Tuesday, May 27, 2014

It's Your Life: on the trauma of bullying

This is a discussion of bullying, but not the recent, ongoing sort. It's about the lasting trauma that can eat at you for years afterward and poison your current relationships. I’m going to share something personal with you, that I don't share often; and I’m going to make some statements following that that, likely as not, you will not believe.

If it seems to you that my presentation is without compassion, I'll ask whether you would rather have someone cry in the mud with you, or have them help you up?

Personal History

My mother was the very smartest person I’ve ever met in my life, bar none. I’ve never met a college professor, a Ph.D., a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a doctor, a lawyer, a politician, a pundit, or man on the street with the raw intelligence and wisdom that she displayed. I mean that very sincerely. I’m rather dull compared to her. Now, you likely think that I’m writing this merely because she was my mother, but I say that’s because you didn’t know her.

Nevertheless, for a good portion of her life my mother believed herself to be stupid. She married at a very young age, to a man who turned out to be a substance abusing wife beater who repeated told her how stupid she was. She had her first child, my sister, at age sixteen. Her second child lived only a couple of weeks. And she stayed with this abusive drug-addict, my father, for a further 20 years, repeatedly subjected to verbal reinforcement of how stupid she was. By “verbal reinforcement” I mean shouted insults and belittlement which became bolder and more persistent over time, just as his substance abuse increased over time. By “substance abuse” I mean not just alcohol, but morphine and other illicit drugs.

Now I am either blessed or cursed with exceptional memory (save for names, which are my blind spot… I’m likely to forget your name the moment you’re introduced). I accurately remember events from at least before I was two years old, as I remember not having a little brother, and I very clearly remember my crib and mobile. The point here is that I remember the yelling and the screaming though I did not know what it meant at the time. And I most clearly remember that night when I was six years old when my father was in the hospital and my mother packed us all up and drove us to a different city to get away from all of that. There was no job and no home waiting for us.

That was not entirely her decision. My older brother had a great deal to do with it. He walked in on my father beating my mother yet again. In her defense, he gave my father the beating that put him in the hospital with a collapsed lung. He told my mother that if we didn’t leave, my father would very likely kill one of them when he got out of the hospital. Without that impetus Mom might have remained where she was; whether out of stubbornness; or loyalty to her vows (if not to her husband); or fear that she couldn’t make it on her own with a “real job”, believing herself to be as stupid as she was told. She would have certainly taken more beatings. It was only when she was faced with the hard choice of trusting in herself or losing her children that she packed up and left. And for that I am forever grateful.

Because when she made that decision, magic happened. She got a job in a factory, putting the metal eyelets on fishing poles. She found that a “real job” wasn’t a challenge. She got another job, a better one in another factory, this time making electrical connectors. She worked in the stock room and she worked as a screen printer, printing miniscule pin designations on tiny rubber grommets. She became good at it, then supremely good at it. She was promoted to quality assurance, then observed that defective parts didn’t need to be scrapped, but could be salvaged despite the fact that they couldn’t be disassembled for re-work. However, the equipment to do that work did not exist. She demonstrated to her bosses her ability to legibly re-paint the defective labels using a jeweler’s loupe and a brush consisting of two hairs, and thus made a new position for herself in the company; one which she kept until retirement.

In the meantime she divorced, then met and married a new man… a better man… took me to the public library every weekend, and read voraciously. She made the finest lace and embroidery I’ve ever seen, and upon her retirement she taught continuing education classes in needlework at Clemson and help manage my step-father's farm. She discovered that she was anything but stupid, and never experienced another moment of self-doubt.

The fact that she wasn’t stupid wasn’t a gradual revelation. It was immediately obvious when she made the decision that her abusive husband was not going to define her. If you had only met her in the latter half of her life, there is no way that you would have believed she spent the first half in constant self-doubt. I know this through conversations with her friends. Her very closest friend recalled that when they first met at work, she thought  my mother was some kind of stuck-up intellectual snob. That was before she realized that Mom was always explaining things, but only the things you genuinely didn't know, and she thought you would be as fascinated by the process of learning as she was. She was constantly teaching.

As a result, I grew up in a very different world than the one I could have grown up in; the one that still occupies the dim recesses of my memory. I could have been beat up daily by my father like my brother was. I could have been told how weak and unimportant I was. I might have believed the lies. Instead I practically breathed literature, and was taught that I alone owned my sense of self-worth, and I was taught that by someone who knew for an absolute fact that it was true. And I believed her, and believe her still, because I personally watched it happen.

These are ironclad, unassailable Laws of Nature. Facts that you can not waive away with expressions of negativity:


If you don’t believe this to be true, it’s only because you still believe the lies. But rest assured that they are lies. You do have the power to dismiss them if you choose to embrace the truth.

What This Means

Well, what it does not mean is that bullying doesn’t happen. Of course it bullying happens.
What it does not mean is that you are being blamed for being a victim of bullying. Of course the bully is to blame for his actions. But blame is unimportant. Control of your life is.
What it does mean is that you can choose how to respond to those actions. You can choose to allow someone else to define you, or you can choose to define yourself and dismiss the offensive opinions that will not matter to you if you know that you are what you decide to be.

