Love the Bully, Hate the Bullying

I recently saw the documentary film ‘Bully‘, which tells the stories of several teens who have been victimized by bullying and, in two of the cases, driven to suicide. The film focused almost exclusively on the perspective of the victims – showing what their lives are like, what sorts of emotional and physical torture they experience on a daily basis, and what impact this treatment has had on their psyche.  The victims’ stories were heart-breaking, and the film’s message –  that bullying must not be tolerated – was laudable. As part of attending the film at the Pelham Picture House, we all got stickers with the word ‘bully’ crossed out – i.e., that we need to eliminate bullies.

While I’m glad that I went to see the film, there was one aspect of it that concerned me: namely, that there was almost no attempt to understand the perspective of the children who were doing the bullying. In particular, I am curious what it does to a child when he or she finds out that she has been labelled ‘a bully’.

You may think: “Well who the heck cares what the bully feels? That kid is a bad kid and we need to stop him!”

But it’s that reaction that – while completely understandable – seems to me to be a key part of the problem.  Because when we label a child as a ‘bad kid’ we are making a claim about that child’s essence. We are saying that at core, that kid is rotten, incapable of goodness.  Labeling a child as ‘bad’ can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy: the child believes himself to be bad, and gives up on any potential he might have had to be otherwise.

It is in this context that we can appreciate the wisdom of Christ’s teachings about loving your enemy:

You have heard it said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45)

I’m pretty sure that of all Christ’s teachings, this one is consistently the hardest for people to embrace. Simply put, it’s counter-intuitive. Yet, in my own experience of being bullied as a child, and in my attempts to help my own children handle bullying, I find further confirmation of the wisdom of Christ’s teachings.

Regarding my childhood experiences: in one sense, I was very lucky since I went to a Quaker school where any form of physical violence was strictly prohibited. Unfortunately, this just led the children to rely on psychological forms of torture that left permanent scars. I was a weird, socially awkward kid and spent much of my school years being simply ignored (when I was lucky) or painfully ridiculed (when I was less so). And of course, I was oversensitive, so any teasing cut me to the quick. My loving parents, wishing to alleviate my pain, taught me that those who were cruel to me were ‘bad kids’ and that I should just dismiss them because some day I would be very successful (as most high school geeks are) and I would get my revenge.

While well-intentioned, I feel that ultimately my parent’s guidance was unhelpful. It left me with no tools to try to understand the situation in a more nuanced fashion – to give some context for the other children’s behavior. It left me as an isolated victim in a sea of mean kids. It also taught me to divide the world into ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people. Whenever I met someone, I immediately tried to classify them into one category or another. This often led me to make unfair judgments about people that I later found out were inaccurate. It also led me at times to live in fear that if I myself had done something cruel that perhaps I, too, was a ‘bad’ person.

The fact is that life is just not that simple. All of us -at all ages – struggle with who we are and how we should behave. The teen years, with the extraordinary physical and hormonal changes they bring, exacerbate these existential challenges. Many of us do things to others that are unkind, and those of us who have learned cruel behaviors from others may be particularly nasty. But that doesn’t mean that any of us are completely evil. Nor does it mean that those of us who are kind, caring and victimized by bullies are always completely good.  If we think of humanity on a spectrum between Hitler and Jesus, most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

The film Bully actually highlights this point in telling of one girl who endured merciless bullying on the bus ride to school. Eventually the girl reached her breaking point, stole her mother’s handgun and took it out on the bus, threatening all the children who had made her life such a misery. The girl was put in juvenile detention for months and then ultimately freed. The film is structured in a way to make us root for this girl, but my takeaway from this particular story was that the line between the oppressed and the oppressor is much more fluid than we tend to think.

In just the last few days, my thoughts on bullying were put to the test when my daughter came to me very upset. She had just encountered a ‘mean girl’ episode where she believed she had overheard two girls talking about her in an unpleasant way. My initial reaction was that of the Mama Bear: how DARE anyone say ANYTHING mean about MY daughter! Ooh, those girls must be just BAD PEOPLE. 

I even started to respond to my daughter in this vein, then stopped myself short. There I was doing it again. I took a deep breath, and said instead:

“Sweetie – first of all – you shouldn’t assume that they were talking about you. Secondly, even if they were, remember that they must be doing this because of their own insecurities. I feel sorry for them that they feel so bad about themselves that they have to talk about others to build themselves up. You’re a strong person – you don’t need to do stuff that. Just try to ignore it, and hopefully next time they will show their nicer side”.

Rather than letting my daughter feel like a helpless victim, I tried to help her develop a sense of compassion for those who were, in theory, her ‘enemies’. She left that conversation much more empowered than if I had just called those girls the choice epithets that had first come to mind.

This experience shows the great wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words:

…we love (all) men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does….(from “Nonviolence and Racial Justice”)

In like fashion, I hope that in all the good discussions generated by this film, we remember that it is not bullies that we want to eliminate, but acts of bullying committed by anyone, at any age.

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