Posts Tagged ‘how failure leads to success’

By Mark E. Smith

Profound life change can be hard and scary. However, do you know what’s even harder and scarier? Acknowledging it to ourselves and others. Yet, when we do, that’s when the most rewarding change occurs.

My wife and I were very fortunate to buy our “forever house.” We’d financially striven toward it, and finding it was a two-year process unto itself. It had to be the right house, at the right location, at the right price – and we nailed it. Then, due to my wheelchair use, we did some remodeling, and my wife made our beautiful home even more beautiful with her design skills. People were kind, and the compliments on our home flowed. By all accounts, we were blessed, and as one who didn’t come from much, I never took a moment of it for granted – I was privileged to own the big yellow house on the hill.

Based on renovations and moving, it was a long process getting into our new home. I was satisfied with the accessibility renovations – although slightly different from my previous home of 15 years – and was eager to move in. As moving day approached, I was as excited as anyone.
Once moved in, however, little felt right to me. Although I’d made accessibility renovations, aspects like using the bathroom was physically different and difficult. I had to learn new ways of doing necessities like using the commode and showering. I found myself working hard to learn and adapt to new ways of doing everyday tasks, and it was physically and emotionally taxing.

My wife was phenomenally supportive toward my physical struggles, but I wasn’t being open about my emotional ones. Even I wasn’t clear on what I was feeling because, on the one hand, I wasn’t longing for my previous house, but I was wondering if this struggle was necessary just to have our dream home? I wasn’t to the point of resentment, but close to it. Every time someone complimented our home, I’d smile and think to myself, This house may look beautiful to you, but it’s wearing on me…. It’s an isolating experience pretending all is perfect when it’s not.

Yet, my wife knew all was not perfect. One night as we got ready for bed, she asked if I thought the house was a mistake based on my struggles? I was open with her and explained that I didn’t think about going backward – that is, I didn’t miss the old house – but I was struggling to move forward. Physically and emotionally, I was struggling with all of the changes in my daily routines. The house and all was great, but I was battling through the process of a profound life change, as with the process of battling to relearn my physical independence in this new environment.

That realization – where I wasn’t struggling with the house, but the process of a profound life change, itself – was a wake-up call. I didn’t need to give the house time; rather, I needed to give myself time. See, that’s a key to a profound life change: we need to allow ourselves to admit that we’re struggling with it, and give ourselves leeway to move through the process. It’s too easy to blame something, or run away, giving up on a situation. Real fortitude comes when we admit we’re struggling with change, and give ourselves time to move through it, succeeding on the other side.

I’m not there yet – the commode transfers are still difficult and intimidating, to name one aspect – but adjusting to profound life changes take time. However, I’ve been through this process before and I’m ultimately comfortable with the intrinsic discomfort. I’m tackling the changes and related emotions as they come, and I’m so looking forward to the last part of this period of change in my life: Summer evenings on the porch, enjoying the breeze passing through the century-old evergreens….

By Mark E. Smith

Have you struggled to find the reasons? I have. See, whenever we face physical adversity or emotional trauma – and I’ve faced both – we often struggle to find the reasons. The search for reasons often manifests itself in blame or guilt (and guilt is truly just the word that means we blame ourselves, so it’s all blame!).

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been through adversity or trauma and, in the search for the reasons, blamed someone, some event, or yourself. My hand is raised because when we experience adversity or trauma, going into a state of blame is a natural reaction and coping mechanism. Blame is a way we try to find the reasons for whatever has happened to us.

I remember being 13, in a fishing boat with my stepfather, who had his issues, but genuinely loved me. As we fished on a still lake in Oregon one summer afternoon, he shared with me his struggles with who was to blame for my having cerebral palsy? As he pointed out, on the one hand, the overdose of the epidural during my birthing process could have resulted in my loss of oxygen and, subsequently, cerebral palsy. Yet, my mother was open with him about her having smoked and consumed alcohol throughout her pregnancy, which also could have been the causation of my condition. “It’s just so horrible that either of those did this to you,” he said, fiddling with his fishing line.

It was a fitting conversation because I was at a point where I, too, was looking for the reasons that explained our current life and there was a lot of blame going around in my head. My mother and stepfather loved me, but they were a mess in every possible way. They were drunk, high, volatile and broke. And, in my teen mind, I had a lot to blame, including myself.

From as young as I can remember until her death, my mother swore that my biological father left because of my disability. So, as a child and as a teen, I held in a lot of blame. I blamed my father for leaving, but I also blamed myself for my cerebral palsy causing him to leave, which led to the dysfunctional dynamic of my mother and stepfather, and the scarring chain of events went on and on.

