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What My Speech Impediment Taught Me

When I was 23 I underwent a six-hour surgery. The physician harvested skin and muscle from my throat and from the sides of my mouth. He used that tissue to construct what is called a pharyngeal flap, a kind of artificial soft palate. You see, I was born without the roof of my mouth.

For the first time in my life I had been given the physical tools needed to form an “s” or a “j” sound. Previously my speech had been very nasal and difficult for others to understand. And while I had a few good friends, my speech impediment left me feeling like an outsider.

As I put it to one of my colleagues recently, I always felt like I was looking through a window at a party to which I hadn’t been invited.

About a year after beginning to speak normally, I participated in an advanced philosophy seminar in Perugia, Italy. Everyone there had received a doctorate or was nearing completion of the degree from one of two distinguished universities and had known each other previously.

Well, everyone except for one woman and myself, that is. She was teaching at a European institution, and I was a student in another graduate program in the US.

In our free time one Saturday afternoon, she and I sat together on a patio looking across the Umbrian hills at Assisi. Several of our fellow participants wandered up, chatting animatedly with each other. They glanced at us but continued their conversation among themselves.

One of them said, “Where is everybody?”

Another said, “Nobody’s here.” They strolled off toward town without acknowledging us.

After a moment of looking into the distance, my colleague turned to me and said wistfully, “I wonder what it would take to be somebody.”

Don’t we all, I thought. We all want to be somebody. To matter. To feel in our gut that the world wouldn’t be quite the same without us.

Living with a speech impediment had driven this point home to me. And I had come to realize that I wasn’t alone in wanting my life to have some significance.

As it turns out, the key to living a meaningful life is other people. Loving and being loved. Recognizing someone else’s humanity and being recognized by them. That’s where God becomes palpable for us. In our love for each other. And the felt presence of God gives us the sense that life is worth living.

Jesus’s followers James and John wanted to be somebody. They said to him, “We want want to be at your right hand and at your left when you hit it big.” (Mark 10:35-45)

Jesus didn’t fault them for wanting to be somebody. It’s only human But he did want them to see that they were going about it the wrong way. They had wanted to secure their own status. To make sure that they would be higher than others. And so Jesus taught them—and teaches us—a better way.

He teaches us to put our energy into helping others see and feel that they are somebody. Or as he put it, be servants of all. Love people so that they have a shot at discovering themselves as the beloved. In the process, we will discover ourselves as somebody, as somebody with the remarkable power to make someone else beloved.

The African principle of Ubuntu puts it in a way that makes sense to me. “I am because you are.” Or, “I am because we are.”

A birth defect once made me feel like a nobody. But Jesus taught me that we are all somebody. We just need each other to realize it.

I’ll be talking about my book Looking for God in Messy Places at the Six Bridges Book Festival Friday, October 22 at 6:30 p.m. CDT. You can join me for free on Zoom. Click here to register. Would love to spend time with you.

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