Life Vows

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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.

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Pump Up The Hate!

Steve Aoki
Steve Aoki

By Mark E. Smith

Steve Aoki is among the most hated people in the world of social media. Every day there are tens of thousands of comments by his haters. Who’s Steve Aoki and why is he the object of such widespread vicious attacks?

He’s a music DJ and producer. In fact, he’s among the top musicians in the world, performing over 300 shows per year, headlining music festivals around the globe, where Guinness declared him the most traveled entertainer in the world. By all accounts, his work ethic is relentless. He doesn’t drink or smoke. He has a charitable foundation. He produces the top musical acts of our time. And, he brings joy to millions of his fans, a true superstar on stage at global venues. And, this remarkable success is why so many hate Steve Aoki.

Researchers have discovered that there’s a direct correlation between success and haters. The more successful one is, the more haters he or she will have. There’s some basic logic to it. In order to be hated, you must have merit, and the more merit you have, the more haters. On a Sunday at noon, millions are hating NFL quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger – and, it makes sense based on his success.

So, if success breeds haters, what is it about witnessing success that makes them hate? Firstly, psychologists have found that healthy, happy, successful people simply aren’t haters. If you’re satisfied with your life, you’re simply not preoccupied with others’. Rather, what they’ve found is that those who are dissatisfied with their own lives are exponentially more likely to hate those who are successful. As has been clinically put, hating the success of others is one’s own self-defined inadequacies manifesting themselves. Steve Aoki makes $23 million per year, jet-setting around the globe, filling arenas with adoring fans. That seems awesome if we’re content within ourselves. However, if we don’t feel we have the talent or drive to live a life of success, Steve Aoki proves a harsh mirror, where psychologists say that such expressed outer hatred is, in fact, self-hatred.

What’s more, many haters exhibit a defense mechanism – like an “armchair quarterback” – where they convince themselves that they know better than those who are successful, but never accomplish anything. Lots of passengers criticize a pilot, but none have invested what it takes to fly a plane. As Entrepreneur magazine put it, “…Hate is often a sign of weakness, envy and fear. Haters hate on you because you’re doing what they cannot, will not or are too afraid to attempt.”

In these ways, we know we’re rockin’ the world like Steve Aoki when we have two facets to our lives. Firstly, we feel content, passionate, and successful in our own lives. And, secondly, we observe the amount of haters growing in direct correlation with our success!

The Stories We Share

OUR_STORIES

By Mark E. Smith

When I entered San Francisco State University’s creative writing program some two decades ago, I did so with one goal in mind – to be a better writer. After all, writing is a technical craft – not unlike painting or music – and if you want to get better at the craft, you expand your skill set. And, I wanted to possess the largest skill set possible so that, as a writer, I could write about virtually any topic, in any form. If writing was carpentry, I wanted the skills to build anything.

Upon my first week in the program, I realized it wasn’t what I expected. The fact was, I quickly learned that the true craft of writing wasn’t about technical skills at all. Yes, as students, we’d long learned the formalities of writing, with more to come. However, what we were there to really learn was the power and universal impact of stories. We learned what it was like to be impoverished and black in the south under Jim Crow laws through Alice Walker. We learned what it was like being a disenfranchised white, middle-aged male through Charles Bukowski. And, we learned what it was like to be a teenage heroin addict through Jim Carol. The stories went on and on, and we learned that every one has a story – ones of universal impact. We learned that writing wasn’t just about a skill set, but more so a deep acknowledgment of the human condition we all share.

As students, we were required to write with courage and vulnerability, to share our stories. Writing workshops, where you critique each others’ pieces, were cathartic, safe places where we could write and share the stories in our lives. The beautiful twenty-something who seemed to have it all wrote about her struggles with self harm, cutting her thighs with razor blades. The silent guy in the army surplus jacket wrote about being raped in his high school locker room by three jocks. And the happy-go-lucky, surfer dude wrote about living on friends’ couches because he was disowned by his parents when he came out as gay. What it taught us was that everyone had a story – including ourselves – and the true craft of writing isn’t just about telling stories, but honoring them.

During that time, my twenties, I was struggling with a lot. I was trying to understand my identity as one with severe cerebral palsy, and struggling with the guilt of separating myself farther and farther from my dysfunctional family. When we go through these periods of our lives – deep emotional struggles – it’s impossible to not feel alone. It’s unfortunately intrinsic to the process. Yet, our individual struggles – read that, stories – are universal to the human condition, and whatever we’re feeling or have experienced, we’re not alone.

What I gained from attending the two-year creative writing program – and writing of my struggles in the process – was recognizing the importance and vulnerability in sharing our stories, as well as embracing those of others. While there’s a time and a place for light conversation, it’s in sharing our stories that truly connects us.

Since that time, not the writer in me, but the person in me, has lived a life of connecting with others – through stories. Of course, I’ve shared mine countless times, as cerebral palsy can’t be hidden and understandably can become a topic. However, what’s shaped my life are the stories that others – with trust, courage and vulnerability – have shared with me. See, I’ve learned that no one’s story is more or less significant than another, just different. And, we intrinsically relate to them all. Pain, joy, sadness, fear, courage, failure, success, heartache, love, guilt, pride, resentment, elation, self-doubt, confidence and on and are all emotions that we universally share. They unite us.

