In sixth grade there was this project about uniqueness and each of us had to present. Everyone hated me in sixth grade. I’m still not sure why: I never said a word, never bothered anyone, never made eye contact, only hid in the walls that matched my shirt color. Only a year before I was the most popular kid in elementary school, but middle school had a different set of rules. It could’ve been they were racist since I was the only Asian; it could’ve been I was just nerdy, awkward, ungainly, and a nobody. Any presentation about my uniqueness would’ve been a joke.
We each drew self-portraits. I drew a big rainbow behind my head, which I didn’t know was a bull’s eye in sixth grade. When the teacher called me up, I didn’t have to worry about people staring because no one looked at me. Halfway through the speech my voice cracked and I stopped. That’s when everyone decided to look up. I paused for a long time. Someone laughed. Someone else coughed, not quietly. I started speaking again. Without finishing I sat down. It was there that stage fright has plagued me ever since.
Every survey says that public speaking is the number one fear in America, ahead of death and skydiving. That means people would rather die jumping out of a plane than speak in front of a crowd. I was mostly confident in front of friends and I could make people laugh, but throw me in front of a strange audience and I’d crumble into noodles. All those stereotypical symptoms of stage fright are true: sweaty palms, sweaty back, wobbly knees, numb hands, clenched teeth, tingly feet, shaky voice, nausea, vertigo, disorientation, light-headedness, drawing a blank, stuttering, dry mouth, feeling judged, intense anxiety, a sense of failure and incompetency, hyperactive movements, repeated motions and words, tunnel vision, heart palpitations. The only one I haven’t experienced is total black-out.
Somehow I knew one day that my future career, whatever it was, would involve speaking. I had to get over this. In high school I asked my pastor if I could share a testimony at a revival we were hosting. It was approved. Since I knew my own church people, I figured it would be easier. I thought thirty people would be there, which was manageable. About two-hundred showed up. I did the only thing I knew how to do: I started off cracking jokes on the people I cared about. Everyone was laughing. I relaxed. I thought I would pass out in mid-sentence, but I made it. The guest speaker that night said, “That guy should be a pastor.”
I took a speech class in college and the professor, Mr. Johns, was about the most encouraging guy on the face of the earth. We all had to do three speeches: informative, instructional, and persuasive. I did all three on racism, since it was the root of my stage fright and a familiar issue. There was a black girl in the class who was like me, taking the class because she wanted to overcome her fear. In her first speech she burst into tears and couldn’t stop shaking. I thought I had it bad but this girl literally came undone at the seams. I was worried that we would have to call an ambulance for her. But the great thing was watching the professor and the whole class encourage her: they cheered her on, comforted her, rooted for her. She wanted to stop but the professor stayed up with her, nudging her to finish. She did. And if she could, then I better.
Opportunities came. I was asked to be a worship leader for the church. I led one of those big revivals and I threw up five minutes before start time. Later I was asked to speak a few times. God called me to be a pastor. Occasionally I would stutter, I would crack, I would fall into deep depressions about my inadequacy. There was one Sunday this year when ten minutes before the service started, I fell apart and started crying like crazy. It was a combination of the old stage fright, a ton of discouragement, and questions about why I was doing all this. I was actually going to walk out there and tell everyone that I quit and that I couldn’t do this anymore and that I wasn’t the man for the job. I wanted to say, Honestly I really suck at this, and you guys don’t care anyway. I called my mom and she calmed me down. I managed to stop my shaking long enough to preach. No one noticed anything: I was able to hide it that well. After the service I went back to my office and nearly collapsed.
I know this will be a lifelong struggle. I’m never not nervous in the pulpit, and maybe that’s a good thing, because I would never want to slide up there like some slick preacher-man riding on my own skills. I have no skills. On the other hand I hide this whole thing because I don’t want pity for my stage fright; I would never want people to feel sorry for me by paying extra attention. For those thirty or forty minutes in the pulpit I can only lean on God to do it.
Sometimes I still wonder how I even get to do this and how I ended up here when there are millions of people who could do better than me. I don’t deserve to be up there, and even if I did (which I don’t), I’m not all that good at it. But maybe it’s not about that. I think it’s okay to be a nobody because I serve a great somebody. And I’ve learned to serve a wonderful group of people whether they listen or not. The messenger is nothing; the message is everything. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Thanks, stage fright. I’m pushed to my calling from Him, and for them.