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!

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.

Paths of Less Resistance

By Mark E. Smith

Water is wise. When it encounters an obstacle, it doesn’t fight it. It goes around it. Water always finds the absolute path of least resistance. From a trickle to a raging river, water effortlessly finds its destination every time.

We live in a culture where fighting every adversity is our calling card. If your relationship isn’t going well, fight for it. If you’re diagnosed with a health condition, fight it. If you don’t like where you are in life, fight your way out of it. But, does all this fighting work or is there a wiser path?

We’ve all sat in traffic and seen that one driver going out of his or her mind by switching lanes, honking and acting as an agitated mess, all while going… well… nowhere. Fighting traffic only upsets the person fighting the traffic – there’s no impact on the traffic.

Many circumstances in life are like sitting in traffic. Fighting the circumstance gives us no more control or resolution. It merely makes a circumstance harder on us. Why are we fighting that which we can’t control, why are we stalling ourselves against immovable forces instead of pursuing a path of less resistance?

Now, I’m not suggesting to concede all. Of course there are circumstances where we should rise to the occasion. Yet, like water, let us be wiser in knowing when to follow paths of less resistance. I lost a dear friend to multiple sclerosis and among the lessons he taught me through his actions and outlook was that his life was lived each day as it came, not battled.

Not every adversity requires a fight. Some, in fact, are conquered by developing the wisdom to flow effortlessly with the streams of life, where paths of less resistance truly do prove the most successful force.

The Bold New World of Televisions

By Mark E. Smith

I’m lying in bed. The TV won’t work, something about it cannot connect to the network. I’m old enough to remember when simply pulling a knob turned on a TV – and it worked every time. Now, I just stare at the spinning ceiling fan.

I think about my conversation with my best friend, Drew, today. He’s the wisest soul I know, and he inexplicably knows more about any subject than he should. We talked about what it’s like being in the throes of life crises. So many people tout the growth that comes from it. However, those are people speaking from the other side. As Drew noted, when you’re in the middle of it – an ended relationship, a health crisis, a job loss – you struggle just to breathe, where five minutes feels like an hour, a night feels like an eternity. There’s a tunnel vision in those times, the loss of everything joyful. No one stops to smell the flowers when it feels like life, itself, has stopped.

And, it’s OK, it’s all OK. Adjusting to a new normal is… well… normal. When we have the wind knocked out of us, we need time to get back up, we need time to rediscover ourselves in this new space. Anyone who tells you to snap out of it has never been there, or worse, has forgotten what it’s like to be there. There’s a time to be in such a space, to just be.

My wife comes in and wonders why I’m not watching TV? I explain the technical issue, and she lies next to me, staring at the ceiling fan, also lamenting the loss of televisions with antennas that simply turned on.

Our Third Dimension

By Mark E. Smith

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

Of course, it’s impossible to look through someone else’s eyes. However, when we’re exceptionally fortunate, others allow us the privilege of knowing their struggles. It’s a gift of trust, one that we should honor with utmost empathy and connection.

Indeed, it’s that connection that’s so unique. For 25 years, as I’ve moved through many paths of adulthood, across a vast geography, I’ve had the humbling privilege of so many sharing their struggles with me. Part of it is that we tend to share our struggles with those who also struggle, and the physicality of my cerebral palsy inherently defines me as having faced struggles, so others intrinsically know I’m in the club, so to speak. Likewise, I hope the other contributing factor as to why so many have shared their struggles with me is due to my expressions of real connections between us.

Now, I wish I could share some examples of the breathtaking, heart-wrenching stories some have shared with me over the years. However, that’s not the way it works. When someone shares his or her most personal stories, you help bear the load, but you certainly don’t violate that confidence. There’s a sacredness to such trust. What I can share with you is the truth I’ve learned in this process….

We never know what someone has been through or is going through. I’ve met individuals from all aspects of life – some of whom you’d never imagine have a care in the world – and the stories shared range from heartbreaking to unfathomable. The cliché is that you can’t judge a book by its cover. As I say, a smile can hide a lot of pain, and a trickle of pain can stem from an ocean.

While we move through our days, we encounter many people. Some are strangers; others are as close to us as colleagues we spend our entire days with. Clothes, bravado, makeup, materialism, humor, status, and so on can create facades that make all of our lives seem like the glossy pages of a magazine – two-dimensional perfection. But there’s a third dimension to many of us, one that includes depth and pain and scars. There’s connection in realizing that. It reminds us that we’re not alone in our struggles and also enables us to treat others with the truest sense of humanity. I can’t judge someone because I don’t know what he or she has been through or is going through. But, I can extend my heart equally to all.

