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Doubts and Demons

Doubts and Demons

A number of studies have confirmed that speaking in public is the biggest fear that Americans possess; in fact, the fear of public speaking surpasses the fear of death for many people. Perhaps the human condition is such that we all have fears that are inexplicable. For instance, I have been increasingly claustrophobic for many years. I don’t fly on planes; I don’t like closets; and I don’t go on elevators. This can sometimes be a real inconvenience; in fact, when my family recently rented a vacation spot with a penthouse on the 14th floor, I climbed the stairs. It even got to be sort of a game for my children. Lisa and the children would go up the elevator, and they would time me to see if I could beat my previous record of jogging up 14 flights.

What’s funny is that, with all my phobias, when I’m speaking in front of a crowd, I’m as comfortable—maybe even more comfortable—than when I’m speaking to an individual. The reality is that public speaking has never particularly caused me any fear.

Well, almost never.

This July, after giving about 12 public speeches during the year, I arrived in Dayton, Ohio at a homeschooling conference for my next gig. I was scheduled to give two talks: one on Friday night and one on Saturday afternoon. After meeting and greeting the other speakers and assistants, I took the podium and started my dissertation. As I began the talk, I felt comfortable and confident with my presentation and the material. Then, about 30 minutes into the talk that was scheduled to last about 45 minutes, I was struck with an inexplicable sense of panic and terror. I felt like my legs could no longer support me; I felt dizzy, and the feeling kept going through me: “You are going to faint.” Somehow, I kept the talk on track, and somehow, no one noticed what had happened to me internally. That really surprised me. I had brought two of my sons, Demetrius and Tarcisius, to the talk, and even they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

That relieved me, but something else scared me. I hadn’t seen this panic coming, and I was worried that it would happen again. To make matters worse, I didn’t have a few weeks to sort it all out; I had to give another talk the next day. That didn’t give me much time. I kept asking myself: “What happened? I’ve been giving talks for years and this never happened before. Why now?”

I came back into my hotel room, splashed some water on my face, and looked at myself in the mirror. I thought what had happened was that I started questioning my speech and my ability during the talk, and that had a physical effect. As I looked myself in the mirror, I seriously began second-guessing my ability. I thought to myself: “What am I doing? With all my talks, I don’t know if I’m getting through to anyone. Nobody came to this conference to hear me. As I had been recently reminded, I’m not the effervescently amusing Dr. Ray Guarendi; I’m not the G.K. Chesterton-evangelist Dale Alquist; I don’t have my own show on EWTN. What makes me think I can share podiums with gifted speakers like that? Moreover, when I’m on the road for two or three days at a time, I miss my wife and children. Is it really worth it? I give these talks essentially free of charge, and now I’m feeling sick doing these talks. Why bother?”

With a lot of prayer, I was reminded that I had an important message to share with the world: the message being that fatherhood is a great gift, and how we can become better fathers. Even with the doubts present, I knew I had to bounce back.

The next morning, I looked on the Internet for advice on how to keep calm during a speech. I remember that someone commented that the more important a topic was, the more nervous you were likely to be. As I began my talk that morning, I shared this idea with the audience, saying: “I recently discovered that there seems to be a direct correlation between the nervousness that a speaker feels, and the importance of the topic he speaks about. My topic this morning: the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.”

Everybody got a good laugh, and my talk began.

As every speaker will tell you, there sometimes occurs a magical moment when a speaker recognizes that he has captivated his audience, and that is what happened that morning. After the talk, as I walked back to my table to sign books, a woman came up to me and said: “That was an incredibly important talk that men need to hear. Be patient. Just keep doing what you’re doing. One day, you will be giving that talk to crowds of thousands.”

It’s funny—how did she know what I was thinking? If she had read my heart, she couldn’t have said anything to comfort me more than those exact words. In fifteen years of public speaking, no one ever advised that I be patient and encouraged me like that. Why now?

I think the answer is that God sends us angels to comfort us, and some of them are visible. Whatever our calling in life, God gives us a mission. Along the way, demons tempt us to think that our mission is irrelevant, and they tempt people to tell us that we’re not good enough to accomplish the mission. In fact, you are the only one who was chosen to do your exact mission. Never doubt that God will help you in yours. Even if you feel like fainting along the way.

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About John Clark

John Clark is a homeschooling father, a speechwriter, an online course developer for Seton Home Study School, and a weekly blogger for The National Catholic Register. His latest book is “How to be a Superman Dad in a Kryptonite World, Even When You Can’t Afford a Decent Cape.”
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