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God Rest Ye, Murray Hendelman

My Christmas gift to you.

***

It was really my fault for inviting Carl Anderson onto the committee. We would have been so much better off if I had asked instead the church janitor. Or a mop. But we were caught short. Our music director, a quiet young man named Fred Swensen, had been summarily dismissed just before Thanksgiving. The board gave no reason why, though there were rumors that young Mr. Swensen had been caught in a compromising position in a men’s lavatory down in the Warehouse District. Nevertheless, St. Brigit Lutheran Church had gone caroling through the streets of North Minneapolis for over forty years—which had always been organized by the music director—and I foolishly thought I could be the one to save Christmas that year.

I thought I had all the right pieces in place for the ad hoc committee—the pastor, the organist, and the leaders of each of the choir sections (I led the tenors)—anyone who was remotely connected to a leadership role in our church’s ministry of music. It helped that Carl  both led the basses and headed up the church board.

But I should have been able to tell we were in trouble when the meeting convened, because we all fell into our predictable roles. Our pastor, George Svaan, was gracious and accommodating and generally a milquetoast. The organist, Edna Tschida, asked everyone to repeat everything two or three times and muttered about the batteries in her hearing aid going dead. The section leader for the sopranos, Juanita Miller, steered the conversation toward her solo at the Christmas Eve service, while the alto lead, Florence Olsen, rambled on about her son Timothy’s streak of three shutouts as goalie for the Minneapolis North High hockey team. And Carl and I butted heads.

I assumed that we would do things the same way we always did at St. Brigit: assemble in the church parking lot at 6:00 p.m. on the Saturday before Christmas, and keep to the same route we’d used for at least two decades. After all, I figured, we were a part of many of these families’ Christmas tradition. But Carl said we should think bigger, that the church wasn’t just about us, that we should envision how to minister the gospel in a grander way, worthy of the baby boy whose birth we were celebrating. He told us he had a big plan, and that he would take care of everything, just leave it to him.

And I acquiesced. My big mistake.

But, on a certain level, I can’t entirely blame myself for wanting someone else to take charge. My Anna had died that June. She was running errands downtown when she was struck by a car as she crossed Nicollet Avenue. And now, suddenly, I was both father and mother to Becky, my little firecracker. After the summer break, she started acting up at school—back-talking her teacher, failing to turn in schoolwork—and I was at my wit’s end trying to both discipline her and give her space to grieve. I figured, if all of this was too much for a thirty-five-year-old widower, how much worse for a seven-year-old girl.

And so I handed everything over to Carl. The snake.

***

It was not an easy drive over to St. Brigit. Becky was fussing: she was cold, she was tired, she didn’t want to go caroling. I promised her that if she could just do her best this evening, she could open one of her presents that night instead of waiting the three days until Christmas. This seemed to do the trick.

When I pulled into the parking lot at St. Brigit, it was nearly two-thirds full. I had to give some credit to Carl; he was a go-getter. I got out of the car and helped Becky out. Just then Juanita rushed over to me with a stack of mimeographs. “It’s the map of the route,” in a tone indicating she doubted my ability to read.

We had never used a map before, and for good reason. Like I said, we’d used the same route forever. We kept close to the church. One glance at this map, and I knew we were in trouble.

Instead of a nice little loop-the-loop in the environs of St. Brigit, Carl had us marching nearly a mile down Sixteenth Avenue over to my neighborhood, and then up Sheridan Avenue.

This was 1962, in the Willard-Hay neighborhood of Minneapolis. The Jewish folks hadn’t yet moved out of the neighborhood over to the suburb of St. Louis Park, and the black folks hadn’t moved into the neighborhood yet. Mine was one of only two Gentile households on the block. What on earth was Carl thinking? I scanned the crowd for the towering Swede so I could find out.

I shoved the map in Carl’s face. “What’s the meaning of this?”

He looked down at me with guileless blue eyes, smiled, and replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I mean this. You have us—” I traced my finger along the route “—schlepping halfway across town in the cold, and for what?”

“I took into account where our parishioners lived. I thought you’d want to drop out early and put that little one to bed.”

Then why didn’t we stick to this neighborhood, where the majority of the parishioners lived, I didn’t say.

“But Carl,” I said, “what’s the point of caroling in a Jewish neighborhood?”

Carl stared off to the fingernail snip of a moon on the western horizon. “They’re His people too, you know.”

