“You and I have the power to change the world – one encounter at a time,” I declared with what felt like a heart explosion of love as I looked out over the auditorium and into the cameras. This was how I started my TEDx talk but I didn’t know I was going to start that way until that very morning – yes, that very morning – not until after the early arrival, not until we nine speakers had gathered briefly to collectively prepare ourselves for the day to come, not until our host for the event, who happened to be my speaker coach, was giving us a pep talk and said without much fan fair, “Each of you has the power to change the world with your talk.” In that amazing instant, I felt a familiar jolt and I knew, clearly, I had just been given instructions to reframe my entire talk with this inspirational glue. I decided to start with “You and I” to emphasize inclusion and added “one encounter at a time” to frame my talk’s three stories. Later, my coach would say he was thinking of my talk when he made that statement. I love how the Unseen Hand works!
Now, until that moment, I had been very happy with my talk but I could not say I was on fire with it. I had chalked this up to having been exceptionally busy in other areas of my life and had decided to simply trust that in the moment the Holy Spirit would come through as had long been my experience. After all, I did so believe in the importance of the message of my talk – that it was possible, indeed critical to our very survival, for each of us to reach across political, religious and socio-economic divisions to connect with those with whom we may have thought of as the other, or very different from us. It was possible if we could only allow ourselves to catch a glimpse of our common humanity. I felt that by sharing true personal stories from my own experience, experiences that had informed me, I could best authentically demonstrate this possibility.
I could have ended my reporting of the day’s exciting events there, for I feel so very blessed to say that I don’t believe the talk could have gone any better but, in truth, a greater story had been unfolding over the six months leading up to the talk, one I am compelled to share here as it relates ever more deeply to all our journeys. It speaks to how, if we are to serve a greater good, as I truly believe in this instance my talk was inspired and created to do, we must prepare ourselves for what is being asked of us. This often puts us on what the likes of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung have described as a monomyth, or a hero-heroine’s journey. Here, the heroine goes on a journey, faces some decisive crisis and, if victorious, comes home changed or transformed. The critical aspect of the journey is to transform the fears and road blocks that stand in the way of our victorious assent, or expansion, into the next level of consciousness being required by the task at hand. How romantic it all sounds on paper. How absolutely terrifying, beyond all measure, in real life. Below is a summary of my journey offered here in the spirit that it may find resonance with your monomyth journeys.
It all started innocently enough. The subject line in the October 2017 email read simply, “One More Thing.” It was from Christy Sperrazza who wrote, “You may be getting something in the mail from TEDx. I hope it’s OK but I nominated you to be one of the speakers at their next event in June 2018.” What?!! Sure enough, I did receive information and was invited to apply along with the over 80 people vying for one of the nine spots. Next, I was interviewed and on December 18, 2018 learned I had been chosen. Up until that point, I was totally excited about it all focusing only on winning one of the prize spots.
But, once the initial excitement began to settle, the full import of what had happened and what it could mean started overshadowing all anticipation. There I stood, as Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita, clearly having been called to do my duty on the battlefield of life in service to a greater good, and, like Arjuna, I found myself suddenly feeling wimpy, cowardly and vehemently resisting. Yet, at the very same time, I knew it was absolute futile to do so.
Some explanation is in order here to put this journey into context for those of you who may not know an instrumental part of my early story. At 10 years of age, I had a life-changing experience when my grandfather, whom I totally idolized, suddenly rejected me in a way I could have never imagined or seen coming. I was completely devastated and soon after began to stutter. Returning to school was the worst because I was constantly mocked and laughed at every time I had to speak, especially in front of others in any way. I wrote a poem about this that’s posted on my website, https://www.stephanierutt.com.
As I grew up, I learned to control it most of the time and, to my great surprise, later discovered I was meant to be a teacher – and that, to my delighted heart, was a very good one at that. Still, I would spend many years healing those deep early wounds. But, as truly, all things really do work for good for them that love God (ref. Romans 8:28), I discovered a nugget of gold in that deep suffering and it was right there that the true goodness was to be revealed.
