Right-Brain Thinking

By Mark E. Smith

When considering the human brain, most picture a single, sponge-like structure, all within a protective housing – the cranium – that’s little more than the size of a melon.

However, what many don’t realize is that the brain isn’t singular, but literally plural – that is, two distinctly separate halves (known as the left and right hemispheres), that communicate with each other to the totality of 1,000 trillion synaptic connections, but, in fact, think very differently from one another. And, when we understand how the two hemispheres of our brain think – that is, the very distinct lateralization of brain function – we better understand how we process events and live our lives, disability and all.

The left hemisphere is our memory bank, you might say. It thinks in a linear, analytical fashion, putting together the past and imagining the future to form methodical thoughts. When we dwell on the past or ponder the future, it’s our left hemisphere at work.

To the contrary, the right hemisphere doesn’t concern itself much with the past or the future, but is about the present, the here and now, the inspired moments in our lives (though, there is evidence that clinical depression is based on a hyperactive right hemisphere that distorts the way the mind intakes information, inherently turning to pessimistic, negative, nonconstructive thinking styles). When we are caught up in a moment, where our sole focus is what’s happening in the present, our right hemisphere is in affect.

In many ways, then, our left hemisphere is the weight of the world on us, with all of our past and future concerns flying around in trillions of stress-filled synaptic connections, whereas our right hemisphere is just glad to be here, taking in the moment.

When it comes to disability – and much of life, really – the right hemisphere is truly what we should primarily run on, the single cylinder that’s about the here and now. After all, when we hear of others’ discouragement with disability and life, so much of it is based on pain of the past, and fear of the future – it’s the left hemisphere tying one’s stomach in knots. Therefore, shifting from left-brain thinking to right-brain thinking frees us of many of the emotional burdens holding us back in life, keeping us centered and inspired in the present.

Interestingly, most clinical treatment of psychological or emotional trauma (both common elements in disability experience, as well), strives to move us from holding on and constantly reliving the past, to truly living in the present, where the original trauma no longer impacts our daily lives. That is, moving beyond trauma involves a shift from left-brain to right-brain thinking, where we’re not haunted by the past or dreading the future, but truly living in the present – our lives liberated, all baggage left at the door.

And, we do obtain striking clarity and room to breathe when we shift to right-brain thinking, where with the exception of being in the midst of a freak accident or trauma in the immediate, life in the present is a whole lot more relevant and comfortable than dwelling on the past or fearing the future.

Now, the fact is, it is hard for us as humans to make the shift from left-brain to right-brain thinking, especially when we’ve experienced trauma. We’re statistically prone to left-brain thinking after having experienced many forms of trauma, where we seek left-hemisphere life paths that lead us to dysfunctional behavior (a clinical basis of “post traumatic stress disorders,”), that causes us to indirectly relive the trauma over and over. We know that women who were abused as children are more likely to be in abusive spousal relationships as adults. We know that men who had alcoholic fathers are far more likely to be alcoholics as adults. And, we know that many with disabilities can get caught up dwelling on the origin and impact of their conditions or illnesses, frozen in time. In plain language, although we know that the traumas in our pasts are over, our left-brain thinking keeps us stuck reliving the experience – often literally recreating it through life choices.

The true magic of shifting to right-brain thinking, however, is that it proves that our traumatic pasts can be just that – our pasts – having little effect on our present (where distressing memories are essentially updated with more relevant thoughts in the here and now). In my late teens and early 20s, I was haunted by my father’s having walked out on my brother and me when we were kids, where I desperately wanted answers – my left-brain thinking was torturing me. However, the birth of my daughter was a wake-up call, where in a very cognizant way, I recognized that I had to shift from my left-brain anxiety about not having a father, to my right-brain focus of being a father. And, it was at that moment – where I made the decision to stop living in the past, and focus on the present – that my life changed, that a weight was lifted from my shoulders. My father died without any sort of closure for me – there wasn’t the happy ending or clear-cut answers I’d long wished. However, I was – and remain – at peace with that because my adult life isn’t about my father, but is wholly about my being a father, where my right brain is in full affect, having cherished every day of the past 14 years with my daughter.

The question as a whole, though, remains: How do people realistically shift from left-brain, stress-filled thinking to right-brain, content-in-the-moment thinking? After all, many of our careers and lives demand that we live very left-brain lives, where reminders of the past and objectives for the future are intrinsic to our lives. And, in cases of trauma like an accident that’s caused disability, the disability in itself can be a constant trigger, reminding us of the past or raising questions for the future.