But they don’t go barging into your neighborhood with their religion, they keep to themselves and let me live in peace, I didn’t say.

“I really think this is a bad idea,” I said.

“Well,” he beamed with infinite grace, “you should have put yourself in charge.”

***

Becky struggled with the walk down Sixteenth. Though it was a cold day with a biting wind, she thwarted my attempts to keep her bundled up, peeling off scarf and mittens, saying that she was too hot. I reminded her that if she kept it up, she wouldn’t get to open a present that night, so she whined and bundled herself back up.

How this was going to expand our ministry, I had no idea, because Carl had us sing at maybe a half-dozen houses down Sixteenth. My dread grew with every block. Oliver Avenue. Penn Avenue. Queen. Russell. Sheridan.

My house was the second one in. The house at the corner belonged to Murray Hendelman, a sexagenarian who had never done anything to me beyond nodding hello to me on the sidewalk. We had the mutual tacit respect and minding-of-one’s-own-business that I had always valued in a neighbor.

Dear God, I prayed, please don’t let us bother poor Mr. Hendelman.

Carl turned around to face us carolers. He demonstrably cleared his throat and intoned, “Look around you. These are Jews. These are Jesus’s people! And tonight, we’re going to sing to them of the miracle of his birth.”

I don’t know what got into me, but somewhere, in the deepest recesses of my heart, I shook off all of my Minnesota-born reticence. I squared my shoulders, and with as booming a voice as I could muster, I said, “No, Carl.”

Carl turned to me. “Excuse me, Peter, did you say something?” I guess I didn’t boom as much as I had thought.

“I said, no, Carl. We’re not going to do this.”

“Peter—” Carl made a grand, sweeping gesture “—we have the opportunity to minister to God’s own people.”

“Did it ever occur to you that maybe they don’t need ministered to? That they’re doing just fine? That maybe they’re even doing what God wants them to?”

Murmurs arose from the crowd of carolers. I was violating the first rule of being a Minnesotan: don’t make a fuss.

“Need I remind you that we all need the love of Jesus, that we all need to hear His Word?”

“And do I need to remind you that you don’t always need to be stroking your damn ego?” Now I was booming.

And just at that moment, Mr. Hendelman stepped onto his porch. “What is all this?” he asked.

I had to speak before Carl opened his fat mouth. “Mr. Hendelman, it’s me, your neighbor, Peter Hansen. Don’t mind us, we’re just going to be on our way.”

“Oh, Peter,” Carl cut in, “come now. Let’s give Mr. Hendelman his gift.”

“A gift?” Mr. Hendelman asked.

“Mr. Hendleman,” I said, “it’s nothing. I’m sorry we disturbed you.”

Carl glowered at me. “You are not going to deny us this opportunity, Peter.”

“What opportunity?” asked Mr. Hendelman.

“Carl, what the hell do you think was going to come of this? That you were going to convert this whole neighborhood to a bunch of good Lutherans all in one night? That you were going to put some big fat star in your crown by making all the Jews into good little Christians? Just how big is your ego?”

“I was simply—“

“And another thing. Do you honestly think that you were going to get away with this, that the board wouldn’t find out, that Pastor Svaan—“

“Pastor Svaan is a sniveling old man! I’ve got him wrapped around my finger!”

It got so quiet, you could hear the snowflakes fall.

One by one, from the back of the crowd to the front, the carolers dispersed back down Sixteenth Avenue. Juanita was one of the last to head back to St. Brigit. She shot me a look that I don’t think I have since seen on a human face, an admixture of befuddlement, awe, pity, embarrassment, and resignation.

It was four of us: me, Becky, Carl, and Mr. Hendelman. Carl stared me down. “May God have mercy on your soul,” he said. And then he glanced over at Mr. Hendelman and said, “And on yours, too.”

Then he lumbered back towards St. Brigit, and (I am not exaggerating) sang at the top of his lungs, “God rest ye merry, gentlemen/May nothing you dismay”—and then practically shouted, “Remember Christ our Savior/Was born on Christmas Day…”

I took Becky’s hand. Through all this, she hadn’t uttered a peep. I was mortified. I didn’t appreciate my daughter having seen me blow my stack like that, and, to the best of my recollection, she had never heard me swear before that night.

“Come,” I heard. I turned to Mr. Hendelman. “It is a cold night. I will make you some chocolate, that would be nice, no?” It was clear this was not a question.

