Posts Tagged ‘helping others’

By Mark E. Smith

Words are just that – words. While they have formal definitions, the way we interpret and experience words vary greatly. Trust and intimacy are two such words that, despite formal definition, have dramatically different connotations and practices in our relationships.

On the surface, most see trust in a relationship as intertwined with commitment, meaning your partner isn’t going to betray you. Similarly, intimacy generally means closeness, both emotionally and physically. However, while most couples have built relationships on these core principles for countless generations, the scope of what trust and intimacy mean within relationships is dramatically changing in our culture as we speak.

See, baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are now between 53 and 71, to the tune of 76 million, the largest aging population in US history. Of course, there are a lot of aspects to the baby boomer aging population, but one that is especially intriguing is the shift couples are having to make when it comes to trust and intimacy. I’m not a baby boomer myself, but as a married man with a disability, I have an understanding of what many aging couples are facing, where trust and intimacy are taking on deeper, more complex meanings within relationships based on changing abilities.

The reality is, while baby boomers are demonstrating living longer than their parents’ generation, it means facing such realities as later-in-life illnesses and debilitating medical conditions. As a result, couples are finding themselves in the circumstance of one spouse caring for the other – and it’s a complex transition. Trust and intimacy, then, become a whole different experience from what a couple once knew.

In many situations, the individual needing caregiving must trust enough to feel safe in sharing vulnerabilities with his or her spouse – and that can be a harrowing leap of faith. It may have been that trust was once about fidelity or finances, whereas now it’s about your spouse helping you use the commode or bathe. That’s a big leap in trust for many. Similarly, the caregiving spouse must trust that his or her spouse is comfortable in receiving help.

On the intimacy side, it can likewise be a difficult transition. Imagine being a modest person, where your spouse must now assist you in very private living skills, such as bathing. Intimacy takes on a whole new meaning. It requires a deep understanding of each other’s emotions given the circumstance, and that can be tricky.

Interestingly, when couples are able to expand their scopes of trust and intimacy to include illness, disability, and caregiving, it can bring them ultimately closer together. The key I’ve witnessed, though, is that long-standing routines of life must remain in order to keep perspective and romance within the relationship. And, depending on the circumstance, that can be hard to do (and sometimes impossible). My wife helps me considerably in the mornings and eves, but the bulk of our life is that of a 40-something couple with children moving through life. In our case, while my disability and her caregiving aren’t the ideal, we have evolved and expanded our scope of trust and intimacy, and it adds to our unity as a couple. Put simply, we’ve learned what we can work through together – and that’s empowering to all aspects of our marriage.

Such circumstances are an increasing part of relationships within our culture as it ages, and I hope couples are able to navigate these new waters in ways that expand trust and intimacy rather than erode it. Life is about change and growth – and fortunate couples evolve together, regardless of what life sends their way.

By Mark E. Smith

When I was six, my great-grandmother told me that if I stopped being lazy and simply walked like my brother, she’d buy me a bike. She wholeheartedly believed until the day she died that my cerebral palsy was a farce – I was merely the laziest person she’d ever known. I was a lifelong disappointment to her.

Over four decades later, I have empathy for my great-grandmother, knowing that her outlook was likely a defense mechanism toward dealing with my having a severe disability, a painful reality for most family members in such situations. However, throughout my childhood, she took every opportunity to tell me how my lazy behavior of having cerebral palsy disappointed her.

Growing up, I saw my great-grandmother as a crazy old lady who was on her own when it came to her outlandish opinion of my cerebral palsy as pure laziness on my part. I, in fact, knew that I was making the most out of what I had – and I was fine with the reality that I disappointed her. She had her opinion; I knew my reality; and, I was fine with it all.

What I didn’t realize till in my adulthood was that she simultaniously taught me a great lesson while instilling in me a value that would fuel much of my positive outlook in life: as long as I do my best, others can love or hate me, but the outcome doesn’t change. My job is not to worry about what others think, but to be the best me – and let the chips fall where they may.

Interestingly, it’s proved true in my professional life. Some value what I do – right down to this very essay – while others despise it and me. Both views of me are great – and have no affect on what I do (even if you offer to buy me a bike!).

