What happened to you? Thatís the first thought that pops into our minds when we see a person with a cast. If we donít ask it, we at least think it.
I feel like Iíve lived my whole life wearing a huge, permanent cast with a lot of names written all over it. Everyone who meets me, everyone who sees me, wonders, What happened to you?
Rarely a day goes by that I donít hear this question. Some days many times. Those people who donít come right out and ask still wonder. I can see the question in their eyes and in their reactionsótheir awkwardness, their silence, their double takes, and their stares. If people donít wonder about me and my story when they meet me, I worry about them. While I try not to take offense if they look at me strange, I definitely look at them strange if they donít.
I can never hide the fact that Iím different. So my response to their What happened? question is very often my introduction to people. Iíve learned that this can be good, or it can be badódepending on how the story is told. Which is why I began speaking to groups.
Some people act surprised that Iím not too nervous to get up in front of large crowds. In part itís because I know that when I walk into any public situationó whether itís a roomful of twenty partygoers, an auditorium with five thousand people, or a prime-time television show that has millions of viewersóeveryone is going to be looking at me anyway. Itís only when Iím given the chance to step in front of a microphone or stand up on a stage and share my experience that I have any control over how people look at me or what they think about me. So I actually feel more comfortable in a public-speaking setting where Iím given an opportunity to present myself. Itís usually my best chanceósometimes my only chanceóto ease the awkwardness, to help people see past the surface so they can understand, or at least accept, me for who I am.
I was not gifted with an incredible athletic talent like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Iím not a musical prodigy who mastered an instrument by the age of six. Nor am I an intellectual genius who learned calculus by kindergarten or graduated from medical school by the age of sixteen. I certainly donít have the imagination or creativity of people like Bill Gates or George Lucas.
There is nothing superhuman about me. Iím just an ordinary personówith an unusual story that in one way or another seems to have an impact on every interaction in my life. Depending on how I choose to respond, this impact can be either positive or negative.
Some mornings Iíd much rather sleep in than get up and face the battle of another day. Sometimes I tire of watching and envying people around me who are going through their comfortable daily routine, because what happened to me has determined that my daily life is anything but routine. I have been forced to cope by expecting the unexpected for so long that dealing with surprise has become commonplace for me. I live every day of my life outside the box, consciously trying to change the paradigm, in every interaction with others, to prove that things are not always what they seem. Othersí preconceived ideas and false expectations are my constant battleground.
There are occasions when what happened to me becomes a barrier that separates me from other people. But there are also occasions when it has a positive impact on my relationships.
Because many people initially react to me with uncertainty and awkwardness, Iím often forced to tell enough of my story to answer unspoken questions and put people at ease. Iíve also learned to take the initiative in friendship and to be the first one to speak whenever I meet someone new. In this way I am forced to become more outgoing with others.
Knowing what happened often gives other people an unusual sense of intimacy with me. It makes me seem more transparent and therefore more approachable in many peopleís minds. Iím constantly humbled by how open and trusting, even vulnerable, many people are when they talk to me. So many hurting people seem to identify with me because of what happened.
We all know that our words, our attitudes, and our actions influence others.
But Iím regularly reminded of this when someone comes up to me and says some thing like, ďJoel, Iíve never forgotten what you told me that time we were having lunch together at McDonaldís. It made such an impact on me.Ē And Iíll have no recollection of what theyíre talking about. For them it was some life-impacting conversation; I was just eating a hamburger.
Stuff like that happens to me all the time. When it does, Iím reminded that what happened to me years ago makes me an example to others.
Not only am I forced to tell my story every day, but any person who has a relationship with me may be forced to tell it as well. Why? Because other people ask them, ďWhat happened to Joel?Ē As a result, in some peculiar way, my story becomes the story of those around me. Which means itís been told a lot. At least in part.
Iíve watched portions of my life reenacted on television. Iíve read other parts in newspapers and magazines. Iíve shared bits and pieces of my personal history with many acquaintances over the years. Iíve sat in front of TV cameras and stood on stage before live audiences to talk about my experience. But this book marks the first time Iíve ever told, from my perspective, the whole story of what happened.
And Iím excited about the opportunity because I expect new friends, strangers, and people Iíve known for years, and even my family, will gain new insightsónot just into my story but also into me. And into life.
Taken from Joel by GREGG A. LEWIS; JOEL SONNENBERG. Copyright 2004 by Joel Sonnenberg . Used by permission of The Zondervan Corporation.