The Glory of Vulnerability

By Mark E. Smith

I wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable about it, nor was she. See, there I was, all dressed up to give a talk in front of a corporate group, but I was presented with a pre-talk lunch served by our gracious host, consisting of sushi rolls. I knew from the very sight of the rice-covered sushi rolls that, due to my poor coordination, there was no way that I could get them from the table to my mouth without rice and who knows what else ending up on my neatly-pressed pants….

So, I had two choices: One, I could simply not eat; or, two, I could have the courage to ask for help.

With little hesitation, I asked for help because it’s just as important to me to acknowledge my vulnerabilities as it is my strengths – that is, I want those around me to know my entirety, not just selected parts. I wouldn’t be true to myself or those around me if I only showed my strengths, and didn’t admit any limitations of my disability, my vulnerabilities.

Fortunately, my asking for help was easy in that instance based on the fact that a dear colleague of mine was with me, who’s traveled with me quite a bit, so asking her for a helping hand was natural. What’s interesting, though, is that getting to that comfort level – where I could turn to my colleague and say, “Would you mind feeding me my sushi, so I don’t get it on my clothes?” – took time and candor to evolve. On her part, my colleague’s sincere, genuine nature has been touching, and she’s proved truly intuitive in getting to know me as a person, disability and beyond – all of which speaks to the exceptional qualities of her character. However, I’ve likewise have had the openness not to hide any of my vulnerabilities – the realities of my disability – from her. She knows that I drink through a straw, I squirm in airplane seats to shift weight off of my rear, and can be a bit messy when I eat, and on and on. I am who I am, and I trust that my comfort in living with my vulnerabilities – where I don’t display only the so-called best of me, but the true me, flaws, spasms, and all! – has likewise made her more comfortable. None of us are perfect; we all need help at some point in our lives. And, allowing others to see our vulnerabilities is a positive trait, one that unifies, where asking for help and helping others is an inspiring exchange. We don’t get through life alone, and sharing our vulnerabilities is a key that we all need in living a life that allows us to truly connect with others in the most genuine ways.

Interestingly, researchers scoured the globe for the one aspect that most connects us with others – that is, what forms the deepest, most meaningful relationships on all levels? – and allowing ourselves to express our vulnerabilities topped the list. Vulnerabilities, it proves, are only weaknesses when we won’t admit them. However, when we admit our vulnerabilities, they become strengths because we’re showing ourselves to others in the most genuine ways – and that forms the most open connections with others, the sincerest relationships.

Of course, it’s easy to know why many people hide their vulnerabilities: They’re scared that others won’t accept them in their entirety, that others will judge them. But, this rarely proves the case. The basis of sharing vulnerabilities is formed within honesty and results in our fully opening ourselves up to others – and those are the foundations of healthy relationships. When we live freely with our vulnerabilities, we allow others to accept us wholly, and we accept others wholly, as well (if I expect you to accept my vulnerabilities, I likewise must accept yours, and we’re two perfectly imperfect people connecting on the sincerest level). But, here’s what’s really important: When we express vulnerabilities with others, we’re acknowledging our vulnerabilities within ourselves, and it’s the self-acknowledgment of our vulnerabilities – not denial! – that allows us to live healthier lives.

Addiction and recovery proves an enlightening study in how vulnerability can kill us or liberate us – sometimes literally – all based on whether we admit vulnerabilities. For example, an addict in the clinches of use, will never admit vulnerabilities. An addict won’t admit to causation, won’t express genuine feelings, will try to justify even the worst decisions, and will lie about everything under the sun, including lying to his or herself. That is, addicts run and hide from vulnerabilities via substance abuse – and, at best, it disconnects them from meaningful relationships, and, at worst, it literally kills them.

However, recovering addicts do just the opposite – they admit and address vulnerabilities. Think about the first words spoken by everyone at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic. Admitting the vulnerability of addiction – that is, being honest and candid – liberates and connects. There’s remarkable empowerment in it. And, when getting into deep models of recovery, acknowledging the vulnerabilities that lead to the addiction – past traumas and such – is yet another way of profound recovery. That is, the only way addicts stop using is by acknowledging and addressing the underlying vulnerabilities that cause the addictive behavior in the first place.

