Bully

The conversations continue since I dared to post a certain picture the other day. My initial response has fostered some pretty astounding discussions. This makes me happy–it’s kind of why I’m a writer.

Two conversations in particular stand out to me this morning, one of which was not directly tied into the whole brouhaha. These particular conversations stick with me, actually, because they are not that remarkable, at least, not in my life. I’ve had these two conversations repeatedly with dozens of people since joining Facebook in 2008.

First, I’ll preface all this by explaining that I was ambivalent about joining Facebook. Don’t think of Facebook as it is now, with the constant VilleVille requests, flame wars, ever-mutating interface, and general mediocrity. In 2008, Facebook was just made available to people who weren’t presently in high school or college. Zuckerberg and Company had positioned Facebook as the way to reach back to find people from your past, a deft marketing maneuver that helped to distinguish Facebook from then-dominant MySpace. Reach back to my past? That would be no mean feat. At the time, I had not finished my Bachelor’s degree after two aborted attempts, and I was working an entry-level job from which I was unlikely to advance. I was embarrassed, actually. I had hoped to accomplish so much more by this point in my life. And then, of course, there was the giant pink boa-wearing skeleton no longer in my closet. Though I had no intention of hiding the fact that I was gay, I knew that reaching out to people might mean rejection over this one simple fact.

By and large, my interactions were overwhelmingly positive. I had underestimated people. And I discovered that some folks have surprisingly progressive values–they are just, for many reasons, either unable or unwilling to air them or make a big production out of them. (The one big backlash I got was from someone very close to me. I do not wish to divulge his identity in this context, but I wish desperately that we could connect. Unfortunately, at this point, the ball is in his court.)

But in the midst of all these discussions, two patterns emerged:

One was the conversation with the penitent bully. My former aggressors would fall over themselves apologizing for the awful things they had done to me, begging for my forgiveness and understanding if I wouldn’t give it. Though I appreciated the gesture, I thought it odd that folks didn’t think I would have overcome those demons by now. (I have been to a hell of a lot of therapy, after all.) I couldn’t get hung up now on things that happened twenty years before. I had to move on in life. This was not to excuse what they had done–there was a reason I had to go to the hell-of-a-lot-of therapy, after all. But I saw their actions as performed by different people. I am not at all the person I was at 14, and this is a very good thing. I assumed that they had grown up, too. Anyway, I had kind of assumed that what my mother said was true: that bullies “weren’t raised right,” so I didn’t place the blame entirely on their shoulders. (More on that later.)

The other type of conversation is with fellow former bully-victims. They look back on the suffering we endured, and it has marked them like it has me. But, for a lot of us former bully victims, we have carried those scars into adulthood and are not willing to extend the hand of friendship. They have been betrayed past the point of reconciliation. They’re not going off to the reunions or combing through their yearbooks to friend-list absolutely everyone they knew, friend or foe. Honestly, can you blame them? There is something to be said for moving on, not looking back, and not actively seeking to reopen old wounds.

I fully respect their right to do so, and understand all the motivations behind their actions. It’s simply not the choice I’ve made for myself. For me, I knew that if I was ever going to truly be healed from past abuses, I needed to redeem my past somehow. This meant reaching out, reaching back. It meant risking getting hurt again. It meant running on the assumption that they had changed as much as I had. And, overall, it’s been successful. We look back on the tragedy that was, but then look at what good there is now.

It may sound like I have some sort of Stockholm syndrome going on, that I’m justifying the actions of those who have hurt me. Far from it. The best analogy I can give comes from a conversation I once had with a man who was sexually abused as a child. He described the experience as “sexual education.” I was aghast at such a justification–he seemed like the perfect victim. Then he explained that he wasn’t justifying what had happened to him. He said that in order for him to move on from this unspeakable tragedy in his life, he had to find something redemptive out of it, regardless of how far he had to stretch to do so.

There is something else I can do in re-establishing and redeeming these relationships. I had mentioned before that my mother had thought that bullies “weren’t raised right.” And, indeed, children pick up their parents’ attitudes in ways we don’t even think of. (I’d like to dig up the studies that prove this, but I’m really wanting to wind this up right now. Maybe later.)

Before I began kindergarten, my mother took me to the living room and sat me down on her knee. She said, “Son, when you get to school, you’re going to meet all sorts of kids. Some of them are going to look different from you. They’re going to dress different from you, and talk different from you. You’re no better than they are, and they’re no better than you are.” She and I were both in for a shock once I started school and discovered that not every parent had given that talk to their child.

By building bridges, I can encourage people to have that talk with their children. I can implore them to raise their children to be kind and thoughtful, to understand that we human beings are all equal, and the radical consequences that this understanding entails. I sometimes say that our generation is lost. We’re already set in our ways. Not so for our children and grandchildren, not to mention those generations not even born yet.

As I’ve studied the issue of bullying, particularly as it pertains to adolescent psychosocial development, I’m discovering we’re doing a number of things wrong. We’re looking for magic-bullet solutions to complex problems. We’re ignoring contributing factors. (For example, the sharp class divide within my hometown certainly prompted a rich-versus-poor mentality in my junior high and high school.) We’re misunderstanding the way our children develop psychologically and socially, and we’re ignoring children when we discuss bullying, cooking up our own solutions in a vacuum and not asking for their input as to what would work.

I’m not an educator. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not even a parent. But this doesn’t excuse me from the responsibility of ensuring that my fellow human beings have a bright future. I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve gone through. I don’t want to have children hurting, and I don’t want them to grow up to become adults who are hurting.

I write. And I work to build bridges of understanding. This is what I do.

I’m curious as to what you’re doing. How are you working to overcome bullying? If you were bullied, what has been your healing process? Does it look like mine or is it radically different? If you were a bully, what have you done to redeem your past? How are you raising your children so that they don’t repeat your mistakes? What are you doing to ensure that our whole species has a bright tomorrow?

Feel free to post a comment or contact me personally. We’re not alone in this.

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About Whittier Strong

Whittier Strong is an MFA student in creative writing at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, with a focus in nonfiction. He graduated from Metropolitan State University with a BA in creative writing. He has special interests in sociology and philosophy.

Posted on 29 March, 2013, in Commentary, Personal life, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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