However, sharing our stories does more than unites us. The process has far more power. Sharing our stories can heal, uplift, inspire, empower, and most of all the process shows us we’re not alone.

I don’t know what your story is. Maybe it’s one you’re struggling with alone. Or, maybe it’s a story that can help another person in your situation. Share your story. Let it out to someone, somewhere, in a safe place, where I promise it will change both your lives. None of us need to be writers to be courageous and vulnerable in sharing our stories. We just need to be ourselves.

The Most Sacred Trust

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By Mark E. Smith

Every week, I take a leap of faith on this blog and write essays that are often very personal and expose vulnerabilities about myself that I know can range from liberating to uncomfortable for readers. Yet, there’s a deep meaning and purpose to it all. Firstly, as a formally-trained writer, I was taught that if you’re truly going to write, you owe it to yourself and your reader to write with unflinching courage, to expose that which others may not dare, all in the name of integrity – the best writing is fearless and scary all at once. Secondly, there’s such power in universal experience, where if through sharing my own vulnerabilities I can help someone else embrace his or hers, realizing that none of us are alone in life’s challenges, that’s a tremendous privilege. I write to connect, and that demands unflinching honesty, candor and authenticity.

However, here’s what might surprise you: I don’t believe that this unyielding, wide-open form of trust should be practiced in our personal lives. The fact is, whether a child or a so-called hardened criminal, there’s a fragility within all of us – our inner-most vulnerabilities. And, they aren’t to be trusted with just anyone. We’re too valuable to risk handing over our emotions to those who may not honor, respect or deserve them.

Many of us know a lot of people, many of whom we call family and friends. For me, I can’t even count how many people I know. All are wonderful people. Yet, if you think about your own friends and family – as I do mine – how many have truly earned your trust to possess the capacity to treat your deepest vulnerabilities with the safety and security you deserve?

Chances are, not many. Unfortunately, we’ve often learned this in the most painful ways. We’ve shared our most vulnerable selves with someone, only to have that person attempt to hurt us with it later in scorn or judgement at the most opportune – make that, malicious – of times. True family and friends don’t use our vulnerabilities against us. Rather, true family and friends treat our vulnerabilities as sacred, those which are to be addressed with compassion, empathy and support.

So, how do we know with whom our deepest vulnerabilities are safe? For most of us, it’s a tiny fraction of those who we know, maybe only one or two people. And, the litmus test can take time, often years. See, true trust isn’t assumed; it’s earned, piece by piece. You share a little, see how that’s handled by someone over time, and if it’s honored, you share a little more, until ultimate trust is earned. Along the way, let us not be guarded, but aware, as if we witness the slightest violation of trust, it’s a sign to put on the emotional brakes and realize that person may be a loved family member or great friend, but not one who we can trust in our most sacred places – again, that’s reserved for those who’ve earned it.

By far the toughest practices of setting boundaries of who’s earned the privilege of being trusted with our deepest vulnerabilities is in romantic relationships because the emotions are so intense and the stakes are so high. In our desire to love and be loved, it’s far too easy to dismiss violations of our vulnerabilities. He only said it out of anger during our argument…. No, there’s never a reason or excuse to use someone’s vulnerabilities against him or her. That’s not love, its betrayal – and that never makes for a relationship you deserve. I married my wife for a lot of wonderful reasons, but the big one was our mutually-earned trust. Sure, we get mad and frustrated with each other, but we know that each other’s vulnerabilities are the sacred boundary line that we respect above all else. I’m also blessed that this ultimate sacred trust holds true with both my oldest daughter and my lifelong best friend.

When it comes to our vulnerabilities, let us seek comfort in others – it’s healing for the soul. However, let us likewise know that our vulnerabilities shouldn’t be entrusted to anyone except those worthy of respecting and cherishing such a gift. See, when it comes to ultimate trust, it’s quality, not quantity, that serves our heart.

The Iris Effect

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By Mark E. Smith

Ninety-four year old fashion icon, Iris Apfel, once said, “I’m not going to be a rebel and offend anybody, but I’m not going to live in somebody else’s image.”

Being somewhat of a public figure, I recently was engaged in a several-day online banter with an individual being very critical of me, to the point of irrational. Still, I felt the need to respond to his criticisms. For one, I didn’t want false statements about me left unaddressed in a public forum, and secondly, I was trying to be respectful and not ignore the individual. I didn’t take it too personally, but I also didn’t just let it emotionally go – and logistically it consumed a lot of time. However, I finally realized I didn’t deserve to be treated that way, and I didn’t care what else was said of me – and I simply ceased the unhealthy dialogue. I know who I am, I know what I do, and I’m proud of it all, so there’s no need to waste time with concern over others’ opinion of me – good or bad.