In our personal lives, hiding behind our vulnerabilities – or, denying them through self-justification – is extremely dangerous, defeating so many potentials in our life: I’ve been hurt in a past relationship, so I’m not going to trust anyone again…. I don’t want to be seen as weak, so I’m not going to apologize…. I’m not going to show all of me because others will judge me…. Really, what such a closed emotional state says is, Overall, I’m going to self-sabotage meaningful relationships because I’m so scared to reveal my vulnerabilities – my complete self – to others.

It is astounding how painful and self-defeating it can be in not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. At the very least, most of us can relate with the inner-conflict that occurs when we want to reach out to someone, but don’t out of the fear of feeling vulnerable – maybe it’s asking someone on a date, maybe it’s calling an estranged family member or loved-one to try to patch things up, or maybe it’s sharing one’s true feelings with a good friend. I’ve struggled with all of these – and continue to at times! – but what I’ve learned is that while there’s always the risk of the other person not being receptive, there’s also the more likely possibility that the other person will be receptive. And, the real reward in this process of overcoming our fears of vulnerability is that we’ve at least had the integrity to act on our true feelings, with sincere intent, living openly in every way – and that’s liberating, regardless of the final outcome.

The fact is, there’s a universal bond in the truth that none of us are perfect, that we all have vulnerabilities – and some are scary to admit to ourselves and others. Yet, when we live freely with our vulnerabilities, acknowledged by ourselves and shared with those close to us, we not only allow others to know us completely, but we’re far more open and accepting of others – and that builds connections of lasting trust and meaning. I have vulnerabilities, you have vulnerabilities, and it’s all OK. Let us live fully as perfectly imperfect people – with our glorious vulnerabilities exposed! – and our self-acceptance and relationships will flourish.

Will It Kill Me?

By Mark E. Smith

Is it literally going to kill me – and, if not, then I’m going through with it for my own betterment and growth. This is the code I strive to live by.

I’ve most recently been tested on this mindset, where I’ve admittedly become obsessed with riding my 6-wheel-drive, amphibious ATV on the 110 acres adjacent to my home. After my obligations for the day are done, I go out to my garage, put on full moto gear, fire up the ATV, and roar up the “Mountain Trail,” as I’ve nicknamed it. I’ve been getting faster and faster on the wooded trail sections, seeing how quickly I can slalom around the oaks without nailing a tree; and, I climb and descend hills too steep and tall to walk up or down.

At times, maybe I’m pushing myself and my vehicle to the very limits, where I drive up to the edge of embankments so high and steep that I can’t see the Earth past my ATV’s hood – just the sky straight ahead – and I summon the courage to simply drive off, where I trust that my driving skills, my vehicle, and the terrain will allow me to make it down unscathed. And, no matter how risky or uncertain a circumstance has seemed, overcoming my fear and tackling terrain I never imagined that I could, has never let me down, proving enormously liberating, where I’m pushing my mind and body far past previous barriers, to great personal growth, where if I can overcome fear and obstacles in my ATV, it carries over into my everyday life. If it’s literally not going to kill me – flying cross country alone for business, giving a talk in front of hundreds of people, being as open and honest as possible with those around me, tackling a seemingly impossible independent living skill, driving my ATV off of a several-hundred-foot-tall embankment, or any other anxiety-filled life experience – I’m going to do it, period. After all, if it won’t literally kill me, then there’s no valid excuse not to push myself forward.

Interestingly, I’ve observed that the process of moving forward once in motion is easy – it’s summonsing the courage to make the decision to initiate momentum in life that’s hard. Trust me, I’ve sat atop embankments – both in my ATV and in life, wanting to twist the throttle and just go for it – where fear had a grip on me, daring me to overcome it. Yet, once I’ve said to heck with fear, and just gunned it, my life in any circumstance has flourished. So, it’s the “saying to heck with fear” aspect that really proves the hardest part of change and growth. Life is really just one, big twelve-step program, where committing to the process of change is the hardest – and most crucial – part.

