Posts Tagged ‘vulnerability’

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!

By Mark E. Smith

As an undergraduate, I had a philosophy professor who was a former Catholic priest who’d gone on to marry and have five children, followed by a bunch of grandchildren. He taught via the Socratic method and promoted self-cultivation among his students, so I should have known that I was in for it, so to speak, when I showed up for class late one spring morning.

“Mr. Smith, how nice of you to finally grace our presence,” he proclaimed in front of the class. “What was more important than our class this morning?”

“I just got a puppy and I had trouble getting him squared away because he wanted to play outside rather than go in his kennel,” I replied.

“What kind of puppy is it?” he asked.

“A golden retriever,” I answered.

“So, rather than staying home on this beautiful spring day and playing with your golden retriever puppy, you came to class?” he questioned.

I just looked at him. He walked over to the classroom door and held it open.

“Mr. Smith, you shouldn’t be in class today,” he asserted. “Clearly you have a lot to learn about life. When you have the opportunity to play with a puppy on a beautiful spring day, you should be wise enough to seize such moments. Go play with your puppy. We’ll see you Thursday.”

On that note, I went home and spent the day with my puppy. In the process, my professor taught me a lesson that I’ve carried throughout life: Let us use our time in the most meaningful, fulfilling ways, rather than simply letting it pass or our arbitrarily following a routine.

Now, I’m not saying that, as adults, we should disregard responsibilities and engage in such activities as playing with a puppy all day. That would be over-indulgent. However, how many of us have lost sight of the invaluable nature and opportunity of time? How many of us aren’t realizing that how we spend our time directly dictates the quality of our lives and the way we impact others?

Among the greatest equalizers in all of humanity is time. With the exception of varied lifespans, time is universal to all of us, with no distinction. For example, from the richest to the poorest, we each have from 11:00 AM to 12:00 PM each day. What we do with that single hour is completely up to us. Do we use it for the better or do we squander it? Do we use it to help or to hurt? It doesn’t matter who we are or where we come from – we each have the same hour, with the same potential. The only difference is, how we choose to use it.

I practice what I’ve coined the “one-hour concept” because it’s so achievable toward not just bettering our lives, but also those of others. We all have routines we logically follow – I had to go to that philosophy class to graduate college. However, we all can find an hour or more each day to lead more fulfilling, impacting lives.

My wife and I have been in a routine for several years where she picks me up from work, we go home, I turn on the news and go through the mail while she works on dinner. Our routine is normal and responsible, but hardly life-affirming.

On a recent Monday after work, I suggested to my wife that rather than go home, let’s take an hour and go try a new, hip bar and bistro. We felt like kids sneaking around, as it was so far outside of our weekday routine. Yet, as we sat in the funky joint having a hotdog and a shrimp sandwich with chips, listening to David Bowie, it was one of the best dates we’ve had. And, we were home by 6:00 PM!

I practice the one-hour rule in my professional life, as well. I always help whoever is in need, whenever. Yet, separate from all of my areas of responsibility, I set aside one hour per day to solely focus on resolving consumers’ mobility issues. It’s on my company’s public calendar, so colleagues know to book my meetings around it. Often, I shut my office door, silence my phones, and go through the steps to meet each consumer’s needs, one by one. I’m constantly amazed at how one focused hour allows me to serve so many in such meaningful ways.

We typically don’t give a lot of thought toward time – that is, until it’s too late. A doctor once told me that the most common wish among the dying is to have more time to spend with loved ones. I’ve wondered if the tense of that statement is true? Could it be that what many mean is, I wish I had spent more time with my loved ones? It’s tragic if that’s the case, but for you and me, it’s not too late. We can make our hours about creating cherished memories, and say at the end of our lives, I’m glad I lived life as I did, connected and engaged.

There can be a lot of drudgery in our lives. Yet, every hour provides us with an amazing opportunity to not just pass time, but to create life-affirming moments of fulfillment and impact. Make the most of your time, doing what you love and positively impacting others, for the gift of time is just that – a gift.

By Mark E. Smith

My wife and I were at church and a gentleman came up to us.

“I know it took your family more than most to get here this morning and I want you to know I appreciate that,” he said.

Based on his genuine demeanor, his words weren’t patronizing but compassionate and empathetic. Between my disability and our youngest daughter’s, it does take a lot for our family to get ready each morning.

What struck me about the gentleman’s kind words was that rather than being oblivious to our challenges or, worse yet, stereotype or judge us as that family with the wheelchairs, he saw us as real people doing our best.

Often, we see strangers who may appear out of the norm. Many of us are quick to make assumptions or judge others. I’ve done it and strangers do it to me. But, we know it’s not right. So, what’s the life-inspiring alternative?

What if like the gentleman at church, we simply extend everyone our sincere belief that most do their best? It changes the whole dynamic, doesn’t it? We go from judging to respecting, from differentiating to embracing. We rightfully apply a sense of humanity to all. As I always say, we never truly know what anyone is going through. Why not extend him or her the benefit of the doubt?

