Where the Intertwined Branches Meet

By Mark E. Smith

I was asked how my wife and I maintain a healthy marriage in times of adversity? After all, that’s when most couples struggle, albeit based on health issues, financial crisis, pressures of parenting, or countless other life circumstances. In fact, it’s a topic I’ve pondered and my wife and I have discussed, especially based on recent health issues in our family. So, what have we learned about trotting through the tough stuff in life as a couple?

We’ve identified four key components to successfully facing life’s adversity as a couple that serve us well. I realize there’s no science to this, as each couple and their personalities differ. However, there’s merit to what we’ve learned, sound factors based on our experience.

Firstly, an advantage to any relationship is in knowing whether the individuals can, in fact, address adversity in healthy ways. The fact is, some people can’t. I live and work in disability culture, and I’ve heard many stories of accident and illness, where when adversity struck, the healthy partner left. We don’t like to believe that happens, but it does. It’s not always predictable, but if we know that our partner can handle adversity, it’s a tremendous reassurance. My wife and I both knew adversity as individuals before we met, so there was a confidence that our vows of “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, and in sickness and in health.” If you’re in a long-term relationship, you’re going to experience all of these, and each partner must be committed to moving through them, not caving when times get tough.

Secondly, it’s imperative to tackle the issue, not each other. Too many couples lash out at each other during adversity rather than focusing on the issue. If you can address the problem as a team – pointing at it, not each other – you’ll simultaneously solve the issue and strengthen your relationship. I call it the “high-five effect.” Celebrating victory as a couple is tremendously empowering to a relationship.

Thirdly, respect each other’s individual experience amidst adversity, as they may not be the same. This is an invaluable principle that my wife and I learned the hard way. I was recovering from a health issue and she was placed in the role of caregiver. One morning both of our emotions around the situation came to a head. I expressed mine, she expressed hers, and soon we were in a war of words for whose perspective was right? The fact was, we were both right in our feelings, as our experiences within the circumstance were different based on our roles. We learned to respect what each other was going through based on our individual experiences, not assume that they were the same or that there was only one perspective.

Lastly, it’s vital to not neglect the core normality of the relationship regardless of the adversity. For us, this means that humor, affection, romance, and shared joys remain during even the toughest of times. Ideally this is an intuitive and natural part of the relationship, regardless of circumstance; but, sometimes we should stop and think, “What does my partner need at this moment?”

My wife and I are just a married couple trying to make it through the trials and tribulations of life like everyone else. We’ve faced a bit more adversity than some, and a bit less than others. Yet, despite our lessons learned, there’s still a simple truth to all lasting relationships: Love conquers all.

Sailing in all Seas

By Mark E. Smith

I heard a doctor say, “Wellness is the temporary state when we’re in-between illnesses.”

On the surface, it sounds cynical. However, there’s a truth to it, both in medicine and in life.

No matter who you are, life is a constant ebb and flow of circumstances. We can be just as assured of good times as we can be of bad times. Most often, life is a confusing mixture of both. Just as we get ahead, we experience a setback. Just as we’re facing defeat, we’re uplifted. And, much of it seems inexplicable in reason and timing.

What can frustrate us even more is the never-ending chain of down times, when it appears that no matter how hard we try to ensure all is well, something always goes wrong. The fact is, we can never totally isolate ourselves from life’s tougher times. Money can help us better absorb difficulties, but not so much prevent them. In this way, peaks and valleys aren’t unique to any one of us, but intrinsic to life itself.

I’ve had a lot of extreme highs and extreme lows in my life. As one who’s tried to avoid the lows by taking every possible precaution in cases – with little success – I’ve found myself frustrated with the fact that, no matter what, life drags us through tough stuff from time to time. Yet, I’ve found a way to soften the blows a bit.

I had a fantastic talk with a dear family friend over dinner in Boston a while back. We got into a theological discussion about why does God allow bad things happen to good people? (I know that sounds cliché, but stick with me.) My friend replied, “So, are we to only value God when he gives us what we want?”

Her question also struck me me in a secular way: Are we to only value our life when it goes how we wish?

For me, finding gratitude for life itself – regardless of the circumstances – has been the ultimate key to moving through some very tough times. I’m not perfect at it, but when I stop separating the so-called good and bad, and focus on gratitude for life in its entirety, it’s hard to stay in a funk or get too upset. Similarly, by not hyper-emphasizing good times, it lessens the chances of feeling wronged when the tide changes – as it always does.

