any of those are better choices than her seeded spot at George Mason University in the Washington D.C. area? I think about having my fiancee and soon-to-be step daughter back from their native west coast in about a week, joyed to be spending another holiday season together as a family on the appropriately wintry east coast. And, I think of the myriad of exciting aspects going on with my career. There’s so much gratitude in my life that I’m even thankful for the predicament I’m in – that is, having to simply use the bathroom, but knocking the hell out of myself in the process, seemingly unable to accomplish such an everyday task.

But, prize fighters never stay down long, and I’m about to sit up, struggle to transfer back into my manual chair, make my way to the bathroom and try to make the small but courageous leap from my manual chair to the commode once again. If I make it this time, fantastic. If my body fails to cooperate further, and I crash from wall to wall to the floor, having to start all over again, that’s great, too.

See, here’s the beauty of adversity: it’s not an easy route to success, but it is a proven route to success. Adversity makes us that promise – that is, as long as we’re willing to embrace it and address with gratitude and perseverance toward whatever it throws our way, we will ultimately achieve victory.

In this way, I’ve only gone three rounds – and I’ve got a lot more in me. Ring the bell. I’m ready.

Talk About a Tragedy


By Mark E. Smith

Never cry over spilled milk – or when your dog goes astray at the National Dog Show. It’s not the end of the world forever.

Or, is it?

Like millions of Americans, I spent part of my Thanksgiving watching the National Dog Show. I don’t know why Thanksgiving and the National Dog Show have become a combined tradition – other than many of the dogs would love to tackle a turkey and turn it into a chew toy – but the two now go together annually.

What I’ve concluded is that it should really be called the National People Show because the show dogs could care less. My English bulldog has some sort of award-winning pedigree, a name on her AKC registration so long that I truly don’t recall what it is. We just call her, Rosie the English Bulldog, and even then she rarely listens. My pedigree pup wants nothing to do with a show ring; rather, she wants to eat, sleep on “her” couch and poop in our hallway when no one’s looking. Basically, a $3,000 show dog is an arrogant, slovenly alien that dwells in your house. At least mine is.

Yet, people are compelled to romp pampered pooches around a show ring on Thanksgiving Day – and we watch by the millions. However, this year was worth the spectral because as a miniature pinscher did what dogs do – playfully making a mad dash untethered across the ring – its frantic handler ran after it, swooping it up, all to the delight of viewers. It may not have been that big of deal, but the fact that the handler cried inconsolably while carrying the dog back and uttered, “My world is over forever,” made a lot of us wonder if she wasn’t the most vapid, self-absorbed individual in the world – forever! I mean, I know people take dog shows seriously, but what kind of person cries and declares that her world is over forever (which is redundant), because her happy dog went for a self-appointed stroll?

All of this made me want to talk to the handler, literally. I had to know why she would take such a mundane – if not cute moment – and process it as a human tragedy? In all seriousness, I deal with individuals and families everyday who face devastating life circumstances – permanent disabilities, terminal illnesses, and the worst-of-the-worst, parents losing their children. And, so, in my world where children pass away at age 9 due to muscular dystrophy and mothers are paralyzed in their 40s due to ALS, how can anyone be so seemingly shallow, to be so clueless toward true human tragedy that she would sob and declare the end of her world over a happy dog trotting around a show ring? Yes, she lost a dog show, but the dog was happy, there was no consequence on anyone’s life whatsoever and, no, despite her declaration, the world didn’t end.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to track her down. Nevertheless, there’re only two possible causes for the handler’s completely inappropriate reaction. The first is that there are other emotional and psychological factors in the handler’s life that came out upon the unrelated catalyst of the canine’s impromptu jaunt. Emotions have to come out eventually, and they can come out at unexpected, unrelated times. Maybe the handler has real issues in her life and they all manifested on the punch-drunk little pinscher. I can’t help but empathize for anyone in such a situation, where flood gates of emotion open at an unexpected time – it’s scary, isolating and, unfortunately, can feel mortifying.

On the other hand, some people do live remarkably privileged, narcissistic lives, where the slightest hiccup – a lost dog show! – is the seeming end of their worlds forever. Maybe the handler truly is as shallow as she’s appeared.

I have no idea where the handler’s life experience resides. However, given the two possibilities, I sincerely hope that her sobbing over a cantankerous canine was emblematic of a vapid narcissist because that’s a far better fate than those who’ve known true tragedies.

The Most Human Experience


By Mark E. Smith

Much of my life is spent around those like myself who have physical disabilities. And, because I have faced adversity in my life, many have turned to me for understanding, reassurance and comfort. After all, if you look at me – body twisted, spastic in my power wheelchair – I personify adversity.

Yet, while I know of my adversities – and, yes, some components of adversity are universal – I can never fully understand someone else’s adversities. While two individuals may even have the exact same disability, condition or other life circumstance, what I’ve learned over decades of sharing stories of adversity with others is that no two experiences are the same.

This raises several intriguing questions. Firstly, if no two experiences are the same, how do we meet the innate need for connection with others in the face of adversity? And, secondly, how do we support others in their times of adversity when we haven’t had the exact same experience?

The answer to both these questions is a singular one: empathy. Empathy is an amazing human capacity because it allows us to connect with others on the most genuine levels, where it’s not about relating to an exact circumstance, but truly relating to the person who’s experiencing that circumstance in his or her own way. So, you may wonder, how have I done that in my own life? After all, I was born with cerebral palsy, so how can I relate with a mother who was able-bodied till age 36, then paralyzed from the chest, down? Yes, they’re both disability experiences – but vastly different.

The first interpersonal connection I make is to try to best understand the other individual’s perspective. I mean, can you imagine what it emotionally and psychologically feels like to be the nurturer and caregiver to your children and spouse, and now you’re physically unable to fulfill those roles in many ways? I know, we want to swoop in and rescue and say, “As a mother and spouse, you’re more than your body, and everyone views and loves you just the same.” And, it’s true – but that’s not empathizing with the person’s real, valid emotions. I’ve said in this exact situation, “I can imagine how difficult it is to have gone from the caregiver to needing caregivers. That’s a harrowing life transition. How are you dealing with that?” When we approach others’ adversities by letting them know we’re striving to see their situations from their perspectives, it creates true connection and validation – invaluable aspects of empathy.

This leads to the other aspect of empathy: being truly present in the other person’s time of adversity. No, I don’t know what that recently-paralyzed 36-year-old mother is literally going through – I’ve never experienced it and no one has ever been in her exact circumstance, either. However, I’ve made it through harrowing times in my life and there’s common humanity in that. And, so there’s the remarkable ability to quietly relate with someone, not on a circumstance level, but a human level. This is a scary place. I know scary places, so I’m just going to hold your hand as you move through it.

In these ways, through my decades around disability – both in my profession and in my personal life – I’ve learned a lot about being there for others. Empathy isn’t about having gone through an exact experience. Rather, empathy is about striving to understand another’s perspective and embracing him or her as-is, wherever he or she is in the midst of adversity. If we do that, we navigate toward the most uniting experience of them all: shared human experience.