As you move through your days, I hope there are those who you can trust with any struggles you may have. Similarly, I hope that you’re one who others feel safe confiding in. After all, none of us need to be alone in our struggles. Share. Listen. Love.

Writing Our Own Chapters

By Mark E. Smith

Do you mind if I share a quick story about my 20-year-old daughter? I hope she doesn’t. A while back, she called me from college, having received a speeding ticket. She explained that it wasn’t her fault, that she was unfamiliar with the area, that she didn’t know the speed limit, that she didn’t see the police officer. The ticket said she was traveling at 20 mph over the speed limit – and that was the only part I cared about. She broke the law and now had to pay the fine. At 20, my daughter is learning what her generation calls “adulting” – that is, how to take accountability.

Many of us, even though we don’t like to admit it, struggle with accountability, don’t we? My daughter isn’t the first to find every reason except her own lead foot for getting a speeding ticket! Many of us have likewise found every reason possible to place accountability elsewhere but on ourselves in circumstances ranging from financial difficulties to relationship struggles. It’s not that we’ve irresponsibly overspent, it’s that we just need more money. It’s not that we’re contributing to unhealthy patterns in a relationship, it’s that our partner is at fault. If we’ve lived to any experience, and we’re honest, we’ve certainly tried to wiggle out of accountability at points.

However, what about when we experience bad circumstances totally beyond our actions or control? Who’s accountable then, when some circumstance isn’t of our doing whatsoever?
The answer is, we are. See, if we want our lives to flourish, if we want to thrive amidst any adversity, we can’t pick and choose what we’re accountable for. Rather, we must assume accountability for all that happens to us, regardless if it’s our own making or a genuine misfortune. From as fleeting as my daughter’s speeding ticket to as profound as my cerebral palsy, we’re accountable for every circumstance in our lives.

Now, let’s clarify that this isn’t about blame. In fact, it’s about the polar opposite mindset. It’s about being in constructive control of our lives no matter what happens to us. Put simply, it’s about shifting from a victim mindset to a victory mindset. We don’t dwell or place responsibility on what’s happened to us, but we instead focus on moving our lives forward in ways that empower us. It’s flipping the script from reactive to constructive. This happened to me, now I’m accountable to address it, turning a negative into empowerment. I’ve spent my life living to this principle, and while I’m not flawless at it, it’s served me astoundingly well, empowering me in times of adversity more than any other factor.

As a reader of this blog – or if you’re among the many who saw the news stories and social media coverage –- you’ll recall that I experienced an unfortunate circumstance where I was removed from an American Airlines flight, arguably based on discrimination toward my disability.

In the wake of the incident, many suggested that I sue for monetary damages. We live in a litigious society and when we’re victimized, we sue. I thought of going that route, but as I explained to many, nothing could change what happened to me, but I certainly didn’t want it to happen to others with disabilities. Rather than being reactive and sue, I wanted to be accountable for what happened and thereby constructive. This ultimately meant pursuing routes of changes to air carrier policy to hopefully protect others.

I filed a formal complaint with the Department of Transportation under the Air Carrier Access Act to ensure my incident went on public record, where it helped expose a pattern of violations based on other formal complaints (I learned that in 2016, over 30,000 complaints were filed against the airlines by passengers with disabilities being mistreated). Next, we discussed my testifying before the Senate, but hearings ultimately weren’t needed because, right at that time, fortunately, Senator Tammy Baldwin and four co-sponsors introduced vital legislation that expands protection for passengers with disabilities. My point is, rather than being a victim, I assumed accountability to contribute to helping resolve a systematic issue.

We have the ability to do this in all areas of our lives. When we encounter adversity of any kind, from any origin, we don’t have to point outward toward who or what is responsible. Instead, let us turn inward and know that we’re accountable. In doing so, we remove the power from the circumstance to further victimize us and create the capacity for it to empower us. When we move from looking for responsibility to assuming accountability, we realize an amazing shift: Life doesn’t happen to us, but for us – and we’re in true control.

Let us not squander our amazing potential by looking to others for responsibility in what happens to us. It’s only when we assume accountability, regardless of circumstance, that personal empowerment occurs. Don’t let circumstances narrate your life when you can take the pen and write each captivating chapter.

Brave New World of Trust and Intimacy

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.