Bully for youPosted: August 25, 2011
Not long ago, there was a great deal of media coverage on what could only be described as an epidemic of bullying, in particular the bullying of gay and lesbian youth who, in some cases, responded by taking their own lives.
Teen suicide is, sadly, nothing new—and there’s research that shows gay and lesbian kids are at an exceptionally higher risk compared to other teens.
That’s not to put any less importance on the fact that teens of all kinds too often attempt this long term solution to generally short-term problems. But this time, the GLBT situation received more attention due to Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” video project. While teens might be more apt to listen to celebrities telling them to hold on, I found it was the stories of regular people—including some of whom I know personally—who shared their own experience of bullying, and proved, by their current existence, that bullies are survivable.
Unfortunately, while watching some of the videos—and as cruel as this may sound—I got somewhat angry. I found a certain smugness at being a target and a discomforting level of moral superiority. I would have preferred less emphasis on victimhood, more celebration in being a survivor. Too, I kept wondering if, while the project was compassionate in theory, perhaps it was misguided—or at least over simplistic—in application.
Seriously, does it get better? Is the world a warmer, friendlier place than you remember it being twenty or thirty years ago?
That’s what I thought too.
Or is it more likely that we get better as the years go by? Stronger. More sure of ourselves. More able to deal.
I’m speaking from experience here. Like any intellectually-prone, non-athletic, not exceptionally beautiful or popular small-town child who recognized her difference at an early age and reveled in it, not just marching but dancing, leaping and twirling a metaphorical baton to the beat of her own drum, I’ve met my share of bullies. I wish I could remember how the events played out, perhaps I’d have some practical advice to pass on—but the memories of the bullies (including a physically abusive ex-partner in my 20s) and the situations they created have so perfectly faded over the years, I genuinely don’t remember the details. They just weren’t sufficiently important to my life to keep them in mind. I needed that space for the good things that have happened since.
I can’t attribute that kind of healthy forgetfulness to any kind of special talent, extreme inner strength or rock solid ego. It’s simply that as I grew up and grew older, I got better at coping, better at not caring about what others thought, better at soaring along on my own fluffy cloud of self-confidence. While I agree that someone being bullied needs immediate support to feel safe, they also need to learn how to cope, how to deflect and defend and resist. They have to be smarter, faster and more mentally nimble than their tormentors. Not just as a short term remedy, but also as a means of eventually becoming someone for whom bullies no longer matter.
Implying that time and maturity automatically whisks us out of harm’s way is simply not true. As long as there are people who feel powerless, there will be bullies. They will exist as long as there are abusive spouses and ex-lovers who won’t let go, as long as there are bosses who bully and degrade their employees – or worse, create a situation where they bully each other. They are the friends who believe it to be their solemn duty to transform you into a smarter, better person (just like them), no matter how much self-esteem they strip away in the process. There are mean girls and tough guys, and I’m willing to bet the are senior bullies making fun of Harold’s funny haircut or Maude’s loose dentures in some retirement home right now. Bullies don’t get better. They get stuck in place.
So, no, I don’t think “it” gets better. But we can. We can refuse to give over our personal power to someone who doesn’t deserve it. We can learn to fill up the space in our lives the bullies once occupied with self-esteem and confidence, with self-love and fearlessness. In fact, the process of making ourselves better just might be the only thing that can render the bullies benign.