Researchers know that right-brain thinking is both kinetic and holistic – it’s what’s fully engaging our bodies and minds at this moment. The reason why adrenalin-based activities like exercise or sports are so stress-relieving is because they’re right-brain oriented – you’re not concerned about the past or future when you’re simply trying to bench press one more rep. Similarly, creative endeavors require right-brain thinking – as I write this, I can’t be plagued by the past or future, as I’m in this moment, creating this sentence. Therefore, finding areas in our lives that inherently require using our right brain – simply listening to music is a great one! – are invaluable toward relieving stress, and keeping us in the present.

In my own life, where my career is left-brain based – where I can often feel like everyone’s mobility issues are on my shoulders, where the emails and such never stop – I’ve evolved aspects of my life toward right-brain activities, where they naturally balance my life. My daughter and dogs are constant sources of right-brain, in-the-moment focus, as is working out, boating, and reading. As one living in a left-brain world, so to speak, I’m able to find great reward and relief in the right-brain parts of my life.

Indeed, we can hold on to that left-brain thinking, where its catalog of memories – especially the traumatic – fill our lives with anxiety, fear, and destructive paths, leading us no where fast. Yet, we’re presented with a miracle of the mind, where our capacity to use right-brain thinking liberates us from the past, and places us in the present, where we don’t just survive, but thrive.

Listen to your right brain, where the past truly is the past, and the present has all the potential to be whatever you make it. After all, living in the here and now, making the most of this day, is the most rewarding place to be.

Fool’s Gold

By Mark E. Smith

I saw an on-line correspondence by someone I’ve met in-person, and the individual was describing “their” own disability. What caught my attention was that the individual’s description of their disability seemed exaggerated beyond belief. I was so struck by the individual’s seemingly exaggeration of their disability that I called a mutual acquaintance who confirmed that, indeed, the description was dramatically exaggerated – leaving us both wondering why the individual would make their disability out to be far more physically severe than it actually was? I mean, if one were a paraplegic with full use of one’s arms, why would one clearly lead others to believe that one was a quadriplegic with virtually no use of one’s arms?

Of course, in the spectrum of disability, this wasn’t the first time that I’ve witnessed someone exaggerate the physical facts of one’s disability, describing one’s disability as medically far more severe than it truly is. And, I’m always left with the question, Why do some wish to make themselves out to seem more physically disabled than they are? To be really blunt, How dysfunctional do you have to be to seemingly wish to be more disabled among your peers than you really are?

When I was working at a college years ago, a colleague of mine and I were sitting in my office one evening talking about minority-based literature. And, specifically, we discussed how there is a “hierarchy of hardship” in western culture, where the tougher one’s plight in life, the more respect one earns from others. In today’s world, we see this in the rap music industry, where street thugs like 50 Cent, who began dealing drugs at age 12, are idolized with “street cred” in their music careers, whereas rapper, Rick Ross, lost much of his following when it came out that contrary to his “thug-filled” lyrics, he’d actually worked as a prison corrections officer. Likewise, as my colleague and I discussed, there is a certain “street cred” to disability, where the bigger your physical challenges, the higher up in the disability hierarchy you may be seen.

In this way, there is some merit to the thought that those who exaggerate their disabilities are looking to up their street cred within the disability community, so to speak. However, there’s also a much deeper, self-defeating aspect to those who exaggerate the extent of their physical disabilities: They’re trying to convince themselves of reasons why they’re struggling with self-acceptance and a lack of success in life.

Unfortunately, due to remaining stereotypes, severity of disability still gets us off of the hook in many parts of life. The reason why the media still makes a big deal about a student with a severe disability graduating college, for example, is because our culture places lower expectations on those with disabilities – and, as it works, the more severe the disability, the lower the expectations. If you have a severe disability and you succeed, you’re heroic; but, if you have a sever disability and do nothing, that’s fine, as well – after all, those with disabilities can’t be expected to live up to mainstream standards, as their plights are already harrowing enough, or so implies mainstream stereotypes.

Now, with that principle in mind, if you’re one with a disability who’s struggling with self-acceptance and not willing to put forth extreme efforts to succeed, what’s the easiest way to justify your complacent path in life?

By convincing yourself that you’re far more disabled than you really are, of course! Really, it’s a brilliant – albeit, self-defeating – strategy that actually works. If you can convince yourself – and, ideally, those close to you who don’t know any better, as with family members – that you’re too disabled to have a healthy emotional life, attend college, work, or care for yourself, then you’re off of the hook. All shame is removed from the equation because, as you’ve convinced yourself, you’re a victim in all this – that is, the severity of your disability.

However, here are the two fatal flaws when you invest in such a dysfunctional coping mechanism: Firstly, your peers with disabilities label you as a fool who no one takes seriously, and, secondly, convincing yourself that you’re more severely disabled than you are ruins your life!

