Wednesday, September 7, 2011

NPR Listeners Cheer On Human Suffering

I listened to a portion of Talk of the Nation today, which did a segment on bullying in school and its lasting impact on the people