Thursday, March 05, 2020


A Facebook friend recently posted a request that people share their experiences being bullied. And, having been horribly bullied as a child, I thought about responding there until I saw some responses that made me think, and respond here instead.

The responses that I saw had very little to do with the actual bullying (which appeared to be in the form of ridicule) and quite a lot to do with the reasons for being bullied.

Now, I was made fun of, sure. I was called Gomer, Shrimp, a great many experimental racial epithets that didn't really work (my schools were overwhelmingly Black and I was a minority White), and quite a few other things. The names never made much of an impression on me. But I was also stuffed in more than one locker, given a "swirly" (held head-down over a toilet while it was flushed), given an "atomic wedgie" (if you don't know, you don't want to), and physically pushed around quite a bit. Until my Junior year I was among the (if not the) smallest guy in my class, and at graduation I still weighed under 120 pounds (that's 8-1/2 stone). But my retrospection also yielded this interesting fact:

No bully ever lied to me.

This, I think, is the major reason I had no problem with the names.
  • They made fun of me for being small. I was small.
  • They made fun of me for being weak. I was weak.
  • They made fun of me for being smart. I was smart.
  • They made fun of me for liking Star Trek. I liked Star Trek, long before it was fashionable.
  • They made fun of me for being weird. I was weird. I made puppets, and did magic, and drew pictures, and read fat books from the adult section with no pictures, and wore boring clothes and Pro-Keds, and kept to myself.
No bully ever told me that I was something I wasn't. And my take-home message was never to not-be the things I was. I couldn't help being small or weak or smart, for instance; and I wasn't about to give up liking Star Trek. Rather, my response was to recognize that these were the attributes I had to work with. I got jobs where being small and weak didn't much matter, and I grew up a bit physically over time. I used my intelligence to stake out work in areas where I could in some small way advance technology and get us just a little bit closer to the Star Trek universe I loved. And I realized that my weirdness just makes me distinctive and memorable. Kids make fun of weird, but adults are intrigued by it.

I was helped along by the fact that my parents were neither blind nor foolish. They knew I was small and weird. They never told me I was something I wasn't, or that I wasn't something I was. They acknowledged me, very matter-of-factly. In my house it wasn't weird to be weird. Nor was it weird to be not-weird (like my brothers). My parents were a lot more honest with me than guidance counselors, who lied incessantly, with facility and transparency, and were easily ignored because of it.

But as for the bullies, not one ever lied to me.

The physical abuse I received was embarrassing and uncomfortable, but I was fortunate in that it was non-destructive. I was never physically injured, so I rarely think about it, and never with dread. The name-calling...? That was the most negligible, easy-to-dismiss of abuses. Because every word of it was true. And it taught me to see myself as others see me, but more importantly it taught me not to lie to myself. Today I can look in a mirror and see someone who's still weird, and still smart, but old and grey and fat, and own it. Being overweight reminds me of the years when I couldn't afford to eat... I don't mind it a bit. Old doesn't mean decrepit and fossilized. What it does mean is someone with a shit-ton of hard-won life experience. I'm not about to whip out the Botox and Grecian formula to cover that up. It's mine. I own it. And I use it.

So... your mileage may vary. Your experiences may differ. They're yours, not mine. For my part, I'm not going to look back and name names and dish out micro-retribution on social media. My bullies know who they were, and that they're not my bullies anymore. They were kids being kids and they don't have to feel bad about it for the rest of their lives anymore than I have to carry around silly names for the rest of mine. But they do deserve a shout out for being honest with me. The least I can do is be honest about that.

Sunday, January 05, 2020


Seen on Facebook, posted by "Reimagining Recovery":

Image may contain: text
Maybe... Maybe not.

On the surface this seems very nice and affirming, doesn't it? It ain't your fault, you're just a victim, and oh, look! There's a heart to make you feel good. Just lovely.

Except that it's not terribly useful, nor is it necessarily true. Yes, we can face burnout; and no, it's not always our fault. But 'fault' isn't the issue to be addressed. The issue is what we can do about it. Because if you're facing burnout and you think you're just fine and swept up in issues beyond your control, there IS something wrong with you. Namely, you think issues are beyond your control. And most of the time, that's fixable. "Something wrong" doesn't mean your a bad person. Sometimes it means that you just need a change.

