Monday, December 2, 2013

On Bullying and Creating Cowards

Bullying sucks. Plain and simple. It's no good for anyone involved. Even for the perpetrator of the wrongdoing bullying is like heroin. It feels really good for a while but once that short lived ecstasy has run its course those feelings of pleasure are replaced with sadness, pain and a longing to escape them which often leads right back into the already vicious cycle. As I said before, bullying just sucks.

What causes bullying? Well, that's a bit more complicated and I'm not entirely qualified to answer. I think at the most basic level we can all understand the driving sentiments. Humans are competitive by nature and it seems to me that Americans are even more competitive by culture. Competition requires a winner and a loser and we all know which role we'd prefer to play. When we feel badly about ourselves we want to feel better so we find a meaningless and ambiguous competition (bigger, funnier, more popular etc.) declare ourselves the winner and then from our new ivory pedestal we laugh at all of the peasants far below in the lowlands. Unfortunately, oftentimes said peasants don't believe themselves to be the losers so the bullies are (in their minds) required to demonstrate the truth of this matter to them, whether it be through name calling, Facebook stalking or plain old fashioned physical violence.

I have a very personal relationship with bullying. I used to get the sh*t kicked out of me as a child. When I was very young it was predominantly emotional but it got worse as we got older and bigger. Supposedly I used to come home from school crying on a regular basis. I don't remember that. My mom claims I blocked it out (possible) but I think she's exaggerating (likely). Either way the point remains that I was bullied so often and to such a degree that it significantly affected my childhood. I was afraid of people for a very long time. This was compounded by the fact that I was a very sick and frail child and not particularly physically capable unless the feat under examination was the strength and dexterity of your thumbs (I crushed at video games. CRUSHED).

Like a lot of children I sought solace in fantasies. I played video games and when my mother banned me from the living room lest the yet-to-be-discovered gamma rays emanating from my NES melted my brain, I retreated into the world of superheroes and high fantasy.

Despite her penchant for robbing me of my digital gaming fix, I had an incredibly tolerant, loving and supportive mother. She was and still is a saint (she has fostered eleven children in the last ten years for no reason other than she wanted to). Unfortunately this led me into a pattern of running away and crying for my mommy. To bullies this is more or less chumming the waters and frequently I was just making it worse for myself. Hey, I was like nine. Cost/benefit analysis of social interactions wasn't something I'd discovered yet. Frankly it's something I wish we never really needed even though I'm pretty sure we all do it on a regular basis.

There's nothing particularly unique about my bullying story I don't think. I was bullied when I was younger and it made me insecure. I still carry some of those insecurities with me today, even though I like to believe I have the worst of them under control. What's frustrating for me, now, is watching all of the reports on bullying in children today and what seems to be the typical response: don't fight back.

I'm sorry, what?

If you watched the video I posted on this subject my current stance might confuse you. "But Bob," you may say, "you said in your video that simply because someone punched you it does not give you the right to cripple them, didn't you?" Why yes, faithful follower, that is precisely what I said. I'm not saying that we should teach our children that anytime anyone offends you in any way whatsoever you should probably kick them in the teeth. I'm saying that telling our children to run away and find an adult isn't always productive.

What happened to teaching kids to stand up for themselves? What happened to letting kids figure it out on their own? I think we all know in one way or another that we're supposed to let our children fail while they're still young so that they can experience it when it's still safe, when failure isn't really failure it just really feels like it. Unfortunately we also have an entirely understandable mama-bear, don't-touch-my-child-or-I'll-murder-you instinct that, while understandable, is also highly detrimental in most cases. There's nothing wrong with wanting to protect your child. Pretending as though the other small child that is tormenting them on the playground is not another small child just like yours but is in fact a sociopathic, insult-flinging evil-genius that may be the one true son of satan made flesh, on the other hand, is a little problematic.

If the number of articles fling around the internet is any indication, then it seems that a lot of us seem to have noticed a running theme about some members of my generation. We're afraid and anxious, like, all the time.

Maybe it's because we were raised on a steady diet of entitlements and being told we were special. We were never forced to try because even if we lost we'd get a medal for participating. At some point in time we all became so terrified of hurting our children's feelings that we never really considered the consequence: an entire generation of adults who don't know how to deal with anxiety or take positive risks. We (and by we I mean the people that raised us) fostered a culture where the average 22 year old with a bachelors degree in art history believes that being a Starbuck's barista is below them.

Yea. It's like that.

Now I will say that every time I see one of those articles it makes me a little nuts because obviously our entire generation isn't like that. Even so, there does seem to be a fair amount of this stuff that applies DIRECTLY to bullying but some of us have yet to make the jump.

We don't want our kids playing dodgeball or getting physical in gym class. We might be getting rid of recess (in an already dangerously overweight nation) to "combat" bullying. I've got some news for you. None of this is dealing with the issue in any way. It's avoidance. It's more of the same. Rather than equipping our future generations with the self worth and strength of will to be bullied and weather the storm, we are teaching them to run like hell anytime it happens because, you know, it'll probably never happen when you're adult. Nah. Adults don't do that sh*t to each other. We're past that.

Right guys?

Even beyond that we're teaching them that they shouldn't stand up for themselves because they can't. You can't solve this problem without someone helping you. Without even considering what that does for their mentality long term, we have to be tanking your self worth. They're already in an uncomfortable situation and rather than first trying to support them through it on their own, we're conditioning them to believe that they shouldn't even try because they'll never be capable. It might not be the message we mean to send, but I'm sure to a lot of children it sounds awfully similar to, "you're just not good enough."

I can't tell parents how to parent because I don't have any children of my own. What I can focus on is the other things that we do as people and as a society that contribute to this crap. Making light of each others feelings. Popularizing mean spirited humor that offers nothing in the way of intelligence or satire. Reinforcing the idea that there are only a handful of very specific societal ideals and teaching our kids that if you don't fall into them you shouldn't value yourself. This, of course, is where it all becomes very complicated very quickly.

The problem, ultimately, is that we judge and value ourselves far too much based on external feedback. This is nothing new or mind-blowing. We love our bodies insofar as they resemble someone else. We value our intelligence insofar as it meets the guidelines laid out by another person. Our own athletic capabilities exist only to the extent that they can fulfill external, already determined requirements. The complicated part is that ignoring all of those things would very quickly make you a social outcast. In order to be a functioning member of society we simply cannot reject and disregard all cultural feedback on who we are as people.

So what do we do? We remind ourselves what we were all taught as children.

Treat others as you would like to be treated and not only when it's convenient.

You don't need to be like everyone else or even like everyone else, but you have to respect their right to be them.

True inner strength is your ability to resist and be yourself. When caught in the raging rapids that are popular culture and society, the truly strong individual will follow their own path. Not the hard path because it is hard nor the easy path because it is easy, but the right path because it is right.

You must always defend yourself and others, but never let your enemies make you the attacker.

Being different will always be painfully, heartbreakingly hard. It will also always make you beautiful.

We can't fight our children's fights for them. Perhaps more important than that is a simple question: how many of us are truly qualified to do so anyway? I've often said that insecurity and denial are the root of all evil, something I believe because I personally know they led to many of my own flaws. When it comes to fighting, both physical and metaphorical, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Winning may feel good, but it's losing that drives us to become better. We can say this to each other over and over and there's a chance the kids might listen but I think we all know that sometimes it's not real until it's actually real.

Sometimes we need to lose.

Good luck and good lifting.


No comments:

Post a Comment