Chris Hendricks doesn’t want to inspire us.
He doesn’t want us to look at his crooked legs and think, “If that guy can manage to get around so well, I should be running marathons.” He’s not interested in being seen as some kind of warrior capable of overcoming any challenge to make his dreams come true.
Instead, Hendricks, a 30-year-old musician, wants us to look within ourselves to discover what we’re passionate about. Maybe it’s drawing or writing computer code or playing basketball. Heck, maybe it’s hula-hooping.
Hendricks is convinced that passion – the kind that drives us, defines us, gives us a reason to get out of bed in the morning – is so important that it could help prevent teens from committing suicide.
Hendricks, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was 4, has spent years trying to convince young people to feel empowered and embrace who they are, flaws and all. Finding passion can help teens to not necessarily fight back against bullying, but to ignore it, he says.
Don’t waste time thinking about the kid who calls you a ‘freak,’ Chris Hendricks advises. Spend your time instead thinking about how to become the best artist, the best coder, the best basketball player or the best hula-hooper you can be.
Don’t waste time thinking about the kid who calls you a “freak,” Hendricks advises. Spend your time instead thinking about how to become the best artist, the best coder, the best basketball player or the best hula-hooper you can be.
“They’re going to be so busy looking forward, looking up ... all of a sudden, people picking on them, they’re not going to care anymore,” he says.
Hendricks, who lives in Wake Forest, started a business, Perfectly Afflicted, a year ago to spread a message of passion and empowerment to teenagers and also adults. He has spoken and played music at alternative high schools, corporate events and a wine convention in Bulgaria.
He encourages audiences to “stand on their own two feet” and hold their heads high, regardless of negative situations.
Perfectly Afflicted, which sells T-shirts that say things like “you are worth it” and “define normal,” is a spinoff of a program called Breaking Down Barriers, in which Hendricks and his former bandmates presented an anti-bullying message at schools. I was at East Garner Middle School in 2011 the day he encouraged students to stop bullying each other and to embrace their peers’ differences.
The message was powerful, partly because it came from Hendricks’ personal experiences. He struggled to fit in at middle school, and things didn’t get much better for him during his years at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh.
“Let’s just say the other people at my table were uniquely extraordinary,” he says.
A dream unfulfilled
When he headed to Elon University, Hendricks didn’t take the advice of doctors who urged him to use a wheelchair to get around campus. He relied on a cane, as he does now.
But Hendricks felt small, emotionally and physically. He carried only 90 pounds on his 5-foot-10-inch frame. His freshman year, he met a football player – “he was huge” – and asked for tips on how to bulk up.
Hendricks starting exercising four hours a day, six days a week. He lifted weights, swam and played racquetball.
By the time he graduated four years later, in 2007, he weighed 150 pounds. But it wasn’t just weight he gained. It was confidence. And passion.
“Honestly, I felt like I went from being a nobody to a somebody,” Hendricks says.
He dreamed of becoming a Navy SEAL, although he knew the U.S. military does not accept people with cerebral palsy, a condition that affects movement.
During rain storms, Hendricks says, he used to stand outside in jeans and a T-shirt in an effort to prepare himself for the cold ocean water he would be exposed to as a SEAL.
His left knee was useless, so he told his doctor to cut off his leg and give him a prosthetic. The doctor said no but referred Hendricks to a knee specialist who kept him waiting an hour and a half.
Later, the doctor told Hendricks he had spent the time wondering how to tell his patient there was nothing he could do to help. His military dream died that day.
He was depressed, but he turned to another passion – music.
He says he started singing when he was 4, and he played the baritone horn and sang in the chorus in high school. He joined a rock band in college.
These days, Hendricks is juggling his time between Perfectly Afflicted and his new band, Castle Wild. The two-man group performs music Hendricks describes as “modern Indie synth pop” and will have a CD release party at Deep South The Bar in downtown Raleigh on March 10.
“We just have so much fun creating,” said Andre DiMuzio, the second half of Castle Wild.
Hendricks says he used to label himself a musician. But now he calls himself a “creator.” He’s helping write a musical, he plans to learn how to play the drums (he already knows how to play the piano, bass, ukulele and baritone) and he wants to speak to more groups about finding their passion.
‘A beautiful moment’
After I hung out with Hendricks, I started thinking about my passions. Last weekend, I was complaining about being bored. I was sick of watching football, a regular pastime in my house, but I couldn’t muster any motivation. As ridiculous as it sounds, I felt sorry for myself.
The highlight of my week is Tuesday night, when I take an adult ballet class. But there are six more days in the week to fill my free time. I like to run and lift weights, but that only takes about an hour a day. (I’m not hardcore enough to spend four hours in the gym.)
But talking with Hendricks made me realize that I could do so much more to embrace those passions. I can’t attend a ballet class every day, but there’s certainly nothing stopping me from practicing pirouettes in my living room. I could work harder to become a better runner. I could lift heavier weights.
It goes to show you, even on your worst day … you just never know how you’re going to affect the world, one kid at a time.
Chris Hendricks, Wake Forest musician
Because Hendricks is right: Being passionate about something is a great distraction from negativity. And that message can resonate with adults just as much as teenagers.
Hendricks spoke to students at an alternative high school in Seattle last year, and he thought his speech fell flat. The energy in the room was low, he says, and he didn’t feel like he made a connection.
But as he walking down a hallway at the school, a student asked to talk. She burst into tears and said she had planned to kill herself using her father’s gun but changed her mind after attending the presentation, Hendricks says.
“It was just a really, really beautiful moment,” he says. “And it goes to show you, even on your worst day … you just never know how you’re going to affect the world, one kid at a time.”
I think it’s OK if we feel inspired by Hendricks. But not because he has cerebral palsy.
“People are not inspiring because of the conditions they carry,” he says. “They’re inspiring because of the humanity they exude.”