From the Maternal to the Eternal

By Mark E. Smith

It’s a simple truth: When it comes to empathy, compassion, devotion, and unconditional love, we men have a lot to learn from the women in our lives.

I love my male counterparts, but the women in my life have taught me more as a man than… well… any man has ever taught me. In fact, women like my wife, daughters, and sister have made me the man who I am. And, I know that holds true for many of my gender.

We can talk about the most remarkable aspects of humanity – empathy, compassion, devotion, and unconditional love – but to truly know them, we must witness them, experience them. Of course men can possess these heartfelt traits. However, I’ve never seen them more exemplified than through a mother to her children, a daughter toward her parents. It’s so natural, so intrinsic, effortless, selfless. I watch my wife comfort our youngest daughter in the toughest childhood moments. I watch her listen without judgment to our oldest daughter as she explores young adulthood. And, I watch as my wife gives me her all in too many ways to ever list. She embodies an emotional intelligence that’s awe-inspiring.

Why do men seem to be less expressive – dare I say, less intuitive? – in this area? Is it cultural or social norms? Is it the way the genders are hardwired?

I hate to break it to my fellow men, but neuroscience has the answers. Empathy, for example, functions very differently between women and men. Empathy occurs in a part of the brain called the insula. When we sense another’s emotions, the insula mimics those emotions and allows us to relate to them as if our own. That’s empathy.

What’s fascinating is that neuroscience proves that while women stay in a state of empathy, men typically quickly leave it and the brain shifts to problem solving. Problem solving is a great trait, but not very nurturing or present in the moment. This is where we see the remarkable capacities that women possess.

Despite the science, we, as men, do have the ability to learn and grow, and the women in my life continue teaching me that such vital emotional intelligence doesn’t have to be gender-specific, but that they can be human-specific.

On Mother’s Day, when I take to heart the women in my life, I realize that their love isn’t just maternal, but eternal.

Where the Intertwined Branches Meet

By Mark E. Smith

I was asked how my wife and I maintain a healthy marriage in times of adversity? After all, that’s when most couples struggle, albeit based on health issues, financial crisis, pressures of parenting, or countless other life circumstances. In fact, it’s a topic I’ve pondered and my wife and I have discussed, especially based on recent health issues in our family. So, what have we learned about trotting through the tough stuff in life as a couple?

We’ve identified four key components to successfully facing life’s adversity as a couple that serve us well. I realize there’s no science to this, as each couple and their personalities differ. However, there’s merit to what we’ve learned, sound factors based on our experience.

Firstly, an advantage to any relationship is in knowing whether the individuals can, in fact, address adversity in healthy ways. The fact is, some people can’t. I live and work in disability culture, and I’ve heard many stories of accident and illness, where when adversity struck, the healthy partner left. We don’t like to believe that happens, but it does. It’s not always predictable, but if we know that our partner can handle adversity, it’s a tremendous reassurance. My wife and I both knew adversity as individuals before we met, so there was a confidence that our vows of “for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, and in sickness and in health.” If you’re in a long-term relationship, you’re going to experience all of these, and each partner must be committed to moving through them, not caving when times get tough.

Secondly, it’s imperative to tackle the issue, not each other. Too many couples lash out at each other during adversity rather than focusing on the issue. If you can address the problem as a team – pointing at it, not each other – you’ll simultaneously solve the issue and strengthen your relationship. I call it the “high-five effect.” Celebrating victory as a couple is tremendously empowering to a relationship.

Thirdly, respect each other’s individual experience amidst adversity, as they may not be the same. This is an invaluable principle that my wife and I learned the hard way. I was recovering from a health issue and she was placed in the role of caregiver. One morning both of our emotions around the situation came to a head. I expressed mine, she expressed hers, and soon we were in a war of words for whose perspective was right? The fact was, we were both right in our feelings, as our experiences within the circumstance were different based on our roles. We learned to respect what each other was going through based on our individual experiences, not assume that they were the same or that there was only one perspective.

Lastly, it’s vital to not neglect the core normality of the relationship regardless of the adversity. For us, this means that humor, affection, romance, and shared joys remain during even the toughest of times. Ideally this is an intuitive and natural part of the relationship, regardless of circumstance; but, sometimes we should stop and think, “What does my partner need at this moment?”

My wife and I are just a married couple trying to make it through the trials and tribulations of life like everyone else. We’ve faced a bit more adversity than some, and a bit less than others. Yet, despite our lessons learned, there’s still a simple truth to all lasting relationships: Love conquers all.

Robbing Banks

By Mark E. Smith

In the San Francisco Bay Area during the mid-1980s, it wasn’t hard to get harassed by the cops if you were a punk teen. Smoking in public, hanging out in front of a convenience store, being on the streets too late, having a house party, and so on would all but guarantee the appearance of cops. I witnessed many such scenes. Among my peers, there was teenage social credibility to it all. If you wanted to be the cool 11th-grader on Monday morning in homeroom, a run in with the cops on the previous Saturday night did the job.

