While Jewish values have inspired Marc Elliot in dealing with his lifelong challenges, it is the Greek philosopher Plato he quotes when offering guidance on how to treat others: “Be kinder than necessary because everyone is fighting their own battles that you know nothing about.”
Elliot shared the story of his own battles overcoming disability with more than 225 people at Inspiring Acceptance: Teaching Tolerance By Example, a March 28 program at Brookdale Community College’s Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education (Chhange) in Lincroft.
He was also the featured speaker at a March 26 event sponsored by the Friendship Circle of Central New Jersey at Shalom Torah Academy in Morganville that drew more than 100 people.
Elliot, 26, struggled through most of his life with Tourette’s Syndrome and an intestinal disorder called Hirschsprung’s Disease, for which he underwent seven abdominal surgeries in the first six months of his life. Now a resident of New York City, Elliot grew up in a Reform Jewish family in St. Louis. “One of the coolest things Judaism instilled in me is the idea of wanting to help others through tikun olam,” he told NJJN prior to his presentation at Brookdale’s Student Life Center.
After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, Elliot decided to forego plans to pursue a career in medicine, and to instead embark on a mission to spread his message of tolerance. In the last three years, he has delivered 300 motivational speeches to more than 100,000 people in 40 states.
The audience at Brookdale was visibly moved when Elliot told of his personal experiences confronting intolerance. A fast-food restaurant manager called him “retarded.” A flight attendant referred to him as “crazy.” And while traveling home from summer camp when he was 17, he was thrown off a Greyhound bus for involuntarily uttering a racial slur.
It is those hurtful responses from strangers that lead him to cite Plato’s dictum as a guide to how people should restrain themselves in the face of disturbing situations. Once while traveling on a New York City bus, Elliot said, he watched as passengers became outraged by a young boy who was acting out and causing a commotion. When a passenger asked the boy’s father to control his child, the father responded, with great sadness, that they were just returning from the funeral of the boy’s mother.
In the last year, Elliot has learned to control most of the involuntary motor and vocal tics associated with Tourette’s through therapy courses designed to teach self-acceptance. His new book, What Makes You Tic?, embraces his motto of “Live and let live.”
“A key step to becoming a more tolerant person is to recognize that we make assumptions about people who are different from us. And we believe our assumptions to be true, instead of living and letting live,” Elliot said. “It’s my hope that when you walk out of here tonight you will have more compassion for someone who is different.”
Elliot and his story epitomize the ideals of Chhange, said its executive director, Dale Daniels. “It’s not enough to just educate and make people aware,” Daniels told NJJN. “We need to take action and inspire people to do something about hatred and ignorance. We must give people the tools to take action and make the world a better place.”
The presentation hit home for Karen and George Goldberg of Manalapan, whose 13-year-old son was diagnosed with nervous tics (not associated with Tourette’s) at age six. “He used to be pulled out of class because they said he was disruptive. His neurologist suggested he learn to play an instrument, which has completely taken away his tics,” Karen said. “Marc Elliot demonstrates that regardless of your disability, you can succeed in life and help others.”
Another parent in the audience, who declined to give her name, said more school administrators and teachers need to be better trained in handling children with behavioral issues. Her 26-year-old son has been living with Tourette’s since the age of eight. Only after a guidance counselor shadowed him through a day of school and observed his difficulties did the boy’s teachers begin to comprehend his needs.
“People with Tourette’s or other disabilities need to hear Marc’s story because they themselves need to learn to cut themselves a break,” the woman said.
The Chhange event was cochaired by Mimi Werbler of Morganville and Lynne Fried and Susan Yellin, both of Manalapan.