We followed Mr. Hendelman into his house. Ten years we had lived here, ever since Anna and I were newlyweds, and I had never been in his house.

His furnishings were modest but well-kept. And upon the mantle stood a menorah. Becky noticed it immediately, pointed to it, and asked, “What’s that?”

“Becky, now, it’s not polite to—“

“Oh, it’s a menorah,” Mr. Hendelman interrupted. “You see, tonight is the first night of Hanukkah.”

“What’s Hakka— Hanka—”

“Hanukkah. It is a holiday that my people celebrate.”

“Like Christmas?”

“Well,” he reached to touch the menorah, “not exactly. Christmas is one day, but Hanukkah is eight days.”

“Eight days! That’s a lot more fun!”

Mr. Hendelman chuckled, “I suppose you could say that. You see, at Hanukkah, my people remember when our enemies seized our city of Jerusalem—”

“Jerusalem? Isn’t that where Jesus lived, Daddy?”

“Well, some of his life,” I replied, “but let Mr. Hendelman continue his story.”

“The armies laid siege to the city for eight days, but there was only enough oil for the lamps for one day. So, do you know what happened?”

“What?” Becky was Mr. Hendelman’s newest fan.

“God was able to make the oil last eight days. And then God helped my people defeat our enemies.”

“That’s a neat story, huh, Daddy?”

“Yes, honey, it is. I don’t think I’ve had it explained to me like that before. Thank you, Mr. Hendelman.”

“Now,” he cleared his throat, “I have two matters to take care of. First, understand, Hanukkah is more a holiday for the children. I do not have children. Not now. I put up the menorah to remind me of my daughter Rebecca—”

“That’s my name!” cried Becky.

“Sh, honey, let Mr. Hendelman speak.”

“My daughter, she has married and moved away. California. She says that is where the future is. Myself, this city has always treated me well.”

“Until tonight,” I muttered.

“Let me explain something to you, Mr. Hansen.”

“Please, call me Peter.”

“And you may call me Murray. Short for Moritz. Now, where was I… Yes, you must understand, Peter, my Ruth and me, we moved to America in 1928. I think you know your history. Ruth and me, we were very lucky.”

“Indeed.” I swallowed a lump in my throat.

“I have always been grateful for this country. I have lived here in this house, what now, thirty years. I raised my Rebecca here. And my Ruth, we made a good home here. I lost Ruth last year, you know.”

“I know, I’m sorry.” In all honesty, I only half-knew. I was mortified that I knew so little of my neighbor of the past decade.

“Oh, I keep getting sidetracked,” Murray sighed. “There were two things I need to do. First, Hanukkah is a holiday for the children. I put out the menorah to remind me of my Rebecca. The children, they get a present every night of Hanukkah.”

“That’s—” Becky counted on her fingers “—that’s eight presents!”

“You have a smart girl there, Peter. Now, what can I give—”

“Murray, I must decline, especially after all we put you through tonight.”

“Is this a matter for you, Peter? This is between me and your daughter. Now, what would make a good present for Hanukkah…” He rummaged through a knickknack shelf to the left of his fireplace. “I think this would make a good gift.” He pulled out a lace doily, obviously handmade, most likely by his late wife. “It looks like a snowflake, no?”

“Oh, Daddy, it’s so pretty! I can use it as a tablecloth for my dollies!”

“What do you say?”

“Thank you, Mr. Hendelman!”

“It is my pleasure. Now, there was one other matter… I promised you chocolate, no? I hope that Ovaltine will do.”

“I love Ovaltine!” said Becky.

And so the three of us settled into hot mugs of Ovaltine. I imagine Becky thought herself the luckiest girl in the world, because she was celebrating two holidays, Christmas and Hanukkah.

***

Murray was in that house another ten years. I found in him both a wise elder and a comrade as we navigated widowerhood together, and Becky thought of him as a long-lost relative she was happy to find. I even got to know his daughter Rebecca and her husband Michael when they would make the occasional trip from California. I would have invited Murray to Becky’s high school graduation had he not died during her senior year. When Rebecca and Michael flew in to make arrangements, she confided to me that Murray thought of me almost like a son, and she thanked me for looking out for him in his later years.

I am so grateful that Murray was in Becky’s life.  He opened her up to a new world, igniting her imagination and developing within her a deep appreciation of other cultures. Becky entered the Peace Corps after graduating from Berkeley (where she lived not twenty minutes from Rebecca and Michael). After that, she entered a career in education administration and dedicated herself to desegregation efforts.