My great-grandmother taught me an even larger lesson, though: it’s likewise no one’s job to try to please me; rather, my only role is to support others in who they are. I’ve found this invaluable as a father, husband, friend, and colleague. As long as those around me are happy and healthy, living to whatever their personal bests are, I’m thrilled for them. My role is to support, embrace, and love, not judge.

In these ways, just as our job isn’t to please everyone – because that’s impossibe – it’s not our place to want others to please us. By living to this reciprocating standard, we find ourselves in life-inspiring, mutually-embracing relationships of ultimate acceptance. The downside is, no one buys us a bike….

By Mark E. Smith

Wouldn’t it be nice if our life paths were linear, evolving via steady forms of growth? Just imagine how easy life would be if, from health to relationships to finances and on and on, our lives simply got better and better, with no adversity or rough times in-between.

Now, we all know that life doesn’t work that way – life isn’t linear for anyone. However, what happens if we accept the way life really works? What happens then?

I’ve watched the trees, shrubs, and flowers on my property this past fall, winter, and now spring. And, nature’s reminded me of the course of our lives: often growth occurs from loss and regrowth – phases I’ve experienced in my own lifetime, where I’ve always come back stronger, with a more vibrant perspective.

When we experience disheartening change or loss, it’s understandable to feel like all good things have come to an end. It’s like watching my flowers die in the fall. Then, all often seems hopeless for a bit – I’m never getting that part of my life back. It’s like looking at a mountain of trees without leaves in winter, where all looks eternally bleak. However, soon spring arrives and growth returns, where the trees, shrubs, and flowers have a tremendous growth spurt and colors abound. Nature is magical in its seasons – and so are our lives.

Not unlike nature, our growth isn’t linear. Rather, there are pauses and breaks to it. Our health fluctuates, relationships ebb, and we have financial down times. Yet, if we have faith, knowing that life isn’t linear, but that change and loss soon enough welcome new growth, we can have a life that’s one of anew and success, where the past is stepping stones to an ever brighter future. Indeed, these are the seasons of life.

It must be noted that nature has one up on us in that once the right weather hits, spring comes on strong and growth abounds. The springs in our lives can be a little more tricky in that we must invite them with positive actions and thoughts. If we’re in the dumps emotionally – without hope – winter can last a long time. Therefore, it’s often up to us to be the weather changer – again, a little faith and optimism that spring is possible goes a long way.

Life isn’t linear, and we do find ourselves in dormant seasons. However, when we do, let us know that all seasons are temporary, so thrive in the sun and have faith that in even the most wintry of times, spring will return.

woods

By Mark E. Smith

Whose woods are these I think I know. It’s the eve of my 46th birthday, and from the kitchen table – my in-laws marital set from 50 years ago – I look off past a pasture, into the rolling hills of woods. The glassed-in room makes such a vista easy, and it’s different not just from season to season, but from morning to eve.

A glass of wine sits on the table, and it’s alright. It’s all alright now.

Someone said that the pasture and the rolling hills of woods reminded her of Argentina. I’ve never been. But, do beautiful vistas change, regardless of geography? Pastures, rolling hills of woods?

My wife is upstairs painting. No, not the fine art she’s trained in, but our master bedroom. We sprung to have the first floor painted, but the second floor is sweat equity. The third floor is her art studio. It wonderfully just is.

The sun is setting on the hills of woods, and the reds and greens of the trees are incredibly vibrant for March. Some sort of evergreen trees, I imagine.

My father in his early life could have told me what sort of trees they are. After serving in Viet Nam, he studied to become a master landscaper in his early 20s. He could have told me a lot. By 30, though, all was lost.

The other night, I was trying to think of when my father died, then my mother, and I don’t recall. I’ve always heard that we remember these things down to the second – where we were, what we were doing. But, I just don’t. All was strained for decades, lives in turmoil, then it just ended, first my father, then my mother. Sometimes it just ends; dates don’t matter.

I check on our eight-year-old in the adjoining family room. She’s watching the Muppet Show, and I start the fireplace as the sun sets. Our oldest turns 20 the day after my birthday, and won’t return home from college for another two weeks, spring break. She hasn’t seen any of the paint in person. There’s always progress on the house that we’re excited to show her. Nuances discovered from its 1828 roots to changes we’ve made. It’s home now – ours.