What I’ve learned is that life is far more fulfilling when we don’t place too much weight on the good versus the bad, but on finding gratitude for all of life. On our journeys, we’re going to experience calm seas and wicked storms. Let us not get hung up on either, but relish the journey, itself.

When Being Our Best Truly Counts

By Mark E. Smith

I live in an inspired cultural niche, one of disability. Every day, I have peers vying against the odds to overcome seemingly insurmountable struggles. What’s long intrigued me isn’t that they do it, but the specific life tool that they use, one that we all have.

Tiffani Ntanos, is a well-known YouTube personality, who became a high-level quadriplegic at age 20 as a result of a diving accident. She’s spent the past six years learning how to live as a quadriplegic. Being in one’s 20s can be confusing enough, and adding a life-changing accident makes it even more difficult. Now, at age 26, she’s living with cancer. Talk about blow after blow. Make no mistake, it’s a daily struggle, but she’s doing it, she’s addressing each vying in life as it comes. She’s had not one, but two of life’s toughest paths, but keeps pushing forward. How?

Tiffani and many of us know the rule of the road when it comes to navigating harrowing challenges: When we’re at our lowest, let us be at our best – for that’s when it counts the most.

Most assume that we’re at our best when… well… we’re at our best. Yet, that’s a misnomer. See, being at our best when life goes smoothly isn’t difficult. It’s actually quite easy. We’re soaring at those fortunate points and it doesn’t require a lot from us.

However, when being at our best truly counts is when we’re in the depths of struggle. We must find the insight to cope, the fortitude to adapt, and the strength to rise. We must not settle for where we are, but strive toward where we can be. We must not accept a defeat, but fight for a win. This all requires our best.

I’ve been at the lowest of the lows in life, and the highest of the highs. I still oscillate between the two from time to time – most of us do, as that’s how adversity in life works. And, it’s at the lows when I learned to be at my best, as we all must do if we’re going to succeed. Dancing around a ring as a boxer is easy. Real strength comes in when you’ve been knocked down and must get up.

When we’re defeated, of course it’s natural to feel defeated. Yet, those who know how to succeed during extreme adversity make the choice to move from feeling defeated to feeling motivated, they know it’s time to be at their best. The key to all of this is living with hope. If we feel motivated, we feel hope, and they fuel each other. Therefore, rarely is it the situation that dictates the ultimate outcome, but our perspective – that is, rising to our best, especially when at our lowest.

Life throws adversity our way from time to time, which can knock us down. That’s not the time to curl up and succumb. Rather, when adversity comes our way, that’s the precise time to double down and say, Man, I’m at my best – I can handle this!

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.

Lou Gehrig’s Disease

By Mark E. Smith

While writing a medical article about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), I was intrigued by the story of Lou Gehrig. Although “Lou Gehrig’s disease” is a synonym for ALS, little is discussed in literature in a linear form about how the most famous person with ALS actually dealt with the condition. In extracting parts of Gehrig’s experience from many sources, bit by bit, I saw an amazing story unfold, one with a profound lesson for many of us.

In 1923, Lou Gehrig joined the New York Yankees, soon taking his spot as first baseman. By the 1930s, he set an all-time record, playing in 2,130 consecutive games, a record unbroken by another player until 1995. In the 1930s, Gehrig, alongside longtime teammate, Babe Ruth, became a homerun champion, as well. However, in 1938 everything changed for the baseball legend.

In the 1938 season, Gehrig had his first seasonal slump. Based on the 1937 season, he was still going strong, even in his mid-30s, but his performance was suddenly amiss. What’s more, Gehrig felt it was more than just an unlucky season. He struggled not only on the field, but with tasks as simple as tying his shoes.

By April of 1939, during spring training, even the press became concerned. Sports journalist, James Kahn, wrote:

I think there is something wrong with [Gehrig]. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing. I have seen ballplayers ‘go’ overnight, as Gehrig seems to have done. But they were simply washed up as ballplayers. It’s something deeper than that in this case, though. I have watched him very closely and this is what I have seen: I have seen him time a ball perfectly, swing on it as hard as he can, meet it squarely—and drive a soft, looping fly over the infield. In other words, for some reason that I do not know, his old power isn’t there… He is meeting the ball, time after time, and it isn’t going anywhere.

On May 2, 1939, Gehrig ended his consecutive-games record by pulling himself from the lineup. Six weeks later, on June 13, he checked into the Mayo Clinic, where he was diagnosed in the following days with ALS, a degenerative muscle disease, fatal within two to five years. He was 36.