For me, it was hard to be that cool kid Monday mornings. The cops simply didn’t hassle a kid using a wheelchair like me. I was once hanging out with a bunch of smoking, punk friends outside of an ice cream shop, and a cop threatened to haul everyone away, then turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, I don’t take people in wheelchairs to jail.”

I was instantly stung by his remarks. I wanted to be one of the guys, as teens do, but the cop clearly pointed out that I wasn’t, that I was different. In my mind, I was just as much a punk as my punk friends, right down to my black leather jacket. How dare the cop discount my punkness due to my disability. Worse yet, how dare he give me a pass in front of the punk peers I was part of – but suddenly differentiated from because of the cop’s attitude toward my disability.

My immediate emotions aside, I wondered if the cop spoke a universal truth, that people who use wheelchairs aren’t taken to jail? If it was a fact, should I skip college and take up robbing banks?

All of this – the cop’s condescending attitude and the potential of never going to jail – made me more mischievous than ever. One night, as my buddy and I prepared to cruise the avenue in his car, I got the brilliant idea to put a pillowcase over my head in the passenger seat and pretend like I was dead.

The avenue was heavily lit, so everyone saw in everyone’s car. When my buddy stopped at traffic lights, I relaxed my body, pillowcase over my head, and flopped against the dash like a dead body. It seemed like harmless fun and got lots of attention – until the cops pulled us over.

It turned out that I played such a convincing dead body with a pillowcase over my head that multiple people took our license plate number and description, and called the cops.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the cop asked, holding my passenger side door open, the scene illuminated by the cop car’s colored lights.

“Nothing,” I said, the pillowcase still on my head.

He yanked the pillowcase off of me, my grin appearing.

“This isn’t funny,” he said. “You’ve scared a lot of people.”

“It’s a joke,” I replied with no remorse.

He looked in the back seat and saw my manual wheelchair, then looked back at me.

“Let’s get your wheelchair out and get you to Juvenile Hall,” he said. “I bet your parents won’t find that funny.”

Obviously, not arresting people who used wheelchairs wasn’t a universal code among cops. I was in deep trouble, fast, and my disability wasn’t getting me out of it. So, I did what any punk teen would do: I apologized profusely and explained that I never intended to scare anyone, that it was a dumb prank gone wrong, that I’d never do it again.

Fortunately, the cop let me off of the hook – but kept my mom’s pillowcase.

At 16, I learned a lot that night. I learned that what I thought was funny scared a lot of people and that wasn’t right. I learned that there’s nothing cool about getting in trouble with the cops. And, I learned not to rob banks because they do put guys like me, who use wheelchairs, in jail.

Popping Our Balloons

By Mark E. Smith

What is it? You know, what’s been on your mind that you’d love to safely express to your partner, but can’t bring yourself to do so?

All of us are in such a situation at some point, if not perpetually, an emotion that’s within us, but we can’t bring ourselves to speak the words to our partner. Sometimes it’s a simple thought; sometimes it’s one that could affect the whole relationship, maybe improving it or maybe ending it. In any case, we don’t always say what we feel, and it can be suffocating, can’t it?

All of this made me wonder, can we have an honest relationship if we’re… well… not honest in sharing our true emotions?

Now, let’s clarify that not everything should be said in a relationship, namely insignificant thoughts that simply harm. We’re not always going to think our partner is, say, dressed the best, but there’s no need to express such rude opinions toward someone we love. Rather, I’m referring to serious issues that detract from our contentment in a relationship because we can’t bring ourselves to say what we really feel, need, want, or desire.

My interest was piqued in this subject because friends have confided in me what they truly wish in their relationships, and when I’ve asked them if they’ve shared the sentiments with their partners, the answer is always, no. I, too, have found myself at times squelching genuine emotions and wondered, Why can’t I bring myself to say what I feel within the safety of my marriage?

At the root of this is vulnerability. Whenever an issue is deeply important to us, and we don’t know how our partner will react, it’s scary. Yet, holding back expressing our feelings, needs, wants, and desires can cause us to behave differently, not our true self, especially if silencing ourselves leads to resentment and bitterness. Festering feelings can make us miserable and destroy a relationship, so why take those risks?

The surest solution I’ve learned is to let it all out, saying how we feel. No, it’s not a comfortable conversation to embark on, and we never know how our partner will react. However, being courageous in expressing ourselves is the ultimate liberator, a release of tension, figuratively popping our balloon before we burst. Often our partner reacts far more favorably to our expressed feelings than we ever imagined, improving our relationship. On the other hand, if our partner reacts adversely, at least we know where everyone stands and informed decisions can be made moving forward. Either way, we’re honest in the process and that goes a long way toward contentment in a relationship.

Interestingly, fear of sharing our emotions isn’t always just about the tough stuff. There can be vulnerability in sharing positive, heartfelt emotions. If you’ve been in love, you may recall how scary it was to say, I love you, for the first time. Opening our hearts to our partners can feel tricky, no matter the origin of the emotions.