A lot of times we know what we should do – or must do – but committing to doing it, where we know there’s no turning back, can prove the hardest moves we ever make. It’s among the scariest questions in life – that is, should I or shouldn’t I? – in committing to decisions. I recently had the amazing opportunity to participate as a volunteer at an adaptive water sports clinic by Champions Made From Adversity in Georgia – a fantastic organization. Our crew was one of around six boats pulling those of all types of disabilities on tubes and sit-skis. What astounded me was that, as a seasoned boater myself, I know lots of “able-bodied” people who won’t tube or water ski out of fear. Yet, there I was in Georgia, with peers of all ages and disabilities, who were overcoming all fear to simply tackle what in many cases they never imagined doing – that is, with limited use over one’s body, putting one’s trust in a situation that was literally dragging them into the unknown: Heading out into a gigantic, deep lake at speed, bucking and bouncing, not knowing if they would drown (lifeguards on jetskis did parallel every run, so when someone fell out, rescue was immediate).

What I witnessed was that not only wasn’t anyone harmed – even when they fell out! – but the participants were actually empowered by the experience of overcoming their fear. Make no mistake, some were terrified getting in the tube – it was the hardest part of the process for them – but they still did it. And, we had the privilege of watching their lives change at 20 mph behind a boat, where they realized the liberation of, If it won’t kill me, I’m going to attempt it in an effort to better myself, even if I’m initially terrified.

Just like those with great trepidation to get into the tube at the adaptive water sports clinic, I’ve sat atop harrowing embankments in my ATV, hand on throttle, for minutes at a time, where it’s taken all of my courage to simply gun it, dropping into the unknown – but, I’ve always done it, landing tougher and more confident at the bottom. Yet, what I’ve grown to know is that overcoming short-term fear and stress is the catalyst for long-term growth and success, that getting past fear leads to liberation, no matter in the physical, emotional, or interpersonal. Much like I’ve learned that I can survive descending and climbing through the steepest ravines in my ATV, I can do the same in life, where overcoming initial fear will bring me to amazing vistas.

I wonder, what are you not tackling in your own life simply out of fear of the unknown? If you attempt it, will it literally kill you? If not, then there’s truly nothing stopping you from pursuing what you’ve thought too impractical, scary, or impossible – you, too, can summons the courage, no matter what you’re facing, to not just tackle the unknown, but to actually thrive in the attempt. Once we push beyond anxiety toward change – albeit, physical, emotional, interpersonal, or all in one – and propel ourselves forward in positive directions, the personal rewards are astounding: Vistas in our life appear that we never knew existed.

Telling Our Daughters

By Mark E. Smith

As the father of a 14-year-old, I often find myself in an odd predicament. Whenever I show someone her picture, or she’s with me at an event, people graciously note how beautiful she is. And, while I sincerely appreciate such comments, thanking them, I never really say what I’m thinking: You really have no idea how beautiful she is.

See, as with all 14-year-old girls, my daughter’s beauty isn’t based on her exterior facade that conforms to a symmetrical face, slim stature, and flowing hair that pop-culture idolizes, but a beauty that’s within – that which is inherent within all young ladies. My daughter exhibits remarkable loyalty to her friends, where her sense of popularity at school isn’t about who wears what, or who knows whom, but that everyone is her friend, where she reaches out to others based on the quality of their characters, not so-called “status.” And, she exhibits a remarkable sense of empathy, where if one of her friend’s family is going through personal struggles – divorce, job loss, abuse – she finds ways that she can help comfort that friend in times of need.

My job, of course, as her father is not just to support my daughter, but to have very direct conversations with her about how proud I am of her, that she’s inherently beautiful, that I want to support her growth into a strong, independent, emotionally healthy young woman. Researchers have proven that a woman’s most formative years toward her lifelong self-esteem and identity are in her teens – and it’s a make-or-break time for fathers who will shape, for better or for worse, their daughters’ identities.