Although contrary to the actual diagnosis given, Gehrig’s initial reaction was expressed in a letter to his wife: “There is a 50–50 chance of keeping me as I am. I may need a cane in 10 or 15 years. Playing is out of the question.”

On July 4, 1939, with the news of Gehrig’s illness filling newspapers, he returned to Yankee Stadium to retire, giving his “luckiest man alive” speech. There’s little record of the speech, but the following pieced-together excerpt shows Gehrig’s disposition:

For the past two weeks you’ve been reading about a bad break. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…. When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today? …I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

One might think that upon retirement from baseball, with such a grim health prognosis, Gehrig would have settled into a quiet life. However, in keeping with his show-up-and-play nature, he took a civics job as a New York Parole Commissioner in January, 1940, maintaining a very low profile as he worked with prison inmates, where he believed in rehabilitation.

By 1941, while Gehrig worked as a Parole Commissioner, his condition dramatically declined. His wife, Eleanor, was his constant companion, helping him perform his duties. In May of 1941, Gehrig resigned his position due to ever-deteriorating health.

On June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig died of ALS at 10:10 p.m., at his home in the Bronx.

While many remember Gehrig for his Hall of Fame baseball accomplishments, his ultimate legacy may be a single quote that he left us with that applies so well to all facing such harrowing adversity: “Don’t think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition at present. …I intend to hold on as long as possible and then if the inevitable comes, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That’s all we can do.”

Complaining About Complaining

By Mark E. Smith

Complaining is an interesting subject to address because it’s sort of complaining about… well… complaining. However, before you deem this writing as the ultimate hypocrisy, keep reading!

Indeed, we live in a culture of complainers. Everyone seems to complain about everything. For example, is there any type of weather that people like? I know a television weatherman and he once told me it’s a completely thankless job because no matter the weather, his email and voicemail are filled with complaints. We see this in our own lives, too – can’t people just accept that the weather is what it is, rather than complaining about it, that which no one can control?

Of course, people incessantly complain about everything from their jobs to the lives of celebrities. If complaining wasn’t so toxic, it would be amusing to witness at times. However, that’s precisely what many don’t understand – complaining takes a toll on our lives. So, why do we complain so much and what’s its true impact on us?

By definition, we complain to “express dissatisfaction.” Yet, there’s a legitimacy scale to it. We all may rightfully complain when we receive poor service by an establishment. On the other hand, complaining about, say, the weather is a futile expression that truly has no point. You can’t change the weather, so there’s no reason to complain about it.

Interestingly, research shows that chronic complainers are individuals who feel powerless in their overall lives. You might have previously thought that chronic complainers were egomaniacs or know-it-all critics; but, in fact, the opposite is true. Chronic complainers typically use complaining as a way to mask feeling inadequate. For example, people who are envious of others most often use complaining about them as a coping device – albeit, a self-destructive one. The school board members are idiots. I could do a much better job….

The reality of complainers feeling a deep sense of powerlessness makes sense because those who feel a sense of control in life strive to resolve issues rather than simply complain about them. Those who do, do. Those who don’t, complain.

Complaining can also serve as a way to shun responsibility. I know someone who’s complained about his job for 15 years, constantly disparaging the company and complaining about never getting promoted. Someone of action would either pick up the pace of his performance or would find another job. Complaining conveniently shifts responsibility elsewhere, pointing a finger away from ourselves.

It’s the shift away from personal accountability that makes complaining so toxic in our lives. Look what happens when we question a complainer:

If I was in charge, this would never happen!

Ok, but why aren’t you in charge?

The complainer ends up in a bind quickly because a lack of responsibility and accountability is exposed.

With that said, it’s most often pointless to confront a chronic complainer. Again, they are individuals who shun responsibility and accountability. However, we can change ourselves. Let us begin by noting how much we, ourselves, complain – you might be surprised by how often you’re engaging in it once you’re monitoring your own behavior.

Next, let us focus on less complaining and more doing – that’s a surefire way to actually resolve dissatisfaction and mobilize our lives toward the positive.

Of course, the biggest trap of complaining is that we rob ourselves of joy. Complaining is rooted in bitterness and resentment – read that, misery –whereas the surest path to happiness is gratitude.

Therefore, let us see not the negatives in life, but empower ourselves and those around us by focusing on the positives.

Maya Angelou put it best: “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”