Robert Frost, among the “New England poets,” captured rural settings like this in his work. I think of “Mending Wall,” where, in the spring, my 2daughter and I, too, will stroll our property lines, resetting stones on walls and placing pieces of the old timber fencing back on its hand-carved posts.

I could tell you how I got here, 46, my wife, the kids, the house, the rolling hills of woods. But, the beauty of life isn’t just the growth from where we stem, but the promise of where we’re going.

I gaze out the windows. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.

In memory of Dr. Brett Weber, who lived every day like it was Saint Patrick's Day (except for the beer!)

In memory of Dr. Brett Weber, who lived every day like it was Saint Patrick’s Day (except for the beer!)

By Mark E. Smith

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as though you will live forever.”

If today were your last day on Earth, what would you do? The more profound question is, are you doing it?

In my forever learning, I’ve taken to heart both the fragility and power of life. In being a member of and serving those with disabilities, I’ve known many passings. I’ve watched friends die of MS after the span of a decade or more. I’ve had friends with ALS who’ve only lived three years from diagnosis. And, I’ve had friends with quadriplegia who simply didn’t wake up one morning. Even when there seems to be a predictability to death – as with a terminal condition – there’s not. Anyone of us can die at any time, disability, illness or otherwise. And, we do.

Having known so many who have passed away, it’s made me oddly at ease with death. It literally has long been part of my life, just as it’s a part of life, itself. This isn’t to say I’m not heartbroken with each passing, but I’ve learned not to struggle with the reality of death. Grief for me has become less about sadness and more about fond remembrance. My life has been changed by knowing all who have passed, and their wonderful impact on me has never stopped at their passings – it’s carried on with me.

And, there within resides among my greatest life lessons: honor the fragility and power of life, as Gandhi put it, as if we may die tomorrow. What does that really mean, though?

Living as if you were to die tomorrow means deeply recognizing the power in life we all have. For each of us, priorities are a little different, but there are universal truths. Deeply value and express gratitude to those around us by constantly reaching out to our loved ones, friends and strangers alike. Live our dreams now, rather than putting them off. Find beauty and meaning in as many moments as we can, even in the difficult or mundane. Accept what we can’t change, and move on. Have fun! And, as my wise wife puts it, “Every day, do important things.” Life is what we make it, so why not live to a degree that doesn’t just bring joy and meaning into our lives, but to everyone around us?

As for me, I’m not worried about living or dying tomorrow – I’m fine with either fate. I’m just relishing every moment of today. No matter if it’s rain or shine, I’m using my power wheelchair to dance in it all!

maslowshierarchyofneeds-svg

By Mark E. Smith

Abraham Maslow was a well-respected psychologist in the mid 20th century. In 1943, he published a paper in Psychological Review, titled, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Put simply, Maslow explored what made great people… well… great. However, his research didn’t stop there. Over the next decade, he further studied such “exemplary” individuals, as he coined, as Frederick Douglass, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein. He also studied the top 1% of college students. With this data, he then defined an exact hierarchy of five traits that formed a pyramid, where if you had all of the ideal traits – physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization – you reached the ultimate state of “what a person can be.”

With his “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid published in 1954, Maslow garnered a lot of attention. It was sort of among the first self-help paths: follow these steps and you, too, can be a fully-evolved, ultra-successful person. Yet, in the 60 years since, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been questioned. The psychology community agrees there is a hierarchy of needs – breathing obviously comes before love – but many doubt Maslow’s sub-category rankings. For example, does sex come before intimacy, or intimacy before sex, and many argue that Maslow’s hierarchy can vary geographically, from culture to culture. Therefore, there are easily-seen holes in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

As one who’s studied Maslow since college over 25 years ago, I’ve increasingly noted a gap in his pyramid, myself. No, I’m not a psychologist, but one doesn’t need to be in order to understand what we need to be healthy, successful and fulfilled: a sense of purpose.

When we look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, nowhere does he note purpose. Yet, we all know what it’s like to question our purpose, why we’re here, why we do what we do? And, when we have the answer – that is, when we feel a sense of purpose in our lives – it’s the ultimate fulfillment. I’d assert that purpose is as vital as breathing, itself. In fact, in the hospice community, we often hear of those seemingly refusing to pass until their purpose is resolved. A sense of purpose most often defines our lives in the end.