I have a serious problem with memes that disavow individual agency. I've written about such things before, in the post entitled "Doing Unto Others". In that post, I respond to Internet advice that is well-meaning, but just bad. And as with that post, I think there's much better advice to be had.

I have been told that "the influence of a global civilization several billion people strong is orders of magnitude beyond the influence of our own individual agency within that culture." Yet the individual does have agency, even against those orders of magnitude. Otherwise, there is no hope for change. Is this very meme a surrender to those forces? Think it through logically... if society is broken and we are inextricably part of society, then there IS something wrong with us. Something that can be fixed.

When there is wrong we can act. And when we do act, we show others that it is possible for them to do so, too, and by so doing correct the "messed up priorities" of the culture around us. I will not give in to defeatist arguments that tell me otherwise.

Don't just accept that 'society' or 'culture' is so much greater than you that you can't change your circumstances. You may feel that you are a victim, but you don't have to stay one.

Where I have conflicting priorities, I rank them. I decide what's important, and let go of the rest. When you do so, remember a few things:
  1. You are the boss of you. You're not a slave.
  2. Ultimately you work for your well being. That's not limited to money.
  3. When you work, you bring something that's valuable to the employer... your labor, talents, ideas. You are exchanging them for money in a free market. That makes you a partner in that exchange. It may sound like a small thing, but it's huge to remember that you're not begging for work from some overlord; you are selling something of value to another human being.
  4. If one employer doesn't value what you bring, find another.
  5. If no employer values what you bring, bring something else.
  6. Nothing that leads to burnout is sustainable. Let it go.
And I don't speak here from ignorance or some privileged position immune from burnout. This past year, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. That immediately became my #1 priority. I worked a reduced schedule. If my employer had fired or demoted me for that, I wouldn't care. I am the one who decided what was important. As it happens, they were fine with that; although I'd have readily moved on if that was unacceptable. Since I walk into job interviews prepared to evaluate the employer and turn down the job if the work environment is toxic, I have had mostly exemplary employers. However, I have quit a job where the management insisted on victimizing workers. This wasn't due to my failure: it was theirs. It's not giving up: it's taking action.

This isn't limited to employment situations, either. I manage a songwriting contest. It's a lot of work, and I've had multiple pressures over the past year... a new position to learn at my job, family health issues, family deaths, etc. I don't get paid to give people song prompts, and when I prioritized, I had to let that go. This leads to another "thing to remember",
  • Don't feel guilt about dropping something that you think is important to others, but can't be included in your priorities. If it is important to them, they will continue without you. If not, it wasn't actually important to them.
Our songwriters have had experience with this before. Song Fu was discontinued. It was important to us, so it was continued as SpinTunes under another leader. He had to leave, and I picked it up. If I had continued, I would have faced burnout, so I offered it to someone else. As it so happens, he couldn't fit it into his priorities, and after a year of getting my affairs in order, I'm about to announce its resurrection. But during that year when we had no contest, no one was upset. No one got mad. No one bitched online. People realize that personal priorities take precedence.

Whether it's work or play, the 'culture' doesn't depend on you harming yourself. I'm reminded of a reddit post talking about abusive employers in which the poster related, "...then I realized I could just quit. And he'd have to do the same work without my help." What a denouement! Everyone should have that wisdom.

The bottom line is, that the blanket assumption that you're a victim just because you're burned out is just not useful, and often not true. First look at your options, knowing that there are options you've never been taught to consider. Find out whether you're exercising them. If not, maybe there is something wrong with you... something you can change.


Addendum: Someone has responded to me regarding the stress they feel about such things as climate change and tensions in the Middle East. Personally, I wouldn't equate these with 'burnout'. However, we should remember that bad things happen and will continue to happen despite our best efforts. What we need to realize is that our best efforts are just that... best efforts. No amount of stress will make the things outside our control controllable. For those things, we have have the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.