Stopping the Spiral

By Mark E. Smith

It’s that murky area, the one where a bad day turns into a bad week, maybe a bad month, and we can’t find our way out. These are the scary, dangerous times for many.

I recently had one of those weeks, all emotionally spiraling out of control. A series of deaths around me triggered my own anxiety around mortality – fears of leaving my wife and daughters behind upon my passing – created by a not-so-long-ago health crisis. The anxiety and fear piled on and I felt a confusion, a disassociation, a fear that my life, too, was destined to end sooner than later.

As the week went on, I found myself feeling more and more isolated, even though my everyday life didn’t change. I was surrounded by people – my work, my family, my community – but still felt alone. My wife recognized my behavior, wondering if I was “back there” again? It’s something she’s seen come and go, especially since my health crisis.

I remember sitting alone at our kitchen table one eve, irrationally thinking that all around me was temporary, that this might be the last time that I looked out the windows at the early-summer, green-carpeted hills that surround our home. Just as this lush season will fade, might life, itself?

I grabbed my cell phone and sent a text to my lifelong best friend, asking if he could talk? I knew he could, as whenever either of us reach out, the other understands the importance of answering. And, so for an hour, we talked about what I was feeling, and when I hung up the phone, the spiral was neutralized.

If we are thinking, feeling, introspective individuals, we’re going to experience difficult times in life. At those moments, it’s crucial that we’re self-aware enough to reach out to someone for support, clarity, validation of feelings. We need to be self-aware enough to say, I need help stopping this emotional merry-go-round I’m stuck on.

For some of us, a partner, family member, or friend can offer the grounding perspective we need. For others, where the issues are more clinically based, professional help is needed. In either case, our reaching out is key to our survival.

Now, I know that reaching out is hard and scary. It’s difficult to share that we’re struggling, if not impossible for some. At the very least, by reaching out, we’re exposing our deepest vulnerabilities and extending trust. It can seem harrowing.

However, no one can help us if they’re unaware that we’re struggling. So often we wait for others to come to us out of concern. But, if we’re not showing signs, they can’t be expected to. This can be compounded by the fact that many who are struggling master the art of hiding it — again, showing vulnerabilities is extremely difficult for many. Therefore, it’s vital that we, ourselves, reach out, that we push past our apprehension and fear in our own best interests.

I’ve learned that in my toughest times, reaching out has never failed me. When I’ve reached out, I’ve found the most profound human experience: an embrace.

We all struggle at some point in life, the causes of which are unique to each of us. When we find ourselves there, let us not be ashamed or question ourselves or, worst of all, isolate and hide our struggles. Rather, let us serve ourselves by reaching out to those around us – and experience the power of common human experience. We never need to be alone, nor are we.

Shifting Our Lives From (R) To (D)

By Mark E. Smith

My oldest daughter recently returned from Israel, where she waded into the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is amazing for many reasons, from the biblical to the scientific. Among them is the fact that it’s the lowest geographical point on Earth. As such, many travel to the Dead Sea to “leave their lowest points in life at the lowest point on Earth.” The Dead Sea, then, is a place of healing our emotional wounds, those that, unlike the physical, may linger for years or a lifetime.

All of this raised a question for me: Must we travel all the way to Israel, immersing ourselves in the water of the Dead Sea, to heal from the past? Or do we simply each possess the capacity to let go of our emotional wounds and move forward, regardless of geography or lore?

Now, I want to make it very clear that I’m not speaking of PTSD or such clinical conditions, as they must be professionally addressed. But, how many of us are simply holding so tightly to emotional wounds from the past that the air can’t reach them for healing? How many of us are allowing emotional wounds to dictate who we are – or, aren’t – today?

I’m not a smart man, nor wise. However, what I’ve learned is that we can’t steer our lives in two directions at once. Our lives, you might say, have two gears – forward and reverse. If we concentrate too heavily on what’s happened to us, it’s impossible to move forward. It’s like trying to drive a car forward while the shifter is in reverse – it doesn’t work, period. Again, this isn’t an astounding revelation; it’s simply the way the physics of life work. If we want to move forward, we can’t be living in reverse. If we want to reach our highest points, we can’t let our lowest points keep holding us back.

The key to all of this is identifying when we need to shift gears. I’ve had a lot of trauma in my life, much that could have held me back, and I’m sure there’s more to come. However, what I’ve found are a few simple practices that I deliberately draw upon that help me shift my life from (R) to (D) in real time.

Firstly, we must realize that experiencing pain is a normal part of life, but so is letting it go. Therefore, while I process pain, I know it won’t last forever – because I know there’s an intrinsic time to release it.

Secondly, I strive to be real with myself about who I want to be. Holding on to pain stifles us. I don’t want to be angry or bitter or jaded or emotionally shut off, so I identify what’s holding me back and let go of it.

Thirdly, I work toward learning from my mistakes rather than forever shaming myself. Along the way in life, I’ve been a jerk of a husband, father, friend, and person at times. Getting stuck in my shame from those times wouldn’t improve my behavior or create restitution for others; learning from my behavior does. In this way, moving from shame to accountability allows me to release destructive shame by applying the experience toward growth.

Lastly, I’m adamant in my life that I’m not a victim. Bad things may happen to me beyond my control, but I’m ultimately the one in control. I refuse to let bad circumstances define me. We may be victimized, but we need not be a victim.

When putting all of this together, a clear pattern emerges: Mark is responsible for Mark. That empowerment means that I control the effect that circumstances have on me. I’ve done well with being decisive toward moving beyond the past, but I’m still cognizant of my falling into unconstructive patterns from time to time – practice makes perfect, I hope. What I know is that letting go of negativity surrounding our past is among the best gifts that we can give ourselves, so I continue evolving that gift.

