It’s the minuscule chairs I remember most: colorful, plentiful, and especially tiny. I felt like Gulliver in the Land of Lilliput. I was an adult, yet the university’s speech clinic was designed with amenities for children. It was a hostile environment for a know-it-all college student like me. Any swagger I attempted to radiate beforehand was instantly vaporized.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve endured an unending MMA match with stuttering. Our bouts have been frequent and emotionally bloody. Being tapped-out by a feeling of inadequacy is not fun. And God has seen me shaking my fist at Him in frustration more than once.
Sometimes, my stuttering consists of tensely repeating the same syllable until it finally squirms itself out of my mouth. Other times, the assault defeats any sound percolating whatsoever.
The result is an unreliable and precocious way of talking. My brain orders a “How are you?” from my vocal chords but the delivery is a jilted “H H H How are you?” I want my money back.
I sound like a talking stapler, forcing words out with every contraction of breath. And, God, why can I bench a 200 lbs. barbell but I can’t I get a whisper to budge?
Here is another visual aid for how stuttering can be understood: An average person’s speech is like a level board resting on the top of a wooden box. It is generally stable. For people who stutter, however, our speech is like the same plank, but it is resting on a teeter-totter. It’s unstable. When the wind blows—like that from the anxiety of public speaking—it causes the latter plank to unbalance much quicker than the former; in fact, the slightest breeze can move it off-kilter.
The humility I felt from the inapt waiting room finally abated. The clinician rescued me from the kids playing with their toys. In the safety of her office, one of my first lessons was that stuttering was no fault of my own. Indeed, scientific research has not proven a specific cause, though childhood trauma, genetics, or an under-developed speech motor system are all prime suspects.
Facing the Fear:
On one occasion, the clinician asked a question furtively: “What is your greatest fear?” In an unguarded moment, I blurted it out, “Speaking in front of a thousand people!” Immediately, I recanted. She didn’t waver, and her deft scribing abilities documented my slip before I could erase it.
The damage had been done. My fate was sealed on the piece of paper. I could only think, “Oh’ my God! She’s going to make me face my fear. What did I do?”
I could now relate to the terror that stuttering King George VI must have faced when he thought of his radio broadcast in England. (His story was popularized in the Academy Award winning movie The King’s Speech.)
Consider the horror: Public speaking is the number one fear of the general public—even over death. It’s no wonder that Jerry Seinfeld jokes about this, saying people would rather be the one in the casket than the one giving the eulogy.
I wasn’t laughing.
Up to this point in college, my speech had locked me in a prison of self-expression. I spoke—and there were event stints of mellifluousness—yet my words were often chained to a lack of fluency. Often, I simply withheld sharing my thoughts for fear of being ridiculed. The self-condemnation and shame I’ve endured over the years have been immense.
And this wasn’t my first rodeo with clinics. By the time I attended college, I had failed two other therapy programs.
How could I face such a daunting task of speaking and not faint?
In the following months, the training was rigorous. Years of poor speaking habits needed to be uprooted and replaced. My clinician taught me to speak slower and to gently approach words by elongating the first sound. Moreover, if I was going to conquer Goliath, I needed to best his minions and train in less difficult speaking situations first.
As therapy continued—in adult chairs—my speech gradually began to smoothen. It also became apparent that I was being educated in far greater things than just fluency techniques. By opening and sharing my verbal struggle with others, I learned how to be vulnerable.
Admitting my weakness was terrifying. I had learned to hide my speech well by hopscotching around difficult words. This game needed to cease. The irony was that my vulnerability deepened the relationships with my friends and family. Courage begets courage, and it inspired others to share their struggles as well.
Pain is the Great Equalizer and it levels life’s playing field. It’s like the connecting points on humanity’s paper doll chain. Why? Because no matter what our race, gender, and socioeconomic status is, we all know what it is like to feel inadequate in some area. Vulnerability is the blade that lifts the veneer and exposes the beautiful and fragile creatures we really are.
This is also our most basic battle cry: to feel loved where we feel the most unlovable. It is there that we find healing.
Leveraging the Giant: The Blessing of Vulnerability
The toil with my speech reminds me of my experience hiking Pikes Peak, one of America’s most famous mountains in Colorado. If you are walking, the rocky trail will guide you along countless switchbacks for several grueling hours. However, if riding in a vehicle, it will only take a short time to arrive at the apex via the paved road.
Using either mode of travel, both travelers will share in the same picturesque scenery at its peak of fourteen thousand feet. Yet, the one who made the arduous hike will have the added benefits of a healthier body, relief from the physical pain, and the bliss of achievement.
It’s in this fight to summit our obstacles where priceless treasures are found. Virtues are forged in the fire of life’s crucibles. God designed it this way. I’ve unearthed the gems of perseverance, empathy towards others, and a tenacious spirit that maybe would have never been formed if not for endless hours of toil. If life were always a cruise ship, we wouldn’t have a need for personal growth.
But I’m not sure why some people conquer their personal mountain while others get buried by the avalanche. But maybe the reason we share the same planet, the same city, the same neighborhood is to help rescue each other.
I nailed my speech in front of a thousand people that day. The paradox is that even though I periodically stutter, I earned the confidence to speak to any number of people. Now, I love nothing more than sharing with others how God has used my speech for His glory.
The Lord’s promise is true: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
Maybe you’re an underdog as well. Share your weakness, face your fears head-on, and trust that God has a divine purpose for whatever ails you. Victory is around the corner.