Yet, while I looked for the reasons to blame for my home life, interestingly I didn’t seek blame toward my disability, itself. In fact, I was at an age where I was developing physical independence, and I found that the more I accomplished in spite of cerebral palsy, the more my esteem developed. The adversity of severe cerebral palsy wasn’t detracting from my life, but it was enhancing it. Cerebral palsy proved to be my lifesaver in a youth that was otherwise spinning in chaos. Among all of this, a life truth that many have found over the centuries also revealed itself: cerebral palsy didn’t happen to me, it happened for me. Cerebral palsy, which was expressed to me as a negative, was manifesting itself in my life as a positive.

As I grew out of my teens and into my 20s, my personal momentum stayed on track. However, I continued internally struggling with my parents and upbringing. I was still looking for the reasons, and that process transcended from blame to resentment to disdain.

Then, my daughter was born. I was in the delivery room, and was blessed as the first to hold her. At that moment, all of my issues with my parents, for the most part, washed away. I was no longer concerned with being someone’s child, but rejoicing in being a father.

Friends of mine were also starting families around that time and expressed fear in whether they’d make good parents? I told everyone that I had no fear because if I simply gave my daughter that which I longed for as a child – parental presence, stability, unconditional love, modeled emotional health, and so on – all would fall into place. It was at that point that the truth about adversity again spoke to me: my dysfunctional upbringing didn’t happen to me, but for me. I was a better father because of the adversity I faced in my own family growing up.

I don’t want anyone to experience adversity or trauma. However, when we do, there’s no need to search for reasons or blame. We know the reason: it makes us stronger. We face adversity and trauma because it dramatically improves who we can be. No, it’s not any easy process, and because we may struggle with it doesn’t mean we’re weak. To the contrary, we struggle with adversity and trauma because we’re building incredible strength. It’s the gym of life, where the further we’re pushed, the stronger we become. And, once we get to the other side – realizing that adversity and trauma don’t happen to us, but for us – we have a solace and strength that takes our lives to heights we never dreamed.

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.

perseverance

By Mark E. Smith

I had always intuitively known of it and practiced it simply based on having my disability. However, it truly didn’t become part of my consciousness, in defined words, until the lesson in class that day.

I enrolled in an upperclassmen “winter course.” Winter courses at my college were a tremendous advantage because during the first three weeks of January – typically winter break – we could take a four-day-per-week class, for five hours per day, and get credit for a semester course. Most enjoyed winter break; but, for those of us who wanted to knock off classes left and right like bowling pins, the winter semester was a goldmine.

That particular winter semester, I took a literature course titled, “The American Renaissance,” covering 19th-century American literature from 1830 till the Civil War. If you know of the Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, Walden, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, you know something of the era. Having a concentration in American lit, I wasn’t concerned at all about blowing through more Emily Dickinson or Fredrick Douglass. Three weeks? Game on!

The first day of class, we began with an enrollment of around 20 students. The same number showed up the next day. It was a sharp group, and at the end of the second day’s class, the professor announced our homework assignment for the night: we were to go home and read in entirety Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and be prepared to present scholarly analysis at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. The fact that Google didn’t yet exist didn’t help, either – we had to literally read the book and pull out every nuance, overnight.

Depending on the book form, Moby-Dick ranges from 500 to 700 pages. Additionally, the professor made it clear that we would not be discussing the plot, but true scholarly aspects. As we headed out of class, many of my peers noted the impossibility of the task and how unreasonable the professor was. I, though, was only concerned with reading the book. I rolled straight to the bus stop, and opened the book. “The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now.” Tonight is going to suck!

I spent the bus ride, train ride, then the entire night reading Moby-Dick, and I used every technique I was schooled in to extract the text, from as mundane as the name, “Ishmael,” and its connection to the book of Genesis to Melville’s assimilation of Shakespeare. By the next morning, I had double vision, but I could tell anyone a lot more about Moby-Dick than the tale of ticked-off Ahab who’s chasing down a whale for biting off his leg.

In class that morning, only six of us showed up. We spent the day dissecting Moby-Dick, and by the end of class, we just wanted to go home and go to bed. But, the professor stopped us.

