Recently I watched a show about a teen who went on a shooting rampage in his high school in the early ’90s, killing two fellow teens and injuring thirteen. I was very ready to be indignant and angry towards this obviously evil perpetrator, and then I saw his face. He looked like a small, scared teenager, and even worse, he looked a lot like my own, sweet son. And I soon found myself holding a pillow to my chest and crying alongside the teen’s dad, who was interviewed for the program, who wept as he spoke about how, growing up, his son was a happy, funny, well-adjusted kid. With tears in his eyes he talked about how he still loved him while being devastated by the awful choice he had made. It terrified me a bit, but I saw myself in that dad. And it got me thinking about two of my worst fears as a parent—fears I am fairly sure are universal: that my child will be bullied, and, even worse, that my child will be a bully. This boy, though there is of course no excuse for what he did, was bullied and beaten up mercilessly by his classmates at the school, and this was compounded by the fact that his mother had abandoned him at an early age. To me, this seems like the only environment in which a terrible, evil choice could possibly be contorted in one’s mind into seeming like the “right” (or only) thing to do. They interviewed the teen, now a man in his thirties, who spoke about his deep regret for the lives he took and the people he hurt. He had many regrets, actually, among which was this one, which really stood out to me: “I only wish I had been able to talk to someone, tell them what was happening to me, and get help, before I did what I did.”
Bullying, and its horrific consequences (whether they are hidden or very, very obvious), is an absolute epidemic. Not a recent one, of course, but it is one that has evolved and become compounded by many things, including the introduction and rapid growth of the internet, and the widespread use and availability of electronic devices. Bullying is so convenient now—it can be done online, over the phone, through tweets and Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, email, and whatever else the kids these days are using. Sitting at home alone in our jammies makes us (and the flesh-and-blood targets of our written assassinations) much more anonymous, thus we feel much more free to explore and unleash the worst side of ourselves, the bully side.
I think that one of the biggest reasons that bullying is continuing to thrive the way it does, despite all of the great anti-bullying platforms and programs and conversations that are happening, is because we, all of us, tend to distance ourselves from it so much. We decry the bullies—bullying is a bad word, but no one ever actually thinks of herself as a bully—the bullies are those bad guys out there, like the ones in our children’s TV shows who delight in being evil, right down to their perfectly evil laughs. I don’t really think there are many people who take delight in doing mean or evil things unless they have concocted what they have determined to be a “good reason” for it. Some examples of this include: “Well she deserved it, because she did THIS to ME!” or “It was just a JOKE! Don’t be so sensitive!” As a therapist who has worked with people of all ages, I have seen firsthand the lifelong devastation being bullied (or bullying others) can cause, and how even something that seems minor to the perpetrator can have lasting effects on the victim. There is no excuse that could ever possibly make it worth doing.
The hard truth is this: we are ALL capable of being bullies, and, as humans, we have all been a bully at one time or another in our lives. A “bully,” according to the dictionary definition, is someone who acts “to frighten, hurt or threaten (a smaller or weaker person).” “Bullying” is “to treat abusively.” Maybe that happened when you were mean to your little brother when you were a kid, or when you angrily tailgated and then cut off that little old lady because she was driving so SLOOOWLY and you were trying to get to a Yoga class. Or it was when you were gossiping in a group and rolling your eyes about somebody else. Or when you laughed at your child with your adult friends because he said something that was (adorably) ridiculous. Of course these actions may not have been intended to be abusive, but they were, because they were acted upon those who were either singled out or were weaker and more vulnerable. And that’s called bullying, my friends.