A little more personal history: I was for a very long time the smallest boy in my class (in fact, when I joined the Air Force at 21 years of age I still weighed only 119 pounds). And being the smallest, and often the smartest, and certainly the most well-read I was picked on and bullied. And I do make a distinction between taunting and flat-out bullying. The one is words, and the other is being physically beat up.  I know the difference because I’ve experienced them both. In my high school I belonged to a racial minority: Whites were 17% of my school’s population. I received verbal taunts based on… well, everything possible to be taunted about. I grew up back in the day when “geek” was to an intellectual what “nigger” was to a Black. Today it’s fashionable to be a “geek” and “geeky”, but then it wasn’t. I don’t mind telling you I’m in equal parts miffed that total non-geeks aspire to the title that earned me a few bloody noses and satisfied that we geeks won the day in the end. Today’s “geeks” don’t understand what that word meant, but in the 1970s being a geek meant you should be in a traveling freak show. There wasn't another definition. I was a geek and a nerd and a "Poindexter" and a space-cadet and an egg-head. And I had 2 brothers, a sister, and four step-siblings, so we didn’t have a bunch of money to through around, either. Toughskins jeans don’t wear out easily, so eventually you’re going to be called “Highwater” and whatever else they can think of about your appearance.

I’ve also been beat up, picked up, held upside down with my head in a toilet, had my pants stripped off of me and have been stuffed in a locker.

Of the two, I’ll take the taunting. I get to decide whether it’s true or not. And if it’s true, then my response is, “So what?” I’m proud of my Jewish heritage, so ethnic taunts fell on deaf ears. And my pants didn’t fit well. So what? And if some genius pushed the “point” that my pants didn’t fit, then my response of “So what?” revealed that they really didn’t have anywhere to go with the taunt. That was it. They shot their wad, and it was pathetic. They couldn’t tell me I was stupid because I knew it wasn’t true, and they couldn’t shame me for being intellectual because I knew I didn’t care what they thought.

But I really wasn’t fond of the idea of broken bones. Still, I don’t hold it against the guy who gave the swirlies. For one thing, I’m fairly certain that his home life wasn’t the greatest. And there was a certain culture that he grew up in in the 1970s; and there I was, a weak little White guy who made a perfect scapegoat for the frustrations of a burly Black kid 8 inches taller than me. And then there’s the fact that what he did was not targeted at me in particular. If I had not been there then it would have been somebody else, so in the grand scheme of things it was probably a good thing that I was his punching bag and not someone who would have been mentally scarred. I very much doubt that if we met today he would even remember that I was his target. None of this excuses his bullying, but it makes it very easy for me to forgive him. And I do it because I can.
Now, as an aside, I will point out that at the time, my primary response was the very sensible one of not being there, and also telling an adult. If someone is abusive, you don't spend time with them. The Anti-Defamation League has published "10 Ways to Respond to Bullying" which are immediately useful for people who are currently the target of bullying. I would recommend these steps to them in addition to a cultivation of self-ownership. I would pay close attention to them.

For the rationalist…

I live in a country that was founded by what today we would call Libertarians. They held an ideal of individual freedom, and they codified that ideal in the Constitution of the United States, and especially in the “Bill of Rights”... the first ten amendments.  The very first of these asserts our right to freedom of religion, expression, and assembly. Note that our rights are not granted to us by this Amendment. Rather, it merely acknowledges the fact that these rights are inherent, inalienable, and that they do in fact exist. And this means they exist whether you choose to grant them or not. They exist whether you legislate against them or not. They exist whether you judge against them or not. You cannot remove one's right to the free expression of one's opinions.

Of course, this means that opinions will be expressed that are at odds with what you believe. Some of them will offend you. And there is no guarantee at any time, anywhere, that shields you from offensive speech.

This isn’t a digression.

I bring this up because a commenter elsewhere has noted that “the bullies must be stopped”, to which I respond that while this sounds all Good and Noble as rhetoric, in practice it’s meaningless. You cannot stop someone from expressing their opinion, though it may be vile and offensive to you. Not if it’s about religion, or politics, or their opinion of your intelligence or your stupid highwater pants. Everyone, even an idiot, has an equal right to express an opinion, even an idiotic one you disagree with, even if it’s about you.

And if you actually believe what you say you believe when you say you believe that there is no guarantee of “freedom from offense”, then you already know that verbal abuse is unstoppable and no amount of thought-policing will change it. We can punish offenses, but we cannot ever, ever, ever prevent them. Not without being worse bullies than the bullies. That is a title reserved for those who would attempt to enforce "freedom from offense".

Having discussed this many times before, I’ve already heard the argument that “that’s completely different". Wrong. They’re exactly the same. Being offended when somebody speaks poorly of fat people when you’re fat is exactly the same as being offended by somebody speaking poorly of Muslims when you’re Muslim, or Democrats when you’re a Democrat, or “Tea-baggers” when you’re in the Tea Party. Being offended by a lie doesn't depend on the lie, and your response needn't either.