You might get by convincing family, friends, and the mainstream that your disability is the worst fate on Earth (because they can still be manipulated). But, it never flies within the disability community, where those with truly the most severe disabilities will look at you and laugh, rolling away, writing you off as a “tool.” I’ve seen it countless times, where there are, say, a table full of successful individuals with medically-defined severe disabilities, and someone of notably less physical severity will join the party, and start going on and on about how disabled he or she is, only to have all others label it as a pathetic attempt for attention or as a scapegoat for shortcomings in life compared to others.

I was sitting in a hotel lounge after working an Abilities Expo once, and a paraplegic was at our table going on and on about how disabled he was, how the world was doing him wrong. With us was a young lady with muscular dystrophy, on a ventilator, with no use of her arms, and she had a career as a social worker. As the gentleman went on and on about how terrible his life was with a disability, the young lady suddenly said, “I’ll bet you $5 that you can’t pick up that glass that’s in front of you.”

The gentleman didn’t think twice, simply picking up the glass. The young lady smiled, and said, “Man, when you can pick up a glass, you’re right, you must have it tougher than many of us in life. Reach in my backpack, and grab $5 out of my wallet – you clearly need it more than the rest of us.”

Again, you can exaggerate your disability in culture at large, but it will make you a fool among your peers with disabilities.

Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of life, looking foolish among peers isn’t nearly as consequential as convincing yourself that disability effects your life more than it should. The minute that you create any false limitations in your life, the only one that’s ultimately harmed is you. Make every excuse in the world why your life is a horrible plight – including exaggerating disability – but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re the one removing yourself from the game, you’re dictating your own limitations toward success.

So, if you find yourself feeling like your disability is the worst plight ever, making it more severe than it is, how do you change that self-destructive mindset?

The answer is strikingly simple: Stop dwelling on your disability, and start focusing on your abilities. Sure, it takes accountability, where you say, I’m responsible for the outcomes in my life, and my disability doesn’t void my remaining abilities, whatever they may be. Value your abilities, and use them to their fullest – never complaining, but always thankful – and your life will go in directions that you never dreamed.

Of course, there’s never any thought among my successful friends as to who has the severest physical disability. Sure, we all have varying degrees of physical disabilities, where a clinical observation might deem quadriplegia more severe than a below-the-knee amputation. However, when we’re each focused on living life to our fullest potentials, no one is more or less disabled than the next person – we’re all simply on a level playing field, living our best.

The Necessity of Challenge

By Mark E. Smith

Have you noticed how life has an uncanny way of placing lessons in front of us?

I was flipping through the channels, and came across a story about Kyle Maynard, born without arms or legs. Now in his mid-20s, Kyle not only was a high school championship wrestler, but went on to attend the University of Georgia, won ESPN’s Espy Award, appeared on every major talk show, authored a book, became among the top motivational speakers, modeled for Abercrombie & Fitch, opened his own CrossFit gym, and most recently fought in a sanctioned mixed martial arts fight.

So, I watched the quick story about Kyle, not thinking much about it because in the circle many of us travel, we’re all just doing what he’s doing – that is valuing what abilities we have, and making the most of them, consistently embracing new challenges.

However, here’s where the unexpected life lesson comes in: I changed the channel to NBC, where The Biggest Loser was on – a reality-type show about losing weight. And, I immediately encountered a 350 lb. woman crying that she couldn’t run on the treadmill. Meanwhile, the fitness coaches were screaming at her. Admittedly, in one of my most judgmental thoughts, I wished I could have been there screaming at her, too, as she should have been absolutely ashamed of herself. She was born with 100% of abilities – all four limbs, the ability to walk, and all – and she was crying over having to jog on a treadmill, all because she refused to rise to the simplest challenge. I went as far as to presume that the reason why she was obese was due to a lack of will toward facing any challenges, that eating was an escape to avoid any issues in her life – it’s psychology 101.

Now, before you judge me by stating that obesity is a disability that can’t be prevented, you need to know two facts: Firstly, according to U.S. and Canadian studies, “At an individual level, a combination of excessive caloric intake and a lack of physical activity is thought to explain most cases of obesity. A limited number of cases are due primarily to genetics, medical reasons, or psychiatric illness.” Therefore, obesity, primarily, is totally behavioral and preventable in most cases.

Secondly, The Biggest Loser only takes contestants who have behavioral obesity, so the woman crying about running on the treadmill wasn’t doing so for physical reasons, but out of an utter inability to tackle even the easiest challenge.

