In elementary school I was bullied. Teased, the wind knocked out of me, caterpillars placed in my lunchbox. I was mocked because I was the deadly trifecta: plump, shy, and smart. My parents called the teachers, who said they could do nothing. (Obviously they, too, were scared of this bully). To this day, driving by that school gives me anxiety. Two years later, I hit puberty, grew 3” taller, slimmed down, changed schools, and life was 180 degrees different for me. Life was good.
However, at the new school, I discovered a girl being bullied. I’ll call her Sally (not her name). I remember hateful rhymes made up about her, mean pranks. My heart went out to Sally, because I knew how she must feel. I knew she probably, like me, went home and wanted to stay there. I never told her this, never said anything, just looked the other way. After all, not only did my shyness remain, but my problems had been solved; I couldn’t risk returning to my former, miserable existence.
In my defense, I will say that although I never intervened, Sally’s bullying bothered me a great deal. I remember asking my parents’ advice. “You should do something,” they said. And sometimes I was almost to the point of action, but inevitably I lost my voice. Instead, I spoke to Sally in the hallways, smiled when I caught her eye. But I knew those anemic actions made little difference in her daily life, and I also knew, deep down inside, that I was a coward.
During one Sunday School class, the discussion was on courage—the moral fortitude to do what’s right. I recall the teacher, one of my favorites of whom I’ve written in past blogs, challenged us each to do one courageous thing during the week, one act that would help someone in need. I dreaded the week starting, because I knew what my challenge was to be.
A few days later, in the locker room, I had my chance. Sally’s clothes had been stolen from her locker so she had to traipse semi-nude through the room to find them. I tried to catch Sally’s eye, but she would not meet anyone’s gaze. Always refusing to cry, she shut down in a way that makes me wonder if she’s ever been able to open up, to move ahead. When she had redressed for class and we were all making our way out of PE, I caught up to the bully. I didn’t feel courageous; I felt nauseous. I tapped her arm and when the bully whirled around to face me, I was tongue tied. Snickering, her friends kept walking. Once we were alone I finally stammered, “You shouldn’t have done that.” Five simple words, uttered so softly that the bully asked me to repeat myself. When I did, she scoffed and called me a nerd (this was in the days before rampant profanity, when being labeled a nerd cut to the core). And then she sauntered off. I can close my eyes and remember the very spot on the sidewalk where she left me all alone, feeling cowardly and impotent.
The bullying continued until the bully changed schools, and life improved for Sally. Without the bully’s loud taunting, life became peaceful. Silencing that malicious tenor enabled words of hope to prevail. As for me, I have always wondered: was my complacency tantamount to a bully residing within me? My bravado was comprised of only five weak words muttered in the outdoors, where a quick get-away was possible. Who was I kidding?
Einstein said, “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it,” and I am convinced he is right. I believe there is a bully living within each of us: an angry lump of coal that takes joy in karma, seeks revenge—a part of us we have to exorcise again and again—through faith, through love. Although the bully within may be passive, buried deep, it shows itself through complacency. In the face of meanness against which we don’t stand up, in the company of victims whom we don’t defend, against unjust actions that we don’t repudiate, we are complicit. We are the bully.
Take it from me. I have carried, as a badge of shame upon my heart, the memory of doing nothing to stop Sally’s bully. Because it was not my business, because I didn’t think the bully would listen to me, because I was powerless and afraid: all of these reasons I have recited in my defense, but the truth is that there was no excuse. Just as today there’s no excuse in refusing to disavow white supremacists. Or refusing to disavow the person who refuses to disavow white supremacists.
Complacency is the environment in which bullying thrives. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right.”
As difficult as it is, it’s time we all take a look in the mirror. What do you see? Is there a bully within?