Being a semi-public figure, I have critics, people who, more bluntly, despise me. I recently met one at an event. The individual started out very hostile toward me, but by the end of the conversation the individual, who had a disability, explained that living with a disability is so hard that death would be a better alternative. The individual had expressed tremendous anger at me online, but I then in person understood that the anger wasn’t about me at all, but toward the individual’s own circumstance. The person was simply doing the best to cope, even though it wasn’t the healthiest way.

So frequently, we take strangers’ actions toward us personally and become angry or hurt. But, again, we have the ability to extend empathy and compassion. As one with a disability, I’m often a magnet for odd comments from strangers and I don’t take it personally, but presume that they’re doing their best. My wife and I once had a doctor, born and raised in another culture, ask us a myriad of questions about our family and life. He screamed, Congratulations!, after each answer. We weren’t offended, but recognized that he wasn’t raised with disability awareness, that he was doing his best. He genuinely meant well.

Yes, it’s true that there are people doing really lousy things. But, most people are truly doing their best. They may come from backgrounds and lifestyles different from yours or mine, with behaviors and ideologies we’d never engage in. Yet, there are reasons for why we each are who we are, and it’s vital to extend empathy and compassion to others, just as we wish extended to us.

The fact is, if we wish to see humanity at its best, we must first see the best in humanity.

By Mark E. Smith

It was the sickest I’d ever been. In a matter of days, I went from the masculinity of a mid-forties man to the physical dependence of an infant. A corner was turned, and I was in unknown, uncontrolled territory.

Living with a disability may seem unique, as with my cerebral palsy, but there’s an equilibrium to it. Yes, there are limitations inherent to my disability that require assistance from my wife in personal ways that we’re both comfortable with. But, we all have discreetness and self-consciousness boundaries. In fact, such boundaries seemingly help us define our own sense of masculinity or femininity. Put simply, we say, I’m comfortable with having my spouse see me this way, but can’t imagine ever being comfortable seen in XYZ circumstance. These boundaries vary from person to person, couple to couple, including among my wife and me.

In my time of need and illness, I had no choice but to give up such preconceived boundaries. My wife was there, willing and able to help. I had to accept it based on my illness. I had no choice but to remove my constructed boundaries.

Often, we look at those jumping in to help as the strong ones, and they are. However, as I continue learning, it takes tremendous strength to let others in to help. However, when we do, it takes us to far deeper levels of connection and love. Boundaries can be great, but self-constructed ones of self-consciousness – which all of us have in some forms – can serve as walls that prevent us from getting closer to others and letting others fully know us. For me, sick in bed, totally dependent upon my wife, I realized not just her unyielding love and devotion, but how letting down my own guard allowed me to more fully immerse in our love.

All of this got me thinking, why does it take such extreme circumstances for us to allow ourselves to remove our boundaries, to further trust in love? Why do we cling so tightly to self-consciousness that it prevents us from fully opening ourselves to others?

Of course, the answer is, vulnerability. By nature our biggest fear, admit it or not, is rejection by those we love. Sure, we open ourselves up to love, but most often we have a last-ditch protection mechanism that prevents us from going all in – that is, we hold back in a few areas. However, if we’re being prudent and healthy in our relationship, there’s zero risk, so holding back simply holds us back. It shouldn’t take a situation like a serious illness to forego self-consciousness and fully trust in the deepest forms of love. Here’s all of me for you to love, and I cherish having all of you to love….

Trusting fully in deep love is tricky. It can expose our vulnerabilities, require us to face them, and then let them go, all of which is scary. However, when we do so, we create a pathway to loving and being loved that’s deeper and safer than we’ve ever known. Love is always uncharted territory, and allowing ourselves to follow it to greater and greater depths is life’s most miraculous journey.

By Mark E. Smith

I’m lying in bed. The TV won’t work, something about it cannot connect to the network. I’m old enough to remember when simply pulling a knob turned on a TV – and it worked every time. Now, I just stare at the spinning ceiling fan.

I think about my conversation with my best friend, Drew, today. He’s the wisest soul I know, and he inexplicably knows more about any subject than he should. We talked about what it’s like being in the throes of life crises. So many people tout the growth that comes from it. However, those are people speaking from the other side. As Drew noted, when you’re in the middle of it – an ended relationship, a health crisis, a job loss – you struggle just to breathe, where five minutes feels like an hour, a night feels like an eternity. There’s a tunnel vision in those times, the loss of everything joyful. No one stops to smell the flowers when it feels like life, itself, has stopped.

And, it’s OK, it’s all OK. Adjusting to a new normal is… well… normal. When we have the wind knocked out of us, we need time to get back up, we need time to rediscover ourselves in this new space. Anyone who tells you to snap out of it has never been there, or worse, has forgotten what it’s like to be there. There’s a time to be in such a space, to just be.

My wife comes in and wonders why I’m not watching TV? I explain the technical issue, and she lies next to me, staring at the ceiling fan, also lamenting the loss of televisions with antennas that simply turned on.