For me, the juxtaposition was profound: Kyle was born with no arms or legs and has taken full accountability for his life, filled with gratitude toward what he’s been given, gladly embracing ever-increasing challenges. On the other hand, the woman on The Biggest Loser was born with full physical abilities, ate herself to obesity, avoiding accountability, and took her life for such granted that she didn’t even have the willpower to run on a treadmill. What’s wrong with this picture?

Actually, the side-by-side comparison of Kyle and The Biggest Loser woman exemplifies a much larger picture of what’s going on today in America – that is, we’re seeing those with among the severest disabilities thrive to astounding success while much of the mainstream seems complacent in their lives. Biologically, it defies logic – that is a person with a sever disability shouldn’t excel over an able-bodied person, as the able-bodied person has every physical advantage, but we see it happening time and time again.

Yet, we know scientifically that our success at virtually any endeavor – even the most physical ones – has far more to do with the mind than the body. See, Kyle’s success is based on his lifelong mental skills of facing challenges, whereas The Biggest Loser contestant had no concept of facing challenges because she’d likely avoided them her whole life.

And, this is where we see the true reason of why those with severe disabilities can excel over the able-bodied mainstream – we know how to face challenges by nature of our everyday lives, and we’re not intimidated by whatever comes our way. See, challenges are like exercise – the more we face them, the stronger and more adept we become. And, when you’ve spent your life overcoming disability-related hurdles, you’re strikingly equipped to face virtually any challenges that come your way. Any limits in life can quickly disappear with such a highly-evolved skill set.

We had a snow and ice storm recently, and like every other day, I simply drove my power wheelchair to work – no big deal in my mind. Sure, I’ve been in some very bad conditions (even a State of Emergency once), but I truly don’t care what the weather is or how treacherous the conditions – I’m going to work because it’s simply what I do everyday, and no matter how bad the weather, it doesn’t phase me.

However, some people in my region don’t go to work in such storms because they somehow see it as too risky. In literal terms, I can drive my power wheelchair to work in the severest weather without a second thought, but others refuse to drive their heated 4-wheel drives. This fact goes back to the more challenges that we face, the more adept we become – and the less likely we are to see excuses in any circumstance. I know that I can survive the worst weather because I’ve done it. However, the person in the SUV who’s never moved beyond such a challenge has a far more limited view of what’s achievable. If much of life has been a physical cake walk, few develop the ability to face notable challenges, and it sets them at a disadvantage. However, if we’ve constantly faced – and embraced – challenges, we not only become proficient at persevering and facing challenges, but we also pursue opportunities that others pass upon.

While some of us have had little choice in whether we faced obstacles, we still at some point learned to embrace them, recognizing the empowerment that comes from the process. And, what’s vital – and personally inspiring – is to never stop seeking new challenges, ones that further broaden our potential, where the world around us becomes truly boundless. In my own life, I continue facing the challenges of my cerebral palsy – a never-ending life lesson on facing all-day adversity – but I’m likewise always placing additional challenges upon it, making my life seemingly much harder than it needs to be in the short term to ensure absolute empowerment in the long term. Unlike millions who think working 9 to 5 is enough, not doing much more in life, I know that I can push myself mentally, emotionally, physically, and intellectually much farther, where I simply don’t stop where others do. Driving my power wheelchair to work in the snow doesn’t phase me. I’m glad to stay up till 2:00 a.m. getting a writing job done. I’ll travel cross country by myself. I’ll go to work with a 102-degree fever. I’ll workout in my gym even after even the most exhausting day. I assume absolute financial accountability, living debt-free. I’ll throw myself off of my boat and work on my swimming, once thought impossible. And, I do all of this because it keeps me in the best overall shape possible, where I know that life is going to send more challenges my way, and when it does, I’ll simply say, Bring them on – I’m equipped to handle them.

For many, with and without disabilities, it’s tempting to make life as easy as possible. But, again, such a passive approach in life is counterproductive. If you want to truly get somewhere in life, make it as challenging as possible. For parents and caregivers, don’t be so quick to assist your loved ones with disabilities – if a task is just outside their abilities, let them struggle to accomplish it, rising to the challenge. As those with disabilities, ourselves, let us not ask for help, but struggle to accomplish a task, where we learn tenacity in facing challenges and breaking barriers. And, for all of us, challenges should rule our lives, where we’re primed to work two jobs, attend night school, hit the gym, go to work no matter what, and not ever use an excuse not to push ourselves beyond what others might perceive as illogical.

Every time that we face a challenge, we push the boundaries of our lives a little further. Why waste your life crying on a treadmill when by simply pursuing challenges, you can broaden your life on a limitless scale.