bully, for you

Everyone is a bully. Every word is a judgment. Every unkind remark is an assault. Every sideways glance is an unwanted advance.

Do not leave your house. It isn’t safe. People are mean.

Yes, people are mean. So what? People are mean whether you are eight or eighty. I learned that a long time ago. When I was a kid I was routinely tormented by bullies, or as we called them back in the day, the popular kids. They called me gay, fag, faggot, homo, homo-gay-faggot, et cetera. I suppose on some level their words hurt my feelings, I know their lack of originality offended my authorial sensibilities, but I never feared for my safety or felt intimidated. Twenty-five years later I look back and I couldn’t tell you who in my ninth grade gym class called me what variation of homosexual while playing a heated game of some ball related activity.

I moved on from my bullies. I grew up. They grew up. Now together we live in the real world surrounded by a new generation of would-be bullies – bosses, co-workers, internet trolls. They question our productivity. They fail to value our contributions. They call us names from the safety of their smart phones.

Eight or eighty the game’s the same.

People are mean. You aren’t going to change them. You can’t control their behavior.

Recently a kid at school made fun of Chris’s glasses. This event did not traumatize him, it was just something that happened, but in relating the story to me he said this kid was a bully. I explained that while it was unkind of the kid to talk smack about his specs, the child in question was really just a jerk and not actually a bully and besides did he (Chris) even care what this kid thought? (For the record, he did not.)

The truth is most people are jerks. Especially kids. But in today’s hypersensitive world, where every word and action is a personal attack designed to further perpetuate and feed our need to be a victim, the once harmless Scott Farkus is now deemed a dangerous sociopath.

I don’t blame my son for failing to differentiate between garden variety assholes and bullies, not when our schools suspend a five year old for calling a classmate stupid. And I don’t blame our schools for overreacting, not when there are kids so tormented they are driven to suicide. But I do blame our society for creating a culture where every word is considered a de facto judgment. Every unkind remark is perceived to be an all-out assault. Every sideways glance is treated as a threatening unwanted advance.

Don’t get me wrong. If someone were truly tormenting my child I would hunt down and then crush the little bastard. But I refuse to intervene every time some kid directs an unkind remark in the general direction of my children. Part of growing up is learning how to deal with and ultimately outsmart the jerks of the world. I know far too many people who never learned that skill and now they collapse under the weight of every passing criticism convinced that every person is a ruthless bully out to get them.

People are mean. You aren’t going to change them. You can’t control their behavior.

You can control how you react.

So don’t react. Take control by being in control. The bully wants a reaction. It gives them power over you. Be stronger than them.

Sean Michael O’Donnell is the author of Which One Of you is the Mother? It is available on Amazon here. Why haven’t you bought it yet?! Seriously.

check, please

I hate the word bully. It has become yet another flashy buzzword for these early days of the 21st century — another cause célèbre, another brand to sell, another ribbon to wear.  We attribute every schoolyard skirmish and childish disagreement to the work of a bully. Even harmless name-calling, once a rite of passage for all children, is now considered full-on psychological warfare and verbal intimidation.  When the four year-old who calls a classmate a poopyhead on the playground is labeled a bully, we have gone too far.

I am not unsympathetic.  I was routinely called a faggot from the ages of 8 to 17.  I know firsthand that bullies exist in our schools; the evidence being my story and the stories of the broken children who suffered far more horribly than I at the hands of these would-be oppressors.   Without question we have an obligation to stop these bullies, but we also have an obligation to distinguish between the bully and the children simply learning to navigate the choppy waters of childhood.  When we use bully as some sort of catchall, we effectively neuter our children and foster a culture of victimhood.

I suppose it comes down to this: which is worse, marijuana or heroin?  Are they equally bad?  Simply stated, if marijuana calls you poopyhead and heroin torments you until you kill yourself, which one would you put your resources into stopping?

If all bullies are the same then the real bullies inevitably slip through the cracks, left to mature, in size if not mind.  I can think of at least a dozen grown-up bullies I have encountered in my adult life.  People with such shockingly low levels of self-esteem they can be made whole only by making others feel less.  For the pint-sized tyrants we have zero tolerance, but for the adults we make excuses: we convince ourselves it would be rude to contradict them; we shakes our heads and cluck that everyone has a right to their opinion; and my favorite, we cite the all-forgiving “free speech”.