By Mark E. Smith

Many couples face adversity. Some come together, while others fall apart. What foremost trait keeps couples together while facing among life’s toughest of times?

I recently worked an Abilities Expo, a consumer trade show for all products related to disability. During the expo, I met countless couples where one partner had experienced a life-changing illness or accident. It was the perfect opportunity to ask, What’s been the single biggest relationship key that’s helped you move through this as a couple?

The answer that most gave surprised me when it probably shouldn’t have: humor. Over and over again, couples told me that shared humor made the toughest situations bearable. And, they nailed it, knowing what all of us should know.

In fact, there are scientific reasons why humor and laughter enhance our relationships. Humor is an intrinsic “mood lifter.” When we smile or laugh, it releases endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals in our brain. In a way, we get a little high when we smile or laugh, so it dramatically points our perception toward the positive, even in the bleakest situations. Therefore, when in a relationship, humor makes uncomfortable situations comfortable and breaks us out of daunting thoughts. If there’s a surefire way to direct a moment or mood as a couple, humor is it.

There is a caveat, however. It’s vital that both people share the humor. There’s no room for jaded or cynical humor. If one person finds humor in a situation and the other doesn’t, it will only make a situation worse. Two people laughing is a shared connection; one person laughing is angering to the other. We must laugh together, not apart.

I met a couple at the show, where the husband is living with ALS. The wife told me, “We can laugh together and cry together. If you can laugh together, you can cry together. But, it’s a lot more fun to laugh together….”

Life and relationships aren’t easy – especially when adversity comes our way. However, among the best tools we can have is humor. If we can laugh amidst a situation, we can address and cope with it. After all, the couple who laughs together stays together.

By Mark E. Smith

In March of 1862, we first saw the phrase, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me, in the Christian Recorder, presented as an old adage. Of course, to most of us, it is a rhyme from our childhood that we sang as a self-affirmation.

However, is it true? I mean, it sounds logical, and we’d like to think we can rise to such self-confidence, but is the saying scientifically true? Can we, as a species, self-evolve to a point where the words of others don’t impact us?

I’ve faced this subject my entire life and have seen merit to both sides of the paradox: We’re innately social creatures, but don’t want to be affected by social scrutiny. As one with a disability, I’ve experienced negative dialogue from others my whole life. What’s more, as a public figure and in working with the public in my career, I’ve experienced the dark sides of dealing with the public. I’ve faced terrible adjectives slung at me. So, how have I coped with all of it?

I’ve believed in dismissing strangers as just that, strangers. If you don’t know me, how can you have a valid opinion about me? Also, two wrongs don’t make a right, so I try to be kind to others even when their words sting. These approaches have worked fairly well, but not flawlessly – for good reason.

Firstly, you and I, as humans, are hardwired as social creatures. It’s ingrained in us to care what others think as a matter of our survival mode. In modern society, the risk factors aren’t as obvious as they were in previous evolutionary periods; we don’t face getting eaten by wild animals when banished from a tribe as we once did. Yet, susceptibility to wanting social approval remains a natural instinct.

Secondly, scientists now know that our physiological connection to others is so strong that words can break us. Researchers discovered that emotional pain and physical pain both trigger the same area of the brain. They performed brain scans of those suffering a romantic breakup, and then subjected them to physical discomfort, finding identical responses in the brain based on emotional and physical pain. Further, research proves that verbal abuse can alter a child’s brain structure, that those who experienced verbal abuse experience the same degree of later-in-life impacts as those who suffered physical abuse.

When we put it all together, words really can hurt us. We can intellectualize all we wish, but to be human is to feel the literal pain of words.

With advancements in technology, it’s vital that we realize the adverse impact words can have. We, as individuals, are in more contact with others than ever in the history of mankind. You can call, email, text, direct message, or video chat loved ones at any time. You can jump on the Internet or social media platforms and say anything to almost anyone. And, it’s dangerous territory. We all know that words can hurt – because we’ve been hurt by them! – but some are still so quick to say the worst to others through the keyboard of a computer or smartphone. It doesn’t matter if it’s family, a friend, a public figure, or a complete stranger – sock it to ‘em with your words online! I’m all too familiar with this troubling mentality of others and guard myself against as much of it as I can. However, what about teens who are at a point where they’re seeking peer approval, but lack the emotional development to cope with the levels of negativity and rejection that come in deluges on social media? Words can devastate lives.

The point is, given the world we live in, we need to get better with words. We can care less what others think, despite our nature, and live rooted in reality, not worrying about what some try to project upon us. Few truly know us and it’s ridiculous to invest in what strangers say about us, good or bad. Similarly, we need to use our own words more carefully. Just because some people fill social media with garbage doesn’t mean we should add trash to the pile. In this age of such prolific communication, let us use our words as a crane that uplifts, not a sledgehammer that crushes.

After all, Sticks and stones may break my bones, and words can also break me.