I never remarried. I developed a certain gratitude for what I had in my life. I was, indeed, a rich man.

Oh, it might interest you to know that I never darkened the door of St. Brigit after that night. It wasn’t so much that I was against the church in general, as it was that I didn’t want to be around Carl, and I didn’t want to subject Becky to him, either.

I went to this church and that over the years, and even made a visit or two to a synagogue. But I’m an old man now. I don’t have the energy to get out like I used to. I prefer to stick around this house and maintain my friendships with my neighbors. I’m the only white man on my block. There’s this young couple living next to me right now. They have the brightest little girl.

Yes, I have much to be thankful for.

And all because Carl Anderson made an ass of himself.

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Talent

Two-and-a-half years ago I auditioned for America’s Got Talent. I figured I didn’t stand a chance, but I thought it would be interesting to learn how they make these talent shows, and getting audition experience is always good. To this day, I’ve never even watched the show apart from random clips online. (I don’t have a TV because I’m a TV addict in recovery.)

I did learn a lot. I learnt how much is faked for the TV screens. The scene where the crowd stands in a long line waiting to fill out their forms? Totally faked–we had all filled out forms and submitted our forms before that scene was staged. Plus, we were all instructed to hide our coats because, despite the fact that it was February and 10°F outside, we were told that, because the show would be aired in the summer, they didn’t want the audience associating the show with winter.

And auditioning before the celebrity panel? That doesn’t happen in the first round, though they make it seem so on TV. Instead, we were all divided by talent, each talent was broken down into groups of six, and each group was sent off to a small room to audition. I auditioned for a friendly young Indian-British woman, who was apparently part of the production staff, as well as her assistant who was taping.

By astounding coincidence, each of the six of us sang in radically different styles. There was a country singer from Wisconsin. An R&B singer, a genre I had assumed would dominate the auditions. A twelve-year-old rapper had come all the way from Chicago to Minneapolis. There was another twelve-year-old who sang opera. Her mother was the most stereotypical stage mom you could imagine. At one point, before we entered the audition room, the mother asked, “How much do you want this?” and the girl spat out her computer program, “With all my heart.” (I wanted to throttle the mother and tell the girl that, whilst her technique was advanced for her age, she was really flat on her high notes.) One guy in his twenties sang Broadway. He said that he had auditioned for American Idol before, and the judges asked if he sang anything modern, and he told them, “No, I’m a Broadway singer,” or, as he might as well have told them, “I really don’t care that the entire premise of your show is to look for a contemporary pop singer, so I’m going to waste my 20 seconds of audition time.” (He told me that at American Idol, you only get 20 seconds to audition. At America’s Got Talent you get 90.) And finally, as for my part, I was marketing myself to the show as a jazz singer, so I performed my own jazz rendition of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”.

But, as I said, I already knew that I wasn’t going to advance past the first round. It was not because I totally whiffed the opening of my song. (The judge told me I could start again; the Broadway singer told me afterwards that in American Idol, they don’t allow you to do that. And I totally get that: different shows, different purposes, different approaches.) And it wasn’t just because I wasn’t even the best singer in the room (that would have been the R&B singer), let alone the Minneapolis Convention Center. It was because I understood that my back story was not ready for prime time. (I think everybody in the place knew that the one who would go far was this guy in the warm-up area who did these impossible things with yo-yos. And he did.)

I had filled out my paperwork several days before the audition day. The contract was several pages long, most of it fine print. One of the most telling things is that you give the show permission to have them portray you however they want, and that you rescind your right to go back on them if they show you in an “unflattering, embarrassing, or insulting” light. (If that’s not an exact quote, it’s awfully close.) Another part of the application is to provide some back story. If you’ve never noticed, contestants on these talent shows almost always have dramatic back stories, which the judges have been tipped off beforehand even though they make it sound like it’s the first time they’ve heard it. They filter out folks who don’t have much of a back story because that doesn’t make for compelling television.

The big question they asked about the back story was, “What challenges have you had to overcome in the pursuit of your talent?” And for me, the biggest obstacle I’d had to overcome was that my church had forbid me to sing on stage because my ex-gay “therapy” had not yet been successful, and if I stood on the stage as less than fully “cured” and totally heterosexual, I would be seen as representing the church’s beliefs as something other than what they actually were.

