Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Beware When Fighting Monsters

When I was growing up, there were times when being around other people was the very definition of Hell on Earth. I was a scrawny kid with no real inclination toward sports of any kind, shy, and socially awkward. While I did have some very good friends occasionally (most of whom are still in my life to this day), most of my playmates existed only in my head. I didn’t have any of the right hobbies, interests, or clothes, and we all know how that tends to turn out far too often.

Children can be vicious, and none more so than the ones who perceive themselves to be “In” in relation to those perceived as being “Out”.

I was the one who would be accosted in the hall while someone made fun of my walk, or the way I stood, or just the way I was dressed. I was the one who tried to keep to himself at summer camp, and ended up having his personal letters shared around the boys’ dorm for everyone else’s entertainment. I was the one who would walk laps around the playground while everyone else was playing kickball, or tag, or whatever other group activity was popular at the time. Sometimes I would be fortunate enough to have one or two other people walking with me, and we would tell stories while we walked. These stories usually involved being from another world, or going to another world, or meeting visitors from another world; almost anything that involved some other world, really. In short, having perfect vision (and so, no glasses) was just about the only thing that kept me from hitting perfect marks on the classic nerd stereotype.

One day, while walking laps, another student ran up, punched me in the face, and then ran off as though nothing had happened. There is very little that can cement your place in the adolescent hierarchy quite like an anonymous sock in the jaw.

As a child, I didn’t understand why these things would happen. I would try my hardest to fit in, which often just made things worse. Those who fit in don’t usually have to try, and those who try will usually get a million little details wrong, and stand out all the more because of it. That always seemed to be the case for me, at least. It seemed as if there was nothing I could do to make things better, and everything I did just led to some new form of humiliation. There were days when the only thing that seemed to make any sense was wanting the humiliation to end, one way or another.

As an adult, today, I can’t exactly say that it makes any more sense, but I can better see how the dots connect. I know from experience that Activity A tends to result in Behavior B from Group C. Behavior B may not make any sense, in and of itself, but is can still be fairly predictable, when taken in context. Having learned these lessons, I have gotten pretty good over the years at either making peace with the reactions or avoiding the activities which lead to those reactions (even better when I can avoid the groups who participate in those behaviors, but that isn’t always as controllable). I’ve even developed some decent skill at pretending I can navigate social situations without looking for an emergency escape route. Practice may not ever make perfection, in this case, but it certainly helps.

What also helped was having the right people show up in the right places at the right times. I was very fortunate in that regard, and this is something that I always try to remember. A smile or a kind word at the right time could save a life, and you may never even know that it happened. It may seem like a small thing to you but, to the person on the edge, small things can make all the difference. A surplus of small things is often what put that person on the edge. The right small thing can sometimes be exactly what walks them back.

I don’t really expect that I will ever be completely free of that scared child from so many years ago - too much of who he was has gone into building who I am - but I do expect that I will never actually be him again. Some of the things that I have learned have made me a harder person that he was, but I try to not let that go too far the other direction. Who I was informs who I am which informs who I will be. Peace comes from letting go of the past while remembering the lessons it taught you, remembering your history without being weighed down by it. Those who have been on the receiving end of bullying and come out the other side know this better than most people.

Our culture today has become more aware of bullying than ever before, and that is a good thing on so many levels. We have outreach programs, educational messages, and support services that were never more than dreams to past generations and, as a result, we are saving lives. In fact, more than just saving lives, we are improving lives. Not only are some people who might have been bullies learning earlier how to live a better way, and some people who might have been bullied being spared that hardship completely, but we also have people who have been bullied learning like never before that life goes on, and it usually gets better. Despite these improvements, though, there is still much to be done, and much that we need to keep in mind while we move forward as a society.

There is an all too human tendency to take on the traits of whatever it is that you focus your attention toward. Spend your time around positive people and you will tend to be positive. Spend your time around negative people and you will tend to be negative. That is just the way we are wired. All things being equal, then, it just makes sense to spend more time around people who lift you up, and to limit time spent around people who drag you down.

All things are not equal, though. Most of us have jobs or school or some other social responsibility that limits our ability to choose who we are around. If nothing else, there is the daily bombardment of TV, Internet, and other media sources that aren’t exactly famous for focusing on the positive. It is imperative to remember that tendencies are not set in stone. We may tend to absorb surrounding traits, but ultimately we choose whether or not to abide by such tendencies.

This is important because there are many negative things that require our attention, and it does no good to focus on fixing these issues, only to become the negative ourselves.

I’ve known too many people who were bullied who then go on to become bullies themselves. They get a taste of the other side and decide that it’s time to get even, or decide that this is how they will never be a victim again. It is, in some respects, an understandable reaction. It is the cycle of violence given different expression. It is sad, though, because these people know better. They have a full understanding of what it’s like to be on the receiving end, and they are walking that road anyway.

A more insidious problem is the people who have taken so completely to the fight that they see bullies behind every bush and bullying in every interaction. It is important to be vigilant, and there will be times when pointing out bullying will be the unpopular thing to do, but it is also important to maintain perspective. Sometimes a joke is just a joke, and an interaction - even a negative interaction - is just an interaction. Context matters, and if you’re not paying attention to the context then you are not actually helping. If you cry Bully! at everything, it loses its sting, and becomes less effective when needed.

A world without bullying would be a fine thing indeed, but it is not likely to happen within my lifetime. We continue to build toward it, and we make improvements every day, but we don’t really expect to see the end result. I don’t, anyway, and that’s okay. I can see where we’re going, and the road has much to offer along the way.

Just be careful of the dangers, and try not to become a danger yourself.

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