The fact is, holding on to emotional wounds ultimately only hurts us, preventing us from being who we can be. Fortunately, we need not travel to the ends of the Earth to release it. Indeed, we need not look any farther than ourselves, where we have extraordinary control over our lives and emotions. I say, let us take a firm grip of the shift knob and ensure that our lives are in Drive, emotional wounds behind us, healed.

Equipped and Prepared

By Mark E. Smith

When we face tragedy, trauma, or adversity, the question that many default to is, Why me?

While it’s an understandable initial response – after all, no one wants to experience life’s toughest times – there’s no way to answer that question.

Or, is there?

What I’ve witnessed time and time again in life is that the answer to Why me? is a straightforward one: Because you’re being equipped and prepared for the unforeseen to come.

At my birth, I wasn’t breathing, my body in life-threatening distress. I entered this life in a traumatic state and survived. That set into motion a life of cerebral palsy, which brought its own challenges. However, no one could have fathomed just what I was being equipped and prepared for.

See, some four decades later, I once again wasn’t breathing, once again fighting for my life. An intubation tube from which I was breathing during a surgery kinked in my airway, cutting off my air supply. An emergency tracheotomy was performed, allowing me to breathe – a harrowing eight-minute battle to save my life, I was later told.

I awoke in a different world – on a ventilator, unable to speak, my body far beyond my control, all in distress, just hanging on for life.

Over the following weeks, it took all I had to survive. Yet, there was an intrinsic familiarity to it all. There was a strength that I can now look back upon and contextualize. My body was in a place it had been before. I was long ago equipped and prepared to handle this.

Fortunately, most haven’t battled for life twice in such an uncanny way. But, we can all look back on any number of circumstances in our lives and connect the dots as to how they equipped and prepared us for future vying and victory. Maybe it was a job loss where it seemed like your world collapsed in an instant, but you went on to a better job, with a new understanding that you could come back from a seeming career setback even stronger. Perhaps it was an excruciatingly painful breakup from a relationship, from which you felt your heart would never recover, but you grew to understand what you truly wanted in a relationship and went on to find the love of your life. The list goes on. However, it all ties into the perspective that nothing happens to us, but for us. No, we usually don’t see the reasoning behind it in the midst of crisis, but it eventually reveals itself.

What have you struggled with or are struggling with? Could it be that you’re being equipped and prepared to be great when it matters most, that there is a reason behind it?

Indeed, there is. Let us shift from asking Why me? in times of adversity and take comfort in knowing that we are being equipped and prepared for whatever life has in store. Let us recognize that our seemingly weakest moments actually fortify us in ways that aren’t otherwise possible – we are stronger because of it. We are equipped and prepared!

Avoiding Boulders

By Mark E. Smith

Many, many years ago, I taught a semester-long course called “The College Success Workshop.” Its purpose was to teach freshman the skills needed to better succeed in college. I covered subjects ranging from test-taking skills to study habits to healthy living. My favorite section, though, was on the importance of positive focus.

I told my students of a research study done in the 1980s on a highway in the Nevada desert. There was nothing but flatlands along the 30-mile stretch of highway – except for a single mound with a boulder approximately at the halfway point. At least once per week, a car crashed into the boulder. The boulder was legendary to the state police, many referring to it as “The Magnet.”

Researchers stumbled upon this as a case study and also wondered how it was that so many people hit such an avoidable object in the middle of the desert?

They interviewed many who’d collided with the boulder and found a striking similarity among them. When asked what was the last thought they remembered before leaving the road and hitting the boulder, they all answered to the effect of, “Don’t hit that boulder!”

Maybe you can relate with those drivers, having thought, “Don’t spill this coffee,” only to spill your coffee! The fact is, what we focus on is most often what we experience, both in the positive and the negative. The science behind it is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. In simple terms, we have the power to create our state of mind based on what we focus on, and that creates actual experiences.

For this reason, the importance of focusing on the positives in our lives can’t be overstated. Our mindsets dictate both outcomes and our quality of life.

I remember going through a rough period as a teen where I was focused on all that was wrong with me. This isn’t unheard of with teens, as it’s a difficult time for many. However, I do think that disability can compound such feelings, and it did for me. I focused on how my cerebral palsy made me feel so removed from my peers, how unattractive I was, what little I brought to the world. It was a bleak time, where I couldn’t even envision a future for myself. What’s a 14-year-old with severe cerebral palsy ever going to become?

Although I had made tremendous strides in life, it wasn’t until I was 16 that I realized that I was focusing on the wrong areas. I didn’t need to focus on how weak my body was, but how strong my mind was. I didn’t need to focus on my spasticity, but my charm. I didn’t need to focus on who I wasn’t, but who I was. I was a remarkable person in my own right, as we all are, and when I focused on that, not only did my life change, but the world around me did, as well.

This principle applies to all of our lives. That is, our lives evolve based on what we focus on. If we see the world as a negative place, it is, just as if we see the world as a positive place, it is. Our experience is ultimately built by our own mindset.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t address the tough stuff in life, as of course we should in responsible ways. I can’t just ignore the difficult realities of my disability, as there’s no skirting them. Nevertheless, only focusing on the negative literally makes us and all around us negative. That’s a difficult way to live.

All of us have blessings and curses in our lives. Yet, we also have the ability to choose how to frame our lives. Are we focused on the blessings or the curses? The choice is ours, but the outcome is unquestionable. If we focus on the blessings, we live a blessed life. If we focus on the curses, we live a cursed life.

I say, let’s focus on the positives in our lives – and avoid those boulders!

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.