Two-and-a-half years ago, such a story would have been much too controversial for a prime-time family show.

Look just how much has changed in that amount of time. I saw a video this morning of an America’s Got Talent audition from this season by a young opera singer named Jonathan Allen. (The video has since been removed for copyright violation.) He told of how his family kicked him out on his eighteenth birthday because he is gay, and that they haven’t spoken to him in the two-and-half years since. (Odd coincidence–that means he was kicked out right around the time I auditioned.) And he had nothing but support from the audience and judges. And it doesn’t hurt that he had a truly remarkable voice.

We’ve come so far, and yet have so far to go. There was gay bashing spree in Columbus this week, coming on the heels of one in New York City. And that’s just talking about the United States–LGBTQ folks are having to face much worse around the world.

And that’s just looking at the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities. There is so much more going on the world. Assaults on the poor and homeless and immigrant and disabled–whether with fists or with legislation. Women who are on the constant lookout for potential attackers. The exploitation of children and workers. And wars–always, always wars.

And I wonder, how long? How long will we speed our extinction? When will we wake up to the truth that we are all equal and important and need each other?

UPDATE: America’s Got Talent has posted a shorter video of the performance on their official YouTube channel. See it here.

Memory

The first thing I thought of upon waking this morning was my grandma. She died at the age of 80 when I was a sophomore in high school, 23 years ago. Though my mother did what she could to have us go down and visit as much as possible, I don’t feel like I knew her very well. And visits were not particularly pleasant, as my uncle, who was an alcoholic, lived with her and dominated the visits. But I loved her very much and still miss her sometimes.

Because I didn’t have many deep talks with her about what her life was like, I’ve had to learn much of what I know of my grandmother from my mother. My mother likes to tell stories about her family, and I figure that’s where I picked it up from.

My mother tells how my grandmother grieved. She grieved much in life, mostly over the death of her tenth-born child, Hazel Marie, who succumbed to pneumonia at the age of two months. Grief was very ritualised for my grandmother. Most notably, it involved annual visits to Hazel’s grave on important dates–her birth, her death, and Memorial Day, or as it was known at the time, Decoration Day. She did the same when her husband, my grandfather, died several years before I was born, right up until her health no longer permitted her to make the journey.

My grandmother would spend the whole day crying as she had the family dress up for the pilgrimage. Several members of my mother’s family are buried in a cemetery several miles down a gravel road near the Indiana-Kentucky border, or about 15 miles from the house she lived in when I was a child. (Indeed, my grandmother rests in that cemetery now.) I’ve been down that road many times to visit my aunt Pearl and uncle Ernest. It is not an easy trip.

She would fall on Hazel’s grave and wail and mourn. This is what Memorial Day meant to her. And so, as I awoke this Memorial Day, my grandmother’s ritual was my very first thought.

It is a day about which I am horribly conflicted. Being from Indiana, I know that for most of the people I know, their primary association with Memorial Day (or, more accurately, Memorial Day Weekend) is the Indianapolis 500. (Interestingly, ever since I moved to Minnesota, I forget about the Indy 500, despite the fact that, unlike in Indiana, the race is not on tape-delay here.) The Indy 500 is a huge spectacle, with a month’s worth of time trials and qualifications, a parade, a beauty pageant, and the race itself. The hubbub is about as far removed from my grandmother’s solemn ritual as you can get.

My father died and was buried right around Memorial Day, in 1997. (At the funeral, my father’s family remarked, “He was born on Veteran’s Day, buried on Memorial Day, but wasn’t in the military. What a coincidence.”) He was 59. I had not seen him conscious for five years (his last three weeks of life, when I was beckoned to his death bed, he was comatose), and after my parents divorced when I was 9, he gradually drifted out of our lives, despite having the most generous visitation rights you could imagine. His was a painful life, and he inflicted that pain in kind on all around him. I do not visit his grave. I’ve grieved and moved on. I have told myself that the best way to honor him is to live my life better than would be expected from his influence.

So, as you can see from my family’s history, I really can’t comprehend how the exclamation “Happy Memorial Day!” came into being. I mean, I understand how people want to honor the holidays of their culture, and that they may want to offer a parting word a tad more thoughtful than, “See ya!” But it seems that there is yet not much thought put behind that phrase.

