Bullying is not a topic you might think that I’d address on this blog. “It doesn’t fit in with SoulCollage® or creativity coaching, writing fiction, or tutoring kids,” you might say. I understand why you would think that’s the case, but I believe it does fit here. My offerings all have one common thread: to help you find your voice. And when you’re bullied, your voice is taken from you.
I know this from experience. I was bullied as a child, pretty regularly from first grade through sixth, and here and there after that. It took a serious toll on me, and sometimes I am reminded just how much it affected me. I was about six years old when I first started to wonder what was so terrible about me that people would be so awful to me, and a part of me has never stopped wondering, always afraid to believe that I really might be okay only to find out later that I was wrong.
No one has ever understood why it happened—I have theories but they’re as useful as tissue paper underwater, and probably about as substantial—but it did, and no one knew how to deal with it. They tried; they meant very well, but no one knew, and eventually I got tired of speaking up to no avail (and that was when their efforts didn’t actively make things worse). I’m sure everyone thought that meant it stopped; it only meant I stopped talking. And I stopped talking for a very long time. I lost my voice, and it’s taken me years to find it again. I know exactly how hard it is.
When I heard about 68-year-old Karen Klein of Greece, New York, and her horrifying, humiliating experience at the hands of a busload of children, my heart broke. My heart always breaks when I hear these stories, because I remember vividly how it feels to be on the receiving end. I can still see and hear it all, which is why I have no desire to watch this video (and am a bit appalled that it’s gone viral—I’m glad there’s outrage, but horrified that it was filmed and that people want to see it). Much as I feel for Ms. Klein, I hope that this incident will shine a light on a few common misconceptions illustrated by her case:
- Bullying is not just for kids. Kids are not the only victims. Kids are also not the only perpetrators. Bullying happens everywhere, in every segment of society, with victims and perps on both sides of every fence.
- The single most harmful thing you can say to someone who is being bullied is, “Ignore it and it will go away.” Karen Klein did her damnedest to ignore those kids and it very much did not go away. I tried to ignore the kids in my school and couldn’t figure out why it didn’t work. Now I understand: the correct statement is, “Ignore it and they will try harder.” I heard from so, so many people that if the bullies couldn’t get a reaction out of me, they would stop trying. But it’s just not so. If they don’t get a reaction one way, they’ll keep dreaming up new things to try until they eventually break you, up to and including the repugnant, abhorrent suggestion that Ms. Klein’s family are all dead because they couldn’t stand to be around her.
- “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I was literally told, as a small child in the late ’70s, that I should chant this trite little lie at everyone who tried to bother me. I have never understand why anyone thought it would work, on me or on those who wanted to get a rise out of me (indeed, it only made things worse). It’s a lie, plain and simple, and the worst kind because kids believe it and then wonder why they still hurt (I’m betting adults do, too). Words hurt. They hurt like hell. The occasional physical bruise will heal after a few days. Words, on the other hand, create the deep, invisible, soul-level bruises that last (as does deep, long-term physical abuse). It turns out there’s an amended version of that horrid little platitude that does actually speak the truth: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will break my heart.”
So what do we do about this epidemic? And make no mistake, bullying is a social disease, and it’s spreading like wildfire. We could spend days wondering where it comes from. Reality TV? Broken homes? Parental laxity? Radio shock jocks and our divisive politics? Maybe. I am not a sociologist or psychologist, and I will leave that sort of analysis to them. Here’s what I do know, though:
Shame begets shame. Read Brené Brown’s books, I Thought It Was Just Me and The Gifts of Imperfection (and soon, Daring Greatly). Watch her TED talks. Learn to spot shame in yourself and others, and how to deal with it. Do this especially if you have children; the more we can teach our children to handle shame well, the healthier we will be as a society. We all have shame, whether we want to admit it or not, and a lot of the insensitive, thoughtless, irrational things we do are the direct result of someone activating one of our shame triggers. When we learn to identify those and start to deal with them, we can finally heal.
If that’s not enough, it should go without saying that hate begets hate. Here’s a question for you: did the internet make us all more hateful, or has it only allowed us to feel anonymous when we let the hate that was already there out? I ask because this phenomenon is everywhere; just a few days ago I was horrified by the comments I read on CNN’s article about Rodney King’s death (check them out at your own peril). Today, I read New York Times tech reporter David Pogue’s column about the baseless hate mail he receives after reviewing a new electronic device (these comments are actually worth a look). It’s a phone, or a TV talk show, or another driver—none of which are life-and-death situations, and none are worth that much aggravation—that sets us off. It’s time to take a look in the mirror and ask just what’s happening here, and how it’s affecting not only us but also our neighbors, our colleagues, and our kids.
Then there are the things we tell ourselves about bullying so that we can believe it’s someone else’s problem. “Boys will be boys” is as much a lie as “ignore it and it’ll go away.” It’s time to stop making excuses or putting the burden on the victim. We need, as a culture, to come together and stand up and say that we will not accept this behavior anymore. We need to demand that our teachers insist that their classrooms are bully-free zones; one of the things I am most proud of from my teaching tenure is that I refused to allow anything that bore even the smallest hint of bullying in my room, and made it extremely clear. Brené Brown tells us that it’s easy to tell which teachers were bullied and which weren’t, because the ones who were won’t put up with it, and the ones who weren’t brush it off as part of childhood. That distinction needs to go away.
As much as we need to say “no” in the classroom, we also need to say it in the boardroom and the living room, and perhaps most of all in our state houses. Our children mirror our society to us; they don’t learn these things in a vacuum. Parents who bully their kids, their spouses, or their friends set a very clear example. Bosses who bully their subordinates create a culture of fear that can be even more damaging than a schoolyard bully, as adult victims’ livelihoods are at stake. (Karen Klein reportedly makes about $15K/year. What happens if she makes a fuss? Does she lose what little income she has? Fear is a powerful, powerful way of oppressing victims.) Allowing bad behavior in the office or at home is no less toxic than allowing it in our schools. And there’s no small irony in the fact that my adopted home state, New Jersey, has the strongest anti-bullying legislation in the country, and that it was signed into law by Chris Christie, a man who is revered by many for being the loudest, most obnoxious bully on the national stage. Do as I say, not as I do, indeed.
But most of all, we need to come together on this issue as a society. We need to decide that we value each other more than we value our political views, right of way on the road, or the sanctity of our perfect lawns. We need to decide that it’s time to really connect with each other, not wave halfheartedly to neighbors whose names we can’t even remember. It needs to be a national priority, not just for legislators and teachers but for everyone. It’s a matter of civility and living up to the ideals we tell ourselves we stand for. It’s a matter of compassion and empathy in a world that often seems to think we’re better off with neither.
I’m here to tell you that we’re not better off. Karen Klein didn’t ask to show you that we’re not, but she has. It’s great to be outraged, but it is time to take that outrage and funnel it into action. It’s time for us not only to decide what our priorities are, but to follow through. Passing anti-bullying legislation is a good start, but it’s not enough; we have to be the change we wish to see in the world.