Of course, a sense of purpose is found in endless ways. As parents, striving to do best by our children, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of purpose. In our careers, if we feel that we’re truly making an impact, it gives us a sense of purpose. In our communities, if we serve others, it gives us a sense of purpose. The list goes on and on; however, there is a unifying key to all senses of purpose: we must sincerely feel we’re serving others in some way. This doesn’t mean that we need to win the Nobel Prize for medicine to feel a sense of purpose. Rather, it simply means we must feel that our actions, big or small, serve others. If you walk into a field and shovel snow, at best you’ll just get a workout. However, if you shovel your elderly neighbor’s walkway, you’re guaranteed to feel a sense of purpose.

Purpose is also wonderfully contagious, and we should never be cautious about spreading it – let purpose loose! I recently got wonderfully pulled into a flurry of purpose. A gentleman in our community saw his purpose in collecting clothing for our local men’s shelter. He emailed a single person, and she emailed another, and by the time I was added to the email chain, I was awestruck by so many finding their purpose in the project. There were collection bins being set up, locations secured, and I was like, “Heck yeah, I’ll write the PR for you!” When a purpose bus comes by, get on!

I don’t know where you’re at in your life, but for all of us, a sense of purpose is vital. Sometimes we struggle to find it, and that’s OK – having patience often leads to finding ultimate fulfillment. Sometimes, we have a sense of purpose, then lose it – it happens, and let us take time to rediscover it. And, other times we feel our purpose every day. Purpose isn’t a scorecard, but a journey.

As for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I’m writing purpose into the bottom tier because I believe it’s absolutely a foundation of our needs in life.

red-phone1

By Mark E. Smith

For 17 years, I’ve worked in various roles within a power wheelchair and scooter manufacturer, most recently in the capacity as a general manager. That seems like a straight-forward career, doesn’t it? After all, how complex can wheelchairs and scooters and accompanying products be?

The answer is, quite. See, ultimately, I don’t just work with mobility technology, but the people who use it – and that is phenomenally complex. Living with disability ranges from complicated at best, to harrowing at worst, and the people I serve experience some of life’s most difficult emotions. To further this complexity, no two people I serve are in the same circumstance. Day to day, I deal with all socio-economic positions, the widest range of medical needs, and, alas, an infinite number of perspectives on living with disability. As I bluntly put it, individuals I serve can range from frustrating to heart-wrenching. It is a role, however, I cherish because as one with a disability myself, I often feel that I’m in the trenches right next to those I serve.

Interestingly, my career has paralleled the growth of the Internet and e-commerce, where virtually all of those I serve reach out to me electronically, from email to Facebook to texting – the ways of 21-century communication. If someone is in need of my assistance, it lands as a font in front of me on a screen. While digital correspondence is effective – and has allowed me to serve countless individuals over the years – I recently realized that it wasn’t fully meeting the needs of many I serve. Yes, it’s convenient, gets a point across, and works 24 hours per day. However, I’ve long found myself reading between the lines of digital correspondence. Sure, wheelchair problems are easily written. But, often there are hints of issues beyond a rattling wheel or growling motor. Topics from I don’t have anyone to help me to I lost my health insurance creep into the correspondences. So, I wondered, how could I better serve individuals beyond what’s volleyed in text on a screen? How could I get more of individuals’ stories in order to both better meet their mobility needs and connect with them, person-to-person?

I did something radical – I literally went backward with technology in order to improve my relations with those I serve. One Monday morning, I put a stake in the ground and vowed that my response to any electronic correspondence I received was going to be, “Please call me at your earliest convenience, and I’ll be glad to help.” …And it worked. My office and cell phone began ringing, and not only was I able to more quickly, accurately diagnose individuals’ mobility needs, but I was able to get to know them on a very real, personal level, and that, too, allowed me to better serve them.

The result has been astounding. I still hear heart-wrenching stories, but not so much anger or frustrations, and more importantly, I hear the entirety of individuals’ experiences. Each call serves someone’s mobility needs, but also connects us on a far more interpersonal level than digital correspondence. What I’ve learned is that the greatest technologies of all are the ones that best allow us to truly connect in our shared humanity.