Every morning I walk past a restaurant I used to frequent on a regular basis.  One evening while eating there with friends, several people from my group were openly hostile to our waitress.  One woman in particular was especially condescending and dismissive, taking every perceived mistake as a personal attack.  The tension at the table was palpable, many of us were horrified and uncomfortable, but no one more so than our poor server.  Now when I eat there I burn with embarrassment, not because of what my bullying dinner companions did, but because I did nothing to stop them.

Several months ago when picking my son up from school I was part of a conversation with two other parents.  The conversation devolved into a thinly-veiled discussion on race, specifically how unfortunate it was that this otherwise wonderful school was so “urban”.  Polite racism.  One of the parents hypothesized that the school might not have so many discipline problems if it was in another neighborhood, by which she meant white neighborhood.  When I think back on that conversation I burn with embarrassment, again not because of what the other parents said, but because I said nothing to contradict them.

When I was teenager I had an uncle who confronted me about being gay.  At the time I didn’t know what I was other than an overweight awkward teenager who never thought he’d have any kind of sex — gay or straight — but still this man persisted: Don’t you have a girlfriend?  Why don’t you have a girlfriend?  Don’t you like girls?  He kept on for about fifteen minutes.  I suppose he thought he could bully me into heterosexual submission.  In this memory I burn the most with embarrassment, unable to stand up even for myself.

Bullies grow up.  They become racists, homophobes, and generally nasty people who take joy in reducing a waitress to tears.  We may be vigilant about curtailing the abuses of a ten year-old bully, but for grown-up monsters we look the other way.  It might be that in conjunction with policing our playgrounds we should also hold ourselves accountable.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves how often we — the adults — stand up to our bullies?

shame the devil

A few days ago I received an unkind comment on my blog.  The comment was made by an anonymous user with a fake email address.  I can handle criticism, even when it comes in the form of cowardice, but this particular comment crossed a line.  It went beyond mere vitriol.  This comment attacked not only me and my character, it also attacked my family.

I will be the first to admit that I am a deeply flawed person with a closet full of skeletons.  I understand that by choosing to publish my personal thoughts — on the internet, no less — I open myself up to attack from people who may disagree with me or simply not like me.  Fair enough.

I will not concede, however, that this blog affords anyone the right to attack my family.

My first reaction when I read the comment was anger.  You are an alcoholic adulterer.  You control people and when you can’t control someone you push them away.  You bought your two kids so you could control them.  You shouldn’t have kids.  My anger quickly gave way to fear.  Someone should stop you.

A million thoughts raced through my mind.  Why would someone write this?  Who would write this?  I read the comment again, the whole comment, and there it was lost in the rambling — a detail only a handful of people could know.  And suddenly I realized this anonymous coward hiding behind his/her computer screen was someone I knew.  Six degrees of separation.

You shouldn’t have kids.  Someone should stop you.

That threat kept me up all night.  The next day I marked my blog private, effectively shutting it down.

I am always trying to teach my children lessons.  Lately we have been struggling to teach Chris how best to stand up for himself.  We want to nurture his confidence and encourage him to be proud of who he is — to own everything, the weird and wonderful.  Of course the best way to teach is to lead by example.

If I want my son to stand up for himself, then the first thing I need to do is stand up for myself.

My blog is not going to be private.  I’m not going to be bullied into submission by some lonely coward spewing hate from the comfort of his/her sad and empty life.  You don’t get to win.

So this is what I’m going to do: I’m going to find out who you are.  Somehow.  And once I definitively find out who you are I am going to expose you on this blog and Facebook and any other relevant medium.  I will publish your original message, as nasty and unflattering as it was to me, so everyone will know what a pathetic coward you are.  I will take away your power.  And here’s the thing — all those people you think I control — whatever the hell that even means — they like me and my family a helluva lot more than they like you.

Don’t fuck with me.  Don’t fuck with my family.  Unlike you, I rather enjoy face-to-face confrontation. Unlike you, I have a happy-if-not-always-perfect relationship.  Unlike you, I have a son.  Unlike you, I never settled.  Unlike you, I am not a coward.