And then we wrap the solemn day in red-white-and-blue bunting. We charge the day with patriotism. Yes, I understand that, traditionally, today is a day to grieve fallen American soldiers. The day was born in the shadow of the American Civil War, which took over 600,000 lives. In sheer numbers, that would be like losing every man, woman, and child in Boston. In proportion, it would be like losing the entire state of Missouri today. And we have fought in a great many wars since.

Now, I can open up a big can of worms and argue about whether wars are ever just. My answer is far more complex than can be sufficiently explained in a quick blog post. And so, right on Memorial Day, I guess I’ll open up an even bigger can of worms and say that I have to reach a fair way back in history before I can find an armed conflict in which the United States’s involvement might have any reasonable justification, and it is also very easy to come up with many unjust rationalizations for why we have entered or started the many wars of the recent past.

I understand that the motivations to enter the military are complex (often coming from financial necessity), and that to lose one’s life in battle is a truly tragic thing that ought not to be taken lightly. But I cannot abide the continued glorification of war. We have had for some time the capacity to completely make our species extinct. We forget that. We think that capacity for destruction existed only during the Cold War, which ended before today’s college students were even born. But, not only have our nuclear weapons not disappeared, we have since invented remote-control drones and biological weapons and dozens of other ways to snuff out our whole existence.

As a human being, as for all human beings, it is my duty to preserve my species. This is the most basic law of nature. For me, this means speaking out against those things that put us at risk of extinction. Thus, I must speak out against war, as well as the attitudes that push us towards war.

And for all of those reasons, abstract and concrete, personal and universal, I can’t think of the foggiest reason why today should be “Happy”.

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.

Commonality

Originally published here in March 2011, though this version has been thoroughly proofread and edited.  The original was dashed off in a hurry, so I hope this revision demonstrates my editing abilities, if nothing else.

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Human beings today seem to communicate primarily in two ways.  We either share personal narrative, or we “debate”–though it does not merit the name.  True debate is measured, calm, well-researched, and deliberate.  What we have instead, coming from all sides, are name-calling, belittlement, anger, resentment, hatred, malice, insults, and every curse of hellish fate you can imagine.

These “debates” develop as we lose sight of our mutual humanity. We do this by mentally converting fellow human beings into labels, into abstractions.  We call each other “liberal”, “conservative”, “gay”, “straight”, “Christian”, “Muslim”, “American”, “Chinese”, on and on it goes.

It is easy to go to war against an abstraction (why do you think they call them “casualties” and “collateral damage”, rather than “deaths”?), to oppress an abstraction, to abuse the rights of an abstraction.  An abstraction does not share your breath and your DNA and your heartbeat.  And if we behave as if the world consists of nothing but groups of abstractions, a “them”, and a small number that we call “us”, there’s nothing that to keep us from blowing “them” to smithereens.  We should just drop the nukes and call it a day.

However, it does not have to be this way.

We may well be hardwired to think of each other in terms of our differences rather than our similarities.  But we also have amazing minds that often transcend their wiring.  What if we stretch our minds beyond the capacity to label?  If our differences, and the way we use them to dehumanise each other, are speeding the destruction of our species, what are our similarities, and how might those similarities save us?

It’s not our genetics (for example, not all human beings have 46 chromosomes). It’s not our physical composition. It’s certainly not the way we look, dress, think, or believe.  The one thing that all human beings share is Story.

By Story, I mean the personal narrative that each of us carries. It is the unique path that has brought us to where we are. It is the tale of our triumphs and tragedies, events both momentous and mundane, the things that shaped our decisions, beliefs, and character. Not only is Story the only thing that we all share, but, in a very real sense, it is the only thing that any of us has. You can lose your job, your home, your possessions, your family and friends, you can lose absolutely everything–but no-one and nothing can take away your Story.

So, if focussing on our differences hastens the destruction of our species, would focussing on the commonality of Story save it?  First off, it is very easy for me to share my Story with someone who closely identifies with me–who shares my labels. The trick–for all of us–is to learn to transcend our boundaries in our sharing, to share with those who don’t share our labels, and to start seeing each other in terms of one label only: fellow human beings.

In this spirit, I am working hard not to engage in debate but to share Story. And I fail. A lot. But to keep trying in hopes of success is all I can do. And I know that I can’t force anyone to share their Story with me. But what I do know is that I’m not responsible for what others do, only what I do. And if I have the option of choosing actions that can make the world a worse place or a better place, I choose the latter.