Most of us have been in this type of predicament, sometimes more serious than others, right down to abusive. I mean, maybe you know what it’s like to be inappropriately criticized, judged or condemned by others. And, it’s most painful when it’s by those who claim to love us. Something as small as a comment like, “You’re not going to wear that, are you?” after we’ve gotten dressed up can sting. Of course, situations like when parents stop talking to a child because he or she came out as gay can crush. From tiny comments to huge judgments, it all just hurts, doesn’t it?

But, there’s a way to stop it all, to take away the pain – and, more importantly, remove the power of others from effecting us. We need to realize that, if we’re good people, living good lives, no one has the right to criticize, condemn or judge us, period.

As I grew up with a severe disability, it was always in the back of my head whether others would accept me? This insecurity extended well into my adulthood. Granted, I was really good at concealing it, where self-confidence was a mask I wore. However, in my 30s – and it’s unfortunate that it took me that long to come to such a simple truth – I realized that I was to be accepted as I was, and I didn’t need anyone’s approval toward my having a disability. It’s really a brilliantly childish life strategy: I don’t need anyone to accept me because I don’t accept anyone who doesn’t accept me. It’s my ball, and if you don’t like the way I play, then I’m taking my ball and going home!

See, the prize is in you and me, not those who criticize, condemn or judge. I’ve run into several circumstances where friends have come out as gay to their parents, only to be shunned. Again, imagine how painful it is to have your parents shun you. However, who should shun who in such a circumstance? It’s painful and hard, but a child needs to say to his or her parents, I’m your child and I deserve to be loved as-is, and guess what, folks, until you love me as I deserve, you’re going to have an empty chair at the dining room table.

Life and relationships are full of compromises, but our intrinsic value isn’t. We shouldn’t live to others’ criticism, condemnation and judgment. I know, it can be hard to break free of investing in what others think of us, especially when it’s gotten to a toxic level in family dynamics and relationships. Yet, we owe it to ourselves to be our own cheerleaders, champions of the self, where the only opinion that counts is our own, based strictly on the positive, meaningful lives we lead.

Three Words

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By Mark E. Smith

The ultimate liberation of the spirit comes when you look into the mirror, realizing that you can’t change who you are – based on any number of factors totally beyond your control – and you just say to the world with pride and contentment: Here I am….

Coming Out of the Closet – With Everything

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By Mark E. Smith

Isn’t it amazing how incongruent we can be within ourselves and in our lives? When I say incongruent, what I mean is that the three levels of our behavior don’t align – that is, what we think and feel is different than what we do, and that’s different than how we portray ourselves to the world. It’s like splitting ourselves in three directions where our lives – let’s be blunt – can become hidden and fragmented at best or torturous lies at worst.

Here’s a great example we can all relate to…. We all have that close friend or family member who confides in us that he or she resents his or her spouse with a passion, wanting out of the relationship. However, while he or she may have a combative or distant relationship with the spouse, true feelings are never expressed and the person stays with the spouse. Then, you log on to Facebook and see him or her posting the most happy couple photos ever! It drives you crazy because you know the person is living an incongruent life – read that, a facade – doesn’t it? Again, if we are to live a congruent life, our feelings, actions and portrayals must all align.

As if our incongruent friends and family don’t drive us crazy enough, when we live with incongruence in our own lives, it’s torturous. So much of our incongruence comes from fear of being judged or rejected, and that’s a valid fear that we all struggle with at points in our lives. However, in that process, we risk our own emotional health and happiness by being incongruent. I go back to my couples example. If I tell my spouse I’m unhappy for reasons X, Y and Z, and I’m not going to keep living in limbo by acting like this relationship is somehow working, and I’m not going to present an unrealistic image to the world, what’s the result? I’m honest with my feelings, so that’s a release. I’m honest in my relationship, so it’s either going to improve or we go our separate ways. And, I’m honest with everyone around me, so they can truly know and support me.

Now, of course discretion should be used when transitioning from incongruent to congruent behavior. We want to minimize hurting others in the process of living congruent lives – although, sometimes it can’t be helped. I mean, Grandma might be mortified to know you’re gay, but she’ll get over it – you owe it to yourself to be congruent in who you are. In fact, regardless of your particular circumstance, most will embrace you more for living a congruent life because it’s rooted in authenticity and honesty.

In my own life, I’ve lived both ways, and incongruent behavior never worked. I may have thought I was presenting myself in the best light by not expressing who I truly was in one way or another, but it always failed me in the end – it harmed relationships and proved me as lacking authenticity. In later years, I just put it all out there, and if others accept me for me, great; and, if they don’t, I’m fine with that – at least I’m me. Two years ago when I first got together with my fiancée, I took it slow in healthy form, but I disclosed every aspect of my life, from the realities of my disability to my views on intimacy to the fact that my dog liked to poop in the hallway when no one was watching. I may not have been the prize she was looking for, but at least she knew I was authentic – and no trait holds more weight in a relationship than demonstrating trustworthiness through congruent behavior.

All of us have little areas in our lives that are fine to keep to ourselves (your mom doesn’t need to know specifics on your intimate life!). However, in the larger spectrum of our lives and identities, congruent behavior is vital to living a healthy, happy life. After all, the only way to be yourself is to truly be yourself.