“I have a confession,” he said. “Today wasn’t a test on Moby-Dick. It was a test on you. Life isn’t about education, intelligence, or skill. It’s about who is willing to persevere. The six of you didn’t do the impossible – Moby-Dick can be read overnight. However, you did what 14 others in this class weren’t willing to do: you persevered. That’s all you need to not only get an ‘A’ in this course, but to be unbelievably successful in life…”

That experience, along with my disability experience, change my life forever. What I realized was that hardship makes us want to give up. Perseverance allows us to rise up. If you want to rise, choose perseverance every time.

Author’s Note

One can’t logically read the entirety of Moby-Dick every night for the rest of one’s life. However, not taking the easiest routes in life is invaluable toward our constant growth. For me, at 46, with cerebral palsy, I put everything I have into working out several times per week. You might say it’s my constant reminder of the perseverance we’re all capable of. No, I don’t have the best coordination, strength or balance. But, none of that matters – because I’ve got perseverance on my side.

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speak-up-quote

By Mark E. Smith

Have you ever thought about the power that fear has in your life? No, I don’t mean a fear such as that of public speaking or bugs or heights – those are all trivial. I’m speaking of fears that truly impact us: the fear to express ourselves to our partners; the fear of expressing vulnerabilities; the fear to truly just be who we are; and other such fears that emotionally stifle us.

And, it’s painful and debilitating, isn’t it? How many of us have been in a marriage or relationship, and have an inexplicable – or, sometimes, rightful – fear of expressing our needs or desires to our partners? We lay in bed at night, feeling alone, and our hearts just ache, don’t they?

Or, how many of us are living with trauma in our past of some kind, and we fear sharing it with anyone? The result is we feel isolated, needing to keep people at arm’s length, don’t we?

Or, how many of us are dissatisfied with our life paths overall, but we fear telling anyone because we don’t want to rock the boat or upset those around us? It leaves us trapped, doesn’t it?

I’ve faced many challenges in my life, but the absolute most difficult has been conquering such deep emotional fears of expression. And, it remains an ongoing process, where bursts of courage have been allowing me to slowly become more and more open over the years – read that, more honest with myself and those around me. I’ve been on a deliberate and liberating path from emotionally fearful to fearless.

In knowing my struggles and progress in this very personal emotional battle, I recently had the privilege of having a friend confide his fear to me. He was diagnosed two years ago with ALS, which has progressed very rapidly, his now using a power wheelchair and losing physical abilities day-by-day till he passes away. However, he’s been the picture of strength, not only for his wife and children, but for his whole community.

Despite his outward portrayal, he shared with me that he’s been keeping a secret, one he fears telling anyone. As I listened, he paused and said just two words: I’m scared.

Everyone handles adversity in his or her own way. However, any reasonable person who’s slowly dying, leaving behind a spouse and children has every reason to be scared. Yet, out of fear of not being “the strong one” that all labeled him as, he was terrified to express his real emotion, not wanting to let others down, as he put it. Meanwhile, he was struggling on this frightening journey internally alone – fear had him trapped within himself.

I asked, if he was to put his fear aside and share those two words – I’m scared – with his wife, how would she react? His answer was breathtaking: I know she’d reply, “I’m scared, too….”

I haven’t learned if he was able to ever have that conversation with his wife, but I hope he did because I trust it would bring them closer together and allow them to be more open in supporting each other in this process. You can’t have genuinely heartfelt conversations as long as you have fear.

See, that’s what overcoming such fear does – it opens us up. Sometimes we receive a positive response to releasing our deepest fears into the world, while other times a disappointing response. However, the reward of expressing ourselves, despite our fears, is in our actions, not the result. The power, for example, in coming out as gay isn’t in seeking approval; rather, it’s about not living in fear of being oneself. This equally applies to no matter what we’re keeping inside. Expression over fear liberates.

What I’ve learned in my own process – from my relationships to my career – is that life is more authentic when I choose to live openly as myself rather than stifled by fear.

20151010_174902-2

By Mark E. Smith

We’ve all heard at least some version of among the most traditional wedding vows in modern western culture:

I offer you my solemn vow to be your faithful partner in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow. I promise to love you unconditionally, to support you in your goals, to honor and respect you, to laugh with you and cry with you, and to cherish you for as long as we both shall live.

And, for those among us who are married, ideally we live up to those vows, at minimum.

However, here’s an intriguing question – why don’t we practice such vows toward ourselves, as individuals? Put simply, why are we so reluctant to apply such unconditional love to ourselves? Why don’t we consistently honor ourselves in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow, loving ourselves, supporting ourselves in our goals, to honor and respect ourselves, to cherish ourselves?

