For a whole host of reasons, I am thinking a lot about bullying right now. To start, when I was a kid, I was bullied. Only now at the age forty has it become clear how much those wounds added up over time. When you are bullied, you create little black boxes in which you hide pain. In the moment the pain seems insurmountable. The unyielding schedule of a school day, doesn’t allow a child to mourn and process what just happened. For me traumas small and large got put aside so that I wasn’t tardy to my next class. For others, pain got numbed in a haze of weed, alcohol, or sex while they skipped class.
Now in middle-age, many of us find that the damaging incongruities created by such hidden pockets of pain demand that we open the boxes and deal with the darkness we left inside. Like volcanoes, they erupt, affecting the present in unintended and harmful ways.
For those of you on the hunt for some useful way to process through that pain, I want to say there is hope. What may have been insurmountable then, need not be insurmountable now, but change will come at a price. To heal, wounds must be forgiven, and compassion must be found for those who hurt us. For me forgiving those who hurt me—including myself—always feels like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.
On the one hand, it feels like I am letting them off the hook, like they are getting away with their crime, and to be truthful, that is exactly what is happening. Forgiveness cancels the debt owed without collecting payment. But let’s face it, there really is no payment that can make up for the lost years anyway. Time is one of the few zero sum games human beings face.
On the other hand, holding on to the debt owed means holding on to the damage done. It inhibits our own freedom. It leaves us limping. When these hidden wounds are touched we erupt, furthering the damage and becoming the bully ourselves. Truly, damned if we do and damned if we don’t…
Until you experience the freedom of true forgiveness. Once you muster the courage to have compassion on your persecutor and see them as a broken and hurting person themselves, suddenly it all changes. Unbearable pain shrinks and the limp diminishes. The insurmountable becomes conquered. The release makes canceling the debt worthwhile. However, not even a hint of the freedom forgiveness brings can be experienced by those still demanding payment to heal wounds which won’t be healed no matter what payment is given. It can’t be experienced before forgiveness is given, and there’s the rub. There’s the sad fact which keeps so many locked up in their own anger, limping and worn out.
However, my own journey isn’t the only reason I am thinking about bullying this morning. There was also my discovery last night of one of my new favorite blog posts, a critique of Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” by Grammar Girl. It’s such a smart piece and so refreshing. Grammer Girl starts by explaining how the Weird Al song makes her want to “quit being Grammar Girl.” After criticizing Weird Al for calling people who struggle with grammar “dumb mouth breathers,” telling them to “get out the gene pool” and “try not to drool,” she says this.
I could easily overlook the lack of subtlety in his grammar lessons. I don’t expect a music video to get into the details, but what I see is that he’s appealing to the base instincts that I’m tired to the bone of seeing: The call to feel superior and to put other people down for writing errors. Prescriptivism sells. Encouraging people to rant against the “morons who can’t spell” sells.
Later, she goes on to say,
When I talk about language errors in songs, like between you and I instead of between you and me, I talk about how we need to give musicians a pass—poetic license— but that teachers must especially hate these songs because they reinforce the opposite of what they are trying to teach. That’s how I feel today. I understand why those of you who don’t deal with language every day the way I do, and don’t see people every day insulting other people about their errors, think this is funny and love the video; but I hope you can understand that for me, it makes my job harder because it makes people think it’s OK to be mean to people about their language errors—to put them down and call them stupid—and that is the opposite of what I try to teach.
It made me think again about how easy it is to build identity and a feeling of faux well being based on a sense of mutual superiority to others. Exclusivity is an easy sell to those who are part of the in group, but in the end, it wrecks all the fun. To maintain their identity, those in the group need to constantly police the borders sniping at those outside. That is a fearful and exhausting task. On the other hand, those outside get constant reminders of their inadequacy.
I was struck once again by how easy it is to fall into such thinking in the age of the internet. Social media and web videos seem custom made for such exclusionary group building. Watch the video of the crazy kid practicing his light saber moves and feel superior. Yet to those targeted by such group identity making, the effects can be devastating.
The irony is this, those who build up their own esteem by comparing themselves to others to feel superior are those who deep down have the little self-esteem of their own. It takes generosity and a true sense of self-worth to be a grammarian who can allow others to fail at grammar and still seek to build them up. Fear and insecurity are the driving forces behind efforts to build yourself up through enforcing and reinforcing your own superiority, no matter how you do so.
The third reason I’m thinking about bullying this morning is because of my upcoming Pax Imperium serial. It’s about Little Jo. If there ever was a kid who would be ripe for bullying it is her. Precocious, isolated and lonely with no defined role to play in the Ghost Fleet. She’s the perfect target. She’s the definition of the out crowd. How will she respond? Will she find the means to forgive and so keep herself free, or will she fall into bitterness and the vain quest for her own moral superiority. I don’t know… It could go either way, but whatever happens, Little Jo has me thinking a lot about bullying this morning.
If you have thoughts on Little Jo and bullying, don’t hesitate to throw them in the comments. What do you think should happen to her? How do you think she would handle it? Let me know.