Emotions are meant to be expressed. Holding them in is a balloon waiting to burst. It’s up to us to pop our balloons in healthy ways, with purpose. If we’re not expressing emotions to our partners, we’re not being true to ourselves and honest in our relationship. We deserve to be ourselves in entirety. Likewise, our partners deserve to know us in our entirety. If you want to ultimately have the most fulfilling, loving relationship, there’s no secret to it: Just express your truest self.

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.

Quitting is Winning

By Mark E. Smith

I saw a video of a Little League coach giving his team a pep talk. He rolled out every possible cliché and movie line one can imagine to pump up the kids. These talks work well with 10-year-olds, but not so much for us adults.

See, one of the clichés the coach invoked was, Winners never quit, and quitters never win!

We’ve all heard that saying and it sounds great. However, if we’ve ever struggled, then succeeded at an accomplishment, we also know that that saying isn’t true.

In order to succeed, we do need perseverance, but only in the most successful ways. It sounds great to say, Winners never quit and quitters never win, but such a black-and-white situation is rarely found in life. Perseverance only works when combined with adaptation. If we’re not succeeding at a task, but just keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to fail. Persevering means constantly moving through that which isn’t working by finding different approaches in order to achieve success. Winners always quit doing that which isn’t working!

I’ve faced a lot of adversity in my life and I’ve always known when to throw in the towel and try a different approach. The key I’ve learned is to be realistic, not dogmatic. I remember going through occupational therapy as a child and was taught single ways to accomplish tasks. However, the approaches, although text-book to the therapists, rarely worked with my abilities, or lack thereof. When I couldn’t accomplish tasks as directed, I simply stopped trying – I quit. Even as a child, I understood the futility of metaphorically beating my head against a wall by pursuing failing approaches. It didn’t mean I was a quitter. Rather, it meant I had good sense. I then pursued other approaches that enabled me to successfully accomplish the tasks and move on to more, arguably to degrees of success greater than my therapists fathomed possible. Winners stop pursuing failing strategies and adopt those that work.

If an aspect of life clearly isn’t working, stop doing it. It doesn’t mean that you’re a quitter; rather, it means that you’re motivated to pursue greater paths. We shouldn’t hold on to that which isn’t working, as like an anchor, it holds us back. I read a great quote that said, “Don’t worry, I’m not quitting. I’ve decided I’m going to stay and make life a living hell while I run this business into the ground…” That’s crazy talk, but many literally do just that!

Quitting is, in fact, a part of the path to success. After all, some kids quit baseball for music lessons – and rock stars are made.

Not Giving A Blank

By Mark E. Smith

I’m a firm believer in not caring what the blank other people think of us. In fact, it’s a skill that I developed living with cerebral palsy as a child and one I’ve continued as an adult – and it’s served me phenomenally well.

See, I’ve faced being viewed as “different” my whole life. As a child, I was taunted and teased at times. I wish I could say that changed in adulthood, but it merely shifted toward more discrete forms of ignorance – looks, reactions, comments. People can be cruel toward those of us who are seemingly different.

However, truly not giving a blank proves the ultimate antidote toward those who may try to treat us differently. It doesn’t mean not caring what anyone thinks of us. It means having the confidence and self-esteem to not care what inappropriate people think of us. I’m a fan of constructive criticism. I truly care what my wife or colleagues think of me, and I want to improve myself when needed. Yet, when it comes to strangers or self-appointed critics, I don’t give a blank what they think of me. I learned as a child that I could either let the negative attitudes of others stop me or I could own my destiny and not give a blank about what others thought of me and move through the world on my own terms. I chose the latter.

My I-don’t-give-a-blank attitude has served me well. I’m comfortable being me, regardless of what others may think. I garner attention rolling into, say, a restaurant. But, I hold my head high, smile, and if I’m a spastic mess at that moment, all the better. Here I am, and I don’t give a blank! We’re each unique, and owning who we are is key. We can either let others define us or we can define ourselves.

So, how do we do this consistently – that is, not give a blank what others think?

Firstly, let us move beyond our own self-consciousness and focus on others. It sounds like an oxymoron, but the truth is, when we’re consumed by what others think of us, it’s a form of narcissism – we’re making the world all about us. If we focus less on ourselves and more on other people, we’re less self-conscious and more engaged. If you watch really confident, comfortable people in social settings, you’ll see that they’re very engaged with others. When we focus on others, we release focusing on ourselves, and we’re not dwelling on what others think of us.

Secondly, extend people the benefit of the doubt. Just because someone doesn’t understand your situation doesn’t mean it’s personal. People have different life experiences, and just because someone is ignorant toward yours or mine, shouldn’t be taken to heart. As the proverb says, live and let live.

Lastly, focus on what you’re doing, not what others may be saying or thinking. As an adolescent, a group of kids teased me as I struggled to push a manual wheelchair up a hill. I could have been deterred by them, but I chose to stay focused on surmounting the hill. Focusing on the hill voided the taunting.

Really, all of us should carry an I-don’t-give-a-blank attitude, wielded at the right time. Of course, we should care what certain people think. However, we shouldn’t give a blank what everyone thinks. Move through the world and let the chips fall where they may. Better yet, don’t worry where they fall at all!