Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fight for Your Right to be Who You Are!

The following article is courtesy of Peter McQueeny.  It is actually about bullying and hisMy thanks to Peter for contributing this.

'Growing up, I was a tender, sensitive child.  Like many sensitive children, I was a target for bullies from an early age.  It began when I joined a local soccer team and quickly found out that I wasn't very good at sports.  The entire team used to gang up on me, including the middle-aged coach, who led the charge by responding to my inadequacy not with advice or encouragement, but with ridicule.  Pushed by my parents (who had only the best of intentions) to continue playing sports, I had similar experiences in tee-ball and basketball.  By the time all the school children in my town were starting to get to know one another, I had a reputation.

Middle school was the worse.  I had a handful of friends, and we were all outcasts, bullied to some extent by overlapping groups.  There was one person in particular, who shall of course remain nameless, who singled me out from the very moment our eyes first met.  We had apparently attended the same kindergarten class, although I didn't recall that at the time, and we had remembered me all through grade school, even though we went to different schools.  I recall the event as clearly as if it was yesterday, which begs the question if it really happened this way, or if this is a dramatized/traumatized memory: -         I walked into a 6th grade English class, and this person was already sitting at a table.  As I looked around for a seat, he said to me, in the most threatening tone he could manage:  "Hey Pete.  You don't remember me, but I remember you."  I made a face at him, and he immediately mocked me to his gaggle of goons.

From there until 8th grade he made my life a living hell; trotting out may of the classic bullying moves in the process: kicking me into my locker, upsetting my lunch tray, mocking me in front of the whole school etc.

When I went to high school I was still reeling from those experiences, and I was elated when I found out that the person in question had opted to attend a private high school, and I would never see him again.  But high school held it's own challenges, less physical and immediate, perhaps, but no less condemning.

My response was to draw further inward.  I got interested in Punk Rock and Heavy Metal, and through music found an identity that gave me enough confidence to get by until graduation.  I learned to own my outsider status, to act is if it was my decision, not theirs.  In the end, I became enough of a curiosity that by the time senior year came, I was friendly and conversational with everyone in my graduating class.

And when I went to college and I had the same experience so many of us have.  All that class-warfare, the freaks and geeks vs. jocks and cheerleaders, that all melted away and suddenly we were just people.  I never heard from most of my fellow graduates again, but the ones I have, even those that were bullies to me at one time or another, have met me as equals.

But sadly, my experience left a lasting mark on me.  By becoming so wrapped up in my outsider status, I found it difficult to become fully engaged with people who didn't share it.  I may have owned it this time, but the feeling of standing outside looking in persisted.  Years of being told I was insufficient had caused me to lack confidence at a deep level, and this showed up in the way I failed to apply myself to constructive activities, and I spent most of college in a marijuana-induced sleepwalk, wearing a girl-proof shell of fat and poor hygiene.  I squeaked out of college in just under seven years with a degree in Philosophy, boasting a 2.1 GPA.

I moved into adult life, and immediately drowned in a sea of mediocrity.  I was Salieri, constantly taunted by the ease with which Mozart outdid my most solemn efforts.

It wasn't until I met my now-wife that things really started to change for me.  We met on E-Harmony; the perfect meat-market for those lacking confidence.  Now that I am embarrassed about the way we met (quite the opposite), we were both at a point where we were looking for something serious, and we didn't want to waste precious years messing around with anything less.  Through the process of our courtship, I taught myself the most important lesson I've ever learned:  'Fake It 'Til You Make It'.  Confidence is a behavior pattern, a habit like any other.  It can be adopted artificially, but quickly becomes natural with practice.  And this is what all those bullies knew that I didn't.

The common wisdom is that bullies act the way they do because they are protecting themselves from their own lack of confidence by projecting their weakness onto others.  I generally agree with this, and I think most sane, reasonable adults more or less agree as well.  Bullies are, in a  childish way, faking confidence, and eventually it becomes natural.  By then though, the habit has become hard to break; they know no other way of demonstrating confidence, so they keep on putting others down, sometimes well into adulthood.  But I'd be willing to bet that nine out of ten bullies started out as a child that was hurting in some way.

All this brings me to several conclusions:
We, as adults, should not punish bullies for their activities in any extreme way.  Who are we to  punish a child for mistakenly acting out on their own pain?  Not only that, but punishment of the top-down sort has never been shown to be an effective means of modifying behavior,  It may force compliance in the short term, but it breeds discontent with authority in the long term.  I learned, as so many victims do, that "telling" only makes the bullying worse.  I've had bullies be forced to say they were sorry to me before.  Their false apologies hurt more than their sincere blows.  And no matter how hard parents and teachers work to make it safe for victims to come forward, the act of "telling" will always be bad, even in the absence of retribution.  Running for help is a habit, and its one we'd do well to discourage in our children.

All adults know there is no shame in asking for help when we really need it, but in the adult world that help is most often in a collaborative setting.  It's right for me to ask for help if I have a difficult and important work project that I won't be able to finish on my own.  But asking to be rescued is something different entirely.  Encouraging children to do that is the same as saying "If you fall off the horse, don't get back on, just wait for mommy to come and pick you up."  Encouraging kids to beg for rescue will breed weakness in adults, and like it or not, there are always, always bullies in life, even when we're grown up.  They may not be trying to hurt our feelings, they may not even have been bullies as children, but there are always those who seek to take what we have, or to take credit for our good deeds, or who believe they are in some way better than us and deserve more.  Nations bully each other.  And running to the UN doesn't seem to prevent much conflict, does it?

As an adult there is often no one to turn to, so to teach that habit - even if it's effective at the child level - is to do a disservice to future generations.  The appropriate way to meet strength is with strength, and not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up.  If we want to put an end to bullying, we have to educate victims on the nature of confidence at an early age.  We should be teaching them to find their power any way they can; be it the intellectual route of nerds who eventually employ their bullies, the independence of freaks who go on to live fascinating lives, or sheer power in numbers.  Kids could support each other by forming an anti-bullying club, so if a bully wanted to take on one of them, he'd have to take on all of them.  the only way to stop a bully is to tell them you won't stand for it.  There's no reward for the bully if you refuse to take their taunts lying down.  If you take a few knocks in the process, I think it's worth it.  Taking punches builds character.  Chances are a childhood bully won't murder you.  I know there are some who encourage victims to kill themselves, but if the victims learn early to stand up to this kind of treatment, to find their strength and fight for their right to be who they are, to say to that bully's face:  "Screw you, I have a right to be whoever I want, and I'm not going to let you take your self-hatred out on me!" I think we could actually see change.

I don't have any children, so perhaps I am speaking in ignorance.  Maybe I will one day be so consumed by protective instincts that I will change my mind.  But the sad truth is that in a better world where people and nations compete for limited resources, strength is the only survival strategy.  Birds don't learn to fly by being coddled in the nest, they learn to fly by being rudely shoved out, sometimes hitting the ground.  Fish don't learn to swim by holding close to their mother, they learn to swim by being abandoned and hatching to find a hungry eel waiting for them.  And humans don't learn to stand up by themselves by asking their parents and teachers to do it for them.  I dearly hope that when my child comes to me saying they've been shoved around by some bully, I still have the wisdom to tell them, "Next time, you shove back."

For more rants and ravings about anything and everything, head over to

My thanks to Peter McQueeny  for this article.

No comments:

Post a Comment