By Brad Wise
One day back when I was in third grade, I walked out to the grassy knoll near the kickball diamond with my best (and truthfully only) friend, Matt. I was about to show him the new wrestling move, a secret torture device my dad had taught me the night before. I had talked it up all morning and Matt was pretty excited to gain new torture knowledge.
So while the other kids played kickball and swung off the monkey bars, Matt and I knelt in the grass. I glanced at the nearby teacher who was the kickball pitcher then told Matt to lie on his back. I explained each step to him.
“First, I’m gonna put my knees on your arms to hold them down. Then I’m going to sit on your stomach. Then, and this is key, I’m going to take my finger and poke you in the middle of your chest hard, but not too hard, over and over and over until you go insane or I poke a hole in your chest bone. Get it? Isn’t that awesome? Can you imagine how much my brother and his friends are going to hate this? Absolutely we can try this on your sister. Now you try on me.”
For those brief moments we were young spies, power-wielding ninjas, demented army generals in training—unlocking and sharing secrets that just might save our lives. But when I started to get up to switch positions, I realized the entire kickball game was watching. And pointing. And laughing. Even the teacher. She said something sarcastic that I didn’t really understand, but I knew (and felt) it was super embarrassing.
Matt and I walked off toward the monkey bars and he said, “Who cares what they think?” I responded with something like, “Yeah. Who cares?” But the truth was I did care. It didn’t feel great to get laughed at. To look different. To be weird.
A couple summers later I started to wake up in the morning with wet sheets. I was shocked, scared, and embarrassed that all of a sudden I was wetting the bed. And during the day I was going to the bathroom like every 15 minutes. My grandpa, a doctor, told my mom it was probably just a bladder infection. A simple fix with some medicine he said.
It took a few days to get into the doctor. In the meantime my friend Rob had a birthday party where we ate junk food and watched Goonies. I missed half the movie because I kept having to run upstairs to pee. I hated that Mr. Price, sitting in his recliner, seemed worried about me every time I excused myself.
At the doctor’s office I had to give them a urine sample. No problem there. Then while sitting in the exam room with my dad, the nurse came in and said she needed to prick my finger for a blood sample. That hurt. But if it would stop me from wetting the bed, it was worth it. A little bit later the doctor came in with a friendly but concerned look.
“I’m afraid you have diabetes.”
I immediately started crying, even though I had no idea what that meant. But I believed him when he said he was afraid. And that word, diabetes, sounded a lot like cooties. Which were real bad. And not something 10-year-olds joke about.
We left immediately for the hospital, where they’d keep me for two weeks. Every night during that stay they’d wake me up on the hour every hour to draw blood. The graveyard shift of nurses in my small town weren’t the best and brightest. And often it took repeated tries to get the needle into the correct part of my arm. I’d wake up delirious, everything was foggy and confusing, and a woman would stab me in the arm a bunch. I’d wail/cry and then fall back asleep, only to wake up and do it seven more times before breakfast. It was real torture. Not the pretend kind I’d play with Matt.
Speaking of Matt, about eight days into my hospital stay he decided to move to Arizona. Well, his parents did. His dad got a new job. So just when life for little ole me couldn’t get any worse, it did.
I stood in the hospital’s front lawn wearing shorts underneath my gown, IV inlets hanging from my arms, and waved goodbye as Matt and his family drove away. I cried again. Because now, not only had I just been diagnosed with a deadly and incurable disease that I knew would make me a freak at school, but my one sure-thing friend just left me.
I walked back into the sterile and smelly hospital, afraid of the present and the future. Terrified that I would never be normal. Scared of being even more weird than I already was.
As I shared my fears with my parents (or maybe they just sensed them), they would tell me that it’s good to be different. They’d cite historical examples of weirdos and outcasts who changed the world. And I really wanted to believe them. But it’s hard when your peers point and laugh at you, which happened more than I wanted back then.
We’re All Weird
In high school, after a severely embarrassing incident we don’t have time to delve into, my dad taught me a legit secret move. Far more powerful than the wrestling move from grade school. He told me that if I wanted people to stop laughing at me I had to stop giving them what they wanted—a reaction. Ignore them, or even better if you have guts, join them in laughing at yourself.
Through the years I’ve had lighthearted and seriously embarrassing experience practicing this approach. And here’s the secret I’ve learned:
We’re all weird. We’re all stupid-looking. But it’s scary and shameful to admit it. So we don’t. And a tiny little voice starts to dominate our lives with whispers like, “Shhhh. Don’t say that. Don’t think that. Put your hand down, don’t speak up. You can’t do that. They’ll laugh at you. Do you want them to see how stupid you look? You’re gonna look stupid. You know that, right?”
Those childhood scars turn into adulthood fears. So we avoid taking risks or stepping out and trying something new, afraid of being found out and exposed as the weirdos that we are. As a filmmaker and producer I put my work out into the world and lots of people love it and lots of people do not. At all. But I’m slowly learning that we discover real life when we stop listening to the fearful voice.
When you ignore the small voice, you hear the big one. The one whispering, “I made you this way for a reason. Go find out why. See who you meet. See what you learn about yourself and me in the process. That thing burning inside that you desperately want to do, to make, to bring to life—that’s from me. Do you believe me enough to try?”
Brad Wise is the Chief Creative Officer at Rebel Pilgrim in Cincinnati, Ohio.