But I could sit here and say that everyone else is a bully until I’m blue in the face, but it won’t change anything. It’s when I sit here and call myself a bully that I might get somewhere. Because it is my firm belief that we CANNOT stop bullying by sitting on our high horses and convincing ourselves that bullying is a problem somewhere “out there,” way down in the States, or in that neighbour’s house, or in that city in Alberta, or only in high schools, or wherever else we need it to be so it can not be recognized in our homes and even in ourselves. Because real humans, unlike the villains and heroes in Disney movies, are much more complex than just being “all evil” or “all good.” We wrestle with decisions, between the white and the black and in all the gray areas of life, and we are involved in both loving each other AND hurting each other on a regular basis. But the reality is that separating ourselves inorganically from our failings by pretending they’re not there, and distancing ourselves from the truth of them, will only make our children learn to do the exact same thing. And so, it seems, the bully stops here. With me. With you. With each one of us grownups trying to make a better world for our kids.
And so, speaking for only myself, I want to say out loud that while I have done many things that I am proud of, I have also engaged in things that I am embarrassed and ashamed of, and I have hurt other people in the process. I have, indeed, been a bully. I was the one who was mean to my little brother when we were kids. I was the one who angrily cut off that little old woman on my way (ironically) to “zen-out” at Yoga class. I have gossiped and rolled my eyes and singled-out others. I have laughed at my children in front of them. That was me, that whole time. And I am ashamed and embarrassed of it.
I also engaged in some bullying when I was a teen. I was bullied myself, and so I should have known better, but it didn’t stop me from laughing along with my friends behind the back of a very nice girl who just wanted to hang out with us. Those who are bullied are more likely to turn around and bully others, but it’s a vicious cycle that, it seems to me, will never end unless someone takes the hit and says they are sorry, turns the other cheek, and doesn’t use the way they have been treated as an excuse or a lesson to treat others that way. It starts with us—it starts with the adults. And today, it starts with me.
And so I want to say that I am sorry. Sorry to my little brothers for being a mean ol’ big bully of a sister sometimes. Sorry to that little lady in her car—you driving slower than me or me being in a hurry is no excuse for me to be dangerous or unkind, so if you happen to be reading this, please know, I’m sorry. I’m sorry to those I have gossiped about or rolled my eyes at (including, but not limited to, my husband). To A.P., the girl in high school whose only crime was trying to be friends with me and my friends, I’m so sorry that I laughed along with them at you. I wish I’d had the courage and strength to stand up and walk away from it, or to defend you. I hope that, wherever you are in your life, you are doing well, and are not currently affected at all by that moment, many years ago, when you had the misfortune of being hurt by my fourteen-year-old stupidity.
And, finally, I’m sorry to my dear, sweet children who, in my insecurities about how their words or behaviour might reflect on me, I have laughed at and embarrassed. I was bigger, you were smaller. And I knew better.
It is my hope that, in my home at least, the bully stops here. I hope I will continue to apologize where I need to apologize, when I trip over my own humanity again, and that my kids will see that and feel free to do the same. In our culture, apologies are really not as free-flowing as they need to be. There is the belief out there that if we apologize we are “weak” or admitting guilt, and so NOT apologizing becomes a power play instead of just a damned decent thing to do. The Canadian government even passed a by-law a few years ago declaring that an apology could not be considered an admission of guilt, by legal standards. It’s about time, I think, because we need to apologize more, for lots of reasons: things we do, things we didn’t mean to do but did, and just because people are hurt, and we’re sorry about that.
Imagine if the bully stopped here, with each of us, as parents, as grandparents, as aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbours, humans. Imagine if the kids in our lives observed apologies flowing, empathy rising, open communication about bullying and all of our part in it? It might be more uncomfortable to have it in here than out there, but won’t it make a much bigger difference toward stopping it? Imagine we stopped needing to make other people feel small so that we could feel big? Imagine we treated everyone else as though they were just as important as us, and our families? That would be world-changing stuff, that right there. And maybe, just maybe, if my son or daughter ever feels the impacts of bullying, either on the giving or the receiving end of it, they will live in an atmosphere where they feel comfortable enough to come talk to me about it. Whether the impacts of bullying are devastating on the inside of a person, or on the outside—like in a school shooting—they are devastating, and it has to stop.
And the bully stops here.
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