Stop, Drop, and Roll

By Mark E. Smith

The major arguments that my wife and I have had, fortunately, have been few and far between. Neither of us is emotionally cut out for the type of drag-out fights that some couples routinely engage in. What we’ve learned from the major arguments we’ve had is that they left us both feeling sad and emotionally bruised – not a dynamic we wish in our marriage.

Among the reasons why our arguments were so emotionally bruising was much because of my behavior. I always ended up storming out the door with such a comment as, “You clearly married the wrong guy….”

My wife finally expressed during a nonconfrontational time that my “going to the end” during arguments scared and hurt her.

I laid on the couch one eve and questioned my own poor behavior. I did “go to the end” in hurtful ways. But, I didn’t mean to – it just happened. So, why did I do it?

I realized that rather than be in control of my emotions during those types of arguments, I was operating on emotional autopilot. See, when I was growing up, my parents routinely fought and the arguments always ended in one of them leaving, either temporarily, for long periods, or divorce (three marriages, in my mother’s case). It was scary and unsettling to me as a child, but worst of all, it ingrained in me that that’s how arguments work – that is, they go to the end.

I shared this realization with my wife and expressed that while I couldn’t promise perfection, should an argument arise, I would try my best to be aware of my response and not “go to the end.”

Fortunately for both of us and our marriage, I have stopped going to the end. What I’ve learned in this process, as I’ve done at several points throughout my adulthood, is that no matter our scars, we don’t have to live and operate on emotional autopilot. If our behavior is hurting ourselves and others, we can stop, assess, and grow. It’s really hard to do – I know, especially when behaviors, reactions, and emotions are so engrained in us. But, the rewards of having the introspection – and dare I say, courage – to question our own actions can be profoundly life changing.

When we were children, many of us were taught the key to fire safety: stop, drop, and roll. As adults, for our emotional health, maybe we need to establish a similar reaction: stop, assess, and grow.

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.