I see the struggles of this every day, on a multitude of levels, from family to friends to within the community. Countless life experiences can throw us into emotional tail spins, where our identity – namely, self-worth – degrades. Why is that? After all, when someone we love faces challenges, we embrace, love and respect them. We’re remarkably unconditional when it comes to applying the practice of vows not just toward our spouses, but toward everyone around us. Yet, we’re not so generous toward ourselves, are we? We can see the beauty in others, but not ourselves. We can note the strength in others, but not ourselves. We can compliment others, but not ourselves. And, alas, we can love others unconditionally, but not ourselves.

A lot of this is conditioned into us, whether by a society that suggests it in so many ways – from airbrushed models in magazines to the notion of thinking highly of oneself is “arrogant” – or by being emotionally abused and convinced we’re not worthy. In fact, a startling statistic in the U.S. is that 60% of us have been emotionally abused to a degree that diminishes our self-esteem. When we add all this up, it’s clear that we live in a society where little priority is put on valuing “oneself” in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow. The fact is, many of us are conditioned to not feel good enough, no matter the circumstance.

And, it has to stop. We owe it not just to our spouses and others to practice vows of unconditional love and acceptance, but to ourselves. None of us are perfect, but why not commend ourselves for trying our best at what we do? We don’t invite adversity in our lives, so why not allow ourselves to recognize all is not our fault? We all have weaknesses, but why not be proud of our strengths? No one is better than another, but why not embrace our uniqueness? We love others, so why not love ourselves?

As one who’s struggled with all of the above, I can tell you that making that shift – that is, making the vow to love and honor yourself in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow – doesn’t just improve your life, but also everyone’s life around you. When we humbly understand all that we are worthy of, it makes it so much easier to smile and offer all of us to others in ways that enrich the lives of both.

I know it’s extremely difficult to heal all of the wounds that blur our vision to how amazing we each are, how the words of affirmation we hear from those who know our beauty somehow don’t appear to us in a mirror. And, yet, the true “us” is there, to love in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and in joy as well as in sorrow. Yes, it’s in honoring such vows toward ourselves that not only elevates our lives, but it’s also the key to elevating our vows toward all others. Let us vow to love and cherish – including ourselves.


By Mark E. Smith

Through my six-year-old eyes, it seemed like a Christmas miracle. One day it was a drugstore parking lot, and the next eve it was a forest of Christmas trees, with strung lights and sawdust covering the pavement like snow. Christmas tree lots have long been common; but. based on my age and where my family was in the course of our lives that year, made that one tree lot appear as a beacon of hope to me when I first saw it through the window of my mother’s old station wagon.

It was a tough year for my mother, brother and me. No, it wasn’t tougher than any other; it was just tougher in a different way. We were used to being broke. We were used to volatility with my parents. And, we were used to not having much of anything, including at Christmas. However, that year, my father was long gone, my mother was drinking more than ever, and the only good  fortune I recall was that a church left several boxes of food on our porch at our little rental on Robinson Street.

But, my mother somehow saved $20, which wasn’t just a lot of money in 1977, but a fortune to us. She loaded my brother and me in the station wagon and drove us to that magical Christmas tree lot. It would be a great Christmas after all – food and a tree. We didn’t want for anything else because just those two aspects, we were warned by our mother weeks earlier, may not happen that year.

We picked out a wonderful tree, and as my mother reached in her jeans’ pocket to get the $20, it wasn’t there. She searched her other pockets, then her purse, then the car, then the lot. But, the $20 dollars was gone. She’d downed a half-pint of vodka before leaving the house, and as the frantic search for the $20 transpired, she became increasingly drunk – stumbling, crying. The gentleman at the Christmas tree lot remained silent as she begged him to let her take the tree. My brother and I likewise remained silent as Mom drove us home without a tree.

Christmas was never normal in our family before or after that. My mother was never sober, and while my friends’ trees were piled with presents, ours was often scarce. Still, we were lucky to get a new winter coat and school clothes most years, sometimes something we wanted, as well. Mom at least always tried in her own ways.

Still, I can never defend my mother’s life choices. Her never being sober on a single Christmas will always be inexcusable to me as a son and a father. Yet, all of those Christmases growing up with my mother taught me invaluable lessons about what Christmas should be. Christmas should be about joy, not struggle. Christmas should be about people, not presents. And, Christmas should be about peace, not volatility. I didn’t have those growing up, but I’ve been blessed in my fatherhood that I’ve been able to bring those attributes to my own family’s Christmases – and along with the love of those around me, a warm meal and decorated tree remain all I could ever wish for. Like my mother, I, too, try in my own ways.