How so? Well, especially in the early years, every time I had to walk out in front of a class of students, I would be so petrified, sometimes to the point of panic, that I would desperately pray to God to speak for me because I just knew I could not. And, every time, God came through leaving me, again and again, humble and silent as I could have had no doubt who had just taught the class. Not only could I speak but lectures, talks, workshops, would just unfold in the most amazing ways. This is why I would never dream of reading anything or preparing beyond dot-points. I have learned over and over again that God can do it so much better than I! And, it’s so much more fun!
The important take-away from my long journey with speaking is that stuttering has been the greatest gift of my life because it brought me to total, complete and unequivocal surrender to my Beloved God. Not possible to fake this one! And, so, I can tell you today that those terrible years of struggling to speak were, most assuredly, a small price to pay for what I’ve received. For what I’ve received is grace beyond measure, security beyond question and a love beyond any understanding I could possibly express or explain. I have walked into what I felt was most-assured death and found only life, abundant, grace filled life, breathing through me, speaking me, causing me to become that which was well beyond any hope or scope I could have possibly imagined or mustered on my own.
Those early experiences engraved upon me an unquestionable trust in my God and, over my life, I have truly found Grace saving me again and again. I know deeply what St. Francis meant when he said, “For it is in dying that we are born into eternal life,” for each time I have called upon that Grace, that lives just beyond the edges of my self-proclaimed autonomy, each time I have been made to bow low in complete surrender, I have felt my silent humble heart infused once again with the wonder of God.
But, back to the journey! When I knew I had been called to give the TEDx talk, for the first time in many years, my inner little girl who couldn’t speak starting freaking out! Some mornings I would wake with such dread I hated to get out of bed. So, I did what I always do when I need help. I went to straight to my God. Then, early in 2018 in my spiritual practice, I received a clear and beautiful vision. I saw the blessed Mother Mary take my hand, of myself as that young girl, and walk me out onto a stage. There, I was shown what was to come and was most lovingly assured that all would be well.
Some of you may remember my journey through Lyme disease, Bell’s Palsy and the threat of lung cancer and then came the arrival of the breathing blessing bracelet directly from Medjugorje, where the Blessed Mother was spotted, from my dear friend Jane in Mississippi who had no idea what I was going through. I knew clearly this would be the second time the Blessed Mother had come to save me. Every night, I slept with my Mother Teresa rosary close by and part of my daily prayers became the beautiful hymn, You Raise Me Up by Selah. All along I held fast to the vision I had been given but found my little girl still needed assurance that she could rise up and meet the challenge. Together, we prayed constantly that the love of God would have its way with us and the vision could be fulfilled.
And, so it was.
When, being last, it was finally my turn to speak, I was waiting in the wings praying and thanking Mother Mary for being with me. Then I heard, “Join me in welcoming…” As I took my first step, I instantly felt a kind of wind under my feet. It was like I was literally being lifted and propelled forward – like a wanted to skip! I felt completely happy, present and, most of all, absolutely laser clear about what was being asked of me. “You and I have the power to change the world – one encounter at a time.” My stories of “The Caller,” “The Mormons and Me,” and “The Homeless Man” rang out strong as I shared how they had informed me and how each had catapulted me into a place of great hope showing clearly how it was possible to find one another again beyond the crippling political, religious and socio-economic divisiveness of our day. I could feel clearly how the message was so much bigger than me and that I was simply the reporter, the messenger, for with every word Love had its way that day. Love, indeed, had its way.
I’ve heard from many who were there. “It was like time stood still.” “You held all of us.” “People around me were crying.” And, on and on. Even now it is still hard to speak of it and I have not found myself ready to write about it until today.
I have wondered if others who have had similar monomyth journeys feel as I do. Along the way, I discovered it is largely a solitary journey. I shared only in spurts with my dear husband. On the other side of the experience, I have learned that it does not feel like a hero’s or heroine’s journey at all for I know I can take absolutely no credit. I did not create the blessed vision that was given to me. I did not create the wind beneath my feet that day any more than it was I who created fluent speech in those many classrooms all those years ago. No, rather, I have come to believe it is the Beloved’s journey through us, breathing through our heart’s hollow reeds making us hallowed instruments of Grace, Goodness, Beauty and Truth. And, in the aftermath, we are left silent, humble and grateful and, mostly…
ecstatically still in the wonder of God.
Thank you, dear Mother Mary.
PS: As soon as the talk is public, I’ll let you know!