In every case you get to defend your position if it's accurately represented or correct the offender’s inaccuracies. When someone derides your politics it is your choice as to whether you will correct the error, denounce or ignore the accuser, change your politics, or just sit there and feel bad. And you have the same broad range of choices when someone derides your person.

The fact is, you probably already regularly do it for the one even when you insist that the other is beyond your ability. You regularly flex these mental muscles of self-defense and tolerance every day. It’s a matter of application, not ability.

People choose to be offended every day, and it is often taken to unhealthy extremes. Jihadists choose to take the mere existence of other religions as an affront against Islam. They want laws against it, and wind up with sharia. Some politicians choose to be offended by the opinions of the Tea Party, and they want rules against that, and we wind up with IRS scandals. Some atheists choose to be offended by the free exercise of religion by pious people, they want laws against that, and having none, they make up laws regarding a “wall of separation” and pervert the First Amendment so that “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” means to them, “you shall not publicly practice religion”. And people who are offended by the insignificant personal opinions of tiny minds want laws prohibiting the expression of those insignificant personal opinions. And the petty laws about more and more petty “offenses” will never end.

In every single case, always, the answer lies not with more laws, rules, and thought-police; but with more tolerance. You have to be willing to say...
  • ...it does not matter to me that you think God should be worshipped a certain way, or not at all. I am a Christian and will continue to be.
  • ...it does not matter to me that you are a Democrat or Republican. I am a Libertarian and will continue to be.
  • ...it does not matter to me that you think I’m dull. I am intelligent and will continue to be.
  • ...it does not matter to me that you think I’m untalented. I am creative and will continue to be.
  • ...it does not matter to me that you think “poor” is shameful. I am poor, but I’m working on it.
  • ...it does not matter to me that you think “fat” is ugly. I’m as thin and contented as makes me comfortable.

This is empowerment, and it’s entirely due to attitude. It’s entirely inside your skull. Nothing about it requires your environment to change. Laws cannot empower you, they can only restrict you; and you don't need laws to protect you. And “tolerance” does not mean “acceptance”. Rather it’s the mere acknowledgement that jackasses have the same rights you do. And it means applying that without double-standards.

But it does not mean that people who actually harm you get away with it. We cannot prevent thought, but we can outlaw and punish action. 

And I'm aware that there is some irony in the fact that the argument I just made probably offends you.

For the spiritualist…

For this part of the discussion, I’m going to assume for a moment that you’re religious, and that you are a Christian. Then I’m going to remind you of Matthew 5:44:  “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you”. In context, this is,
“You have heard that it was 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 sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.… 
One point here is that God already loves your enemies. He doesn't play favorites with his children. He waters their fields the same as He does yours, and frankly I don't think He would listen to you if you begged for their destruction. But the bigger message is hidden behind the fact that God commands you to love them; and that is that He doesn’t say “if you can” or “try to”. God commands you to do only that which He has already empowered you to do. You are commanded by God, without qualification, to love your enemies. This should tell you immediately that this is something you can do. When you say you can’t, I remind you of another verse a little earlier in Matthew 5:25: “Jesus looked at them and said, 'With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'”

A lot of people focus on the preceding verse that says it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. And they quote it as some kind of “proof” of the impossibility of salvation for the rich. But they forget the punchline, “with God all things are possible”. Likewise, you can tell me all day long about the impossibility of forgiveness on your part, and I’ll just shake my head and remind you that “with God all things are possible”.

You still don’t believe me.

If you’re still reading this and you still don’t think your reactions and your emotions are your choice regardless of the things that happen to you, then I’m writing directly to you now.

I understand that what I’m telling you is completely a matter of belief. And I mean “belief” in the sense of Heinlein’s word,grok. If you believe that a bully’s opinion does not matter, then he has no control over you. But you can’t be told how to believe something in your gut, thoroughly, with certainty, any more than you can just tell an Atheist to believe in Jesus. 

You've been telling yourself that you can't control your emotions; that someone else has that power over you. You're telling yourself right now that the things I've just said don't apply to you, or your situation is somehow unique, or it's the way you're made, or that "it's different for x", where "x" is any difference that you can grasp at to justify the status quo. And I'm not going to sugar-coat this. You don't believe in yourself because instead you believe in a pack of lies. I'm not saying it's your fault that you believe them. I'm just say that you do.

You tell yourself how difficult it is. Letting go of something is so much easier than hanging on to it. It is so much work to tightly grasp, cultivate, pamper and feed your insecurities when the ones you blame are long gone or dead! And though you feel the weight of that effort, and it's making you miserable, you still don't recognize it for what it is. I can't tell you how to let go. I can only tell you that you can... and if you find it hard you should try it differently. 

Do not dismiss the fact that you are still wrestling with your childhood traumas and I am not. I know I make this sound easier than you think it is, but experience counts, and you should ask yourself whether you would rather be taught to swim by a lifeguard for whom swimming is easy, or by one who is also floundering*.

In every case the truth is something you have to discover for yourself. I’m just telling you it’s there.

* an allusion to C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity".

1 comment:

  1. My response to On the Trauma of bullying is on my page.