In eighth grade I had science class with a girl named Madison (not actually her name). She was cute and popular and laughed a lot.
We were doing a group project and someone had to take it home to finish. Everyone looked at me. I said I would do it and add a little humor while I was at it.
Madison started dying from laughter.
I was confused. But then she pleasantly cleared it up, “Drew, you’re not funny!”
The world froze. A thousand rusty light bulbs were scraped out of their sockets and an entire swarm of bats were released from the crevices of Mordor.
I had spent my entire life thinking I was a funny guy; my parents and best friends said it. Adults laughed at things I would say. But Madison only laughed at the thought of me being funny.
I chuckled a Life-Flashing-Before-My-Weary-Eyes chuckle and waited for the bell to ring.
Madison had lobbed a four-word grenade with perfect accuracy. My mouth was smiling but my insides were exploding.
* * *
Eighth grade was nine years ago, and I’m still trying to prove Madison wrong.
I am funny. Can’t you see?
Every group I’m in, Madison is always an invisible bystander, peering over my shoulder and shaking her head.
“Drew, you’re not funny.”
Madison loves peering over my shoulder. Judging the words I’m saying. I’ve given her the authority to do that.
She traveled to California for college with me, sat in my college presentations with me, and worked with me at my desk. She was a lonely companion, to be sure, but she was also a consistent one.
Real-life Madison didn’t actually know me all that well. She was too busy with her friends and her life and the boys she tried to date to actually know who I was. She couldn’t have known if I was funny or not.
But she has become a mirror to how I feel about myself deep inside. She is the verdict I think I deserve; she is the confirmation of the doubts I always tell myself. So she has followed me into every new relationship and friendship I form, whispering mean-nothings in my ear.
“Drew, you’re not funny.”
* * *
I was at a coffee shop yesterday with my friend Adrian; he’s one of my roommates. He’s also one of those rare humans whose eyes and mouth tell you he believes in you. We were talking about my future and decisions I have to make. I confessed to him that I was nervous to move into a house with seven guys who wanted to get to know me.
I’m not used to people sitting and staying in my life; I am more content with occasional visitors who only know the public version of myself, not the quieter side that is sensitive and dependent on consistency and encouragement.
He helped me realize that for years I gave people tickets to the Drew Brown Show, giving them good seats to see me do monologues and juggling tricks and swallow fire; all in the name of reputation and popularity.
And Madison sits front-and-center, ticket in hand.
He helped me realize that I preferred to be on a stage with an audience of Madisons. Mere acquaintances given the power of judges. They control my identity; I feel their boos and envision the tomatoes they can throw at me, the scathing reviews they will write in the next day’s paper.
Adrian gently showed me that I preferred to return to my bed after my show each night and stare at the ceiling, waffling between my own critique and Madison’s words in the back of my head, Drew, you’re not funny.
Performing was easy because there were not follow-up conversations, and I was left alone with my thoughts. I was left alone to assume I failed.
But now things were different. Adrian showed me that.
I needed to hand out passes to my life. Not tickets to a stage, but passes to a living room. Passes to my pain, ambition, dreams, and failures.
I needed to give Adrian and Glenn and Micah and Thomas and Drew #2 and Miles and Collin passes to my life. Passes that didn’t include seat numbers or acts or improv sketches but included meals together and early morning alarms and books. A lot of books.
Madison didn’t need a pass; she hardly knew me. But my roommates did. They deserved to tell me who I was. I needed to trust them.
* * *
Madison has stopped visiting me as often now that I’ve begun to trust and listen to my roommates.
The more they get to know me, the more I realize that Madison just held a ticket to my show but not a pass to my life.
The more time I spend with them, the less time I spend standing on my own make-believe stage. They tell me I’m important when they ask about my day. They remind me I’m funny when we laugh at jokes together. They encourage me to live authentic and to step off the stage and out of the glare of the lights and judgments of a world that I will never be enough for.
The more I practice being myself with them, the less I notice Madison’s voice.
To my roommates, to my friends, thank you for allowing me to practice truth and grow into the person I am.
Thank you for speaking over me, “Drew, you are funny.”
* * *
And to you, my reader.
If you feel like you have a Madison leaning over your shoulder and reminding you of failures; reminding you of who you are not, I encourage you to step off the stage and begin to practice handing out passes.
Find an Adrian, someone who believes in who you are, and meet every week. Ask the same questions and laugh together amidst confusion and tears. Try to open up and give them a pass instead of a ticket. Tell them thank you and try and be the friend they need too. As the Bible says, gently prod each other onto good works. Encourage each other to be yourselves.
Have patience and be of good cheer.
You are funny.