By Cindy Mindell
-Marc Elliot was born with a rare disease that left him with virtually no intestines, and at age nine, developed Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder defined by multiple motor and vocal tics.
At age 25, Elliot has turned his personal challenges into a message of tolerance for audiences across the U.S. He will present his talk, “What Makes You Tic?” at the Friendship Circle Center in Stamford on Sunday, Dec. 19. The Friendship Circle, a national program of Chabad Lubavitch, provides services and support for Jewish children and teens with special needs.
Elliot spoke with the Ledger about his own life and what he hopes to teach others.
Q: Is there anything from your Jewish upbringing that inspired your professional life?
A: I grew up in a Reform family in St. Louis, went to Hebrew school and was bar-mitzvahed and confirmed. The one thing I really cherish is the idea of tzedakah. It’s ingrained into my overall life in a desire to help people; tzedakah and mitzvot shaped my childhood. It started with the tzedakah box, and as I got older, I began doing more community service. Because I was in the hospital a lot as a kid – the first six months of my life, and seven operations over four years – I organized a toy sale and gave all the proceeds to the hospital playroom. During my high-school years, speaking about Tourette syndrome was my way of volunteering, trying to educate people in the local community. It wasn’t until after college that I started getting paid as a motivational speaker, when I would talk about advocating for oneself in overcoming obstacles.
Q: How did you begin your speaking career?
A: My mom is from Detroit, where The Friendship Circle started. A friend of hers works there and invited me to speak while I was in my last year of college. They passed my name around to other Friendship Circle branches and it “went viral” within that community.
I majored in biology at Washington University and graduated in 2008. I took the next year off; my dream was to go to medical school the following fall. That year, I decided I wanted to do speaking instead of volunteering in a hospital, to turn community-service speaking into a legitimate endeavor. That spring, I got 20 gigs around the country, many at high schools, and thought I could really help people through speaking, so decided not to go to medical school. I moved to Manhattan and became a professional speaker.
I’ve spoken at corporations and non-profit organizations, and to healthcare professionals and educators, in 30 states. Now my target is high schools and colleges because that’s where my message is most effective.
Q: What is your message?
A: My whole message comes down to tolerance. I use the phrase, “Live and Let Live” to describe it. My presentation uses my experiences with Tourette syndrome and intestinal disease to illustrate how little we know about other people’s lives. We all make assumptions about others, and it’s okay to do so, but I hope to help people recognize that it’s only an assumption, and that they shouldn’t turn it into an action that can impact another’s life.
I’m really talking about the lowest form of tolerance that exists. I can’t preach about loving people or what people should think; I’m just trying to remind people about how little we know about others’ lives. My hope is to get people to some kind of common denominator in their thinking. That’s the first step in letting go of others’ lives, and not allowing them to affect our own lives. We talk about differences and diversity: Some are visible, like skin color, but others we can’t see, like intestinal disease, a death in the family, anorexia.
When you interact with another, you don’t know what’s really going on in their life, so you don’t have to let them affect you in a negative way. For example, let’s say you’re sitting next to someone whose earphones or iPod is blasting. So many of us jump to conclusions about that person, how disrespectful and annoying he is. But you don’t really know anything about him. Maybe he was just in Afghanistan and a bomb went on close by and affected his hearing, so he has to turn up the music to hear it. We always assume that we know the truth behind somebody’s behavior, and that assumption causes us to treat that person in a certain way.
In my talks, I share stories about intolerance and people see me and assume things about me. I’m not telling people they have to tolerate me; I just want to refresh their ability to let go of another’s life and enjoy their own lives more.
Q: Was there a pivotal experience in your own life that helped shape your “Live and Let Live” credo?
A: Every experience in life shapes where you are at that moment. A big experience for me was when I was 17 and got kicked off a Greyhound bus for ticking [“the N-word”]. That really propelled me to not only want to educate people about Tourette syndrome, but also about people who are different in other ways. I use those experiences to convey a much grander message about the human condition and the “Live and Let Live” theme.
Q: Give us an idea of your presentation.
A: I actually give audience members “Tourette syndrome” before my presentation: I hand out papers that describe a tic involving sound or movement – moo like a cow, bark like a dog, jump up and down – and a number that corresponds to a minute mark. During the presentation, every couple of minutes, someone will tic. So not only do I tic as I speak, but others do as well. It’s a really cool simulation of what it’s like to have Tourette syndrome, and it’s funny as well. I encourage people to laugh, because humor is one of the best ways I’ve been able to enjoy life.
There are always a lot of questions afterwards, and some people share their own challenges. Sometimes I end up crying because it can be a beautiful experience. When people come up to me afterwards and share their lives with me – a family member died, they have a rare disease, they had a miscarriage, they’re bulimic; the list is endless – it’s the strongest reminder for me how little I know about others’ lives, and “Live and Let Live” is reinforced for me every day. That isn’t just a story; it’s an actual human being and I can see that person. From a lot of my own experiences, I used to believe that compassion is finite, whereas now I believe that it’s infinite, because I have my life and there’s that other human being out there. So you can challenge yourself, even if you do judge another, to stop the thought right there.
Marc Elliot will present “What Makes You Tic?” on Sunday, Dec. 19, 7:30 p.m. at
The Friendship Circle Center, 770 High Ridge Road, Stamford. Reservations appreciated: (203) 329-0015, ext. 433