Yet, our obligation toward building life-inspiring self-esteem in young ladies in their teens can’t stop with our own daughters, but must be extended to others we meet. The fact is, when women enter their 20s with low self-esteem, it’s often too late for any of us to have an impact. We know that low self-esteem established in the teen years often manifests itself in a woman’s adult life through destructive relationships with men – from as subtle as being controlled and having little voice in a relationship, to as blatant as abuse – and through alarming forms of “self-medication” ranging from drugs and alcohol to promiscuity. The fact is, when women need outside stimuli to feel validated, as opposed to simply knowing their intrinsic strength and beauty from within, so much of their potential is lost, where no matter how much we strive to help such an adult woman recognize her inherent beauty, the emotional scars are usually so thick that it’s among life’s toughest hurdles to overcome.

It’s for these reasons why we should all reach out to young ladies in their formative teen years, where they’re still open to seeing their intrinsic beauty, where as mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, teachers and coaches, we should never pass on showing a teen her intrinsic beauty while we still have the opportunity to truly make a difference with strikingly simple but vital words of encouragement.

As a father himself, Rene Szalay of Ki Mobility, recently presented me with a remarkable opportunity to hopefully make a difference in a young lady’s life. I first met Rene 22 years ago at an adaptive sports camp in Chico, California. I graduated high school a few weeks before the camp, so it was my first real foray into the “wheelchair world.” Rene, however, was four years older than me, and a literal star in the wheelchair tennis world. At the camp, I witnessed how the teens looked up to Rene, and I realized the impact that we can each have on the young people around us – it was a powerful lesson in inspiration. For the following 22 years, I never crossed paths with Rene again; yet, his presence at that camp stuck with me.

Recently, while working an Abilities Expo, I joined fellow mobility industry colleagues after hours – everyone usually hangs out together regardless of our companies and roles – and Rene was among this particular group, gracious enough to note that he is a bit of a fan of my work. As I’m typically wound a bit over-the-top, I ended up horsing around with the group, and didn’t get a chance to see if Rene remembered Chico, 22 years earlier? However, the following day, true to Rene’s character that I recalled, he showed up at my booth with a 14-year-old young lady and her mother, noting that they really should speak with me. I had no idea what it was about, but I know that guys like Rene and I put people before products, and if he left his booth to bring the daughter and mother to my booth, it probably wasn’t product-related.

The young lady had cerebral palsy, and used a manual wheelchair. In typical 40-year-old-dad fashion, I asked her what her favorite subjects in school were and such – the cliché questions we use to build some rapport. However, eventually what came out was that she was struggling socially in school, that she didn’t feel like she fit in as the only one with a disability among her classmates. I told her a bit about my being the lone student with a disability when I was her age, and how my own daughter and her peers likewise struggle with questions of identity, that other young ladies feel just as insecure, but some just hide it better than others (adults are no exception at that, either!). Yet, what I mostly discussed with her was who she really was, loving Shakespeare and classical music – amazing for a 14-year-old. And, as I told her, I was in awe of her intellect and wisdom, that beyond her adorable appearance – complete with pink highlighted bangs on her blond hair – her inherent beauty shined, that there was no doubt that she would go on to do great things. “Concentrate on developing who you truly are, avoiding the no-win game of trying to fit a made-up social mold,” I shared. “Being exactly like everyone else in life gets us no where – we just blend into a crowd, or live to other people’s bland standards. But, being yourself, where your unique gifts and beauty shines, is where you thrive in the world. You are beautiful, just as everyone is in their unique ways, and your intellect and wisdom are going to propel you to an amazing, impacting life. …It only gets better from here.”

I’m known for pulling people aside and having extremely candid conversations, where I’m not bashful about laying the cards on the table if I see someone struggling in emotional pain or going down destructive paths, where I’ll share that there are healthy ways to get one’s life back on track. Again, though, with adults, such talks usually have little effect beyond the moment because one person’s caring can’t overcome the other person’s lifetime of pain – serious work must be done, and few adults have the capacity, tools, and will to shift their lives (and when it is done to a meaningful level – ridding dysfunctional behaviors – formal counseling is typically involved).

However, we know that the door is still wide open on teenagers, where adult mentors can show a 14-year-old young lady her inherent beauty and it truly registers. If you have a young lady in your life, don’t pass on those moments that emphasize her inherent beauty, where you help polish the strengths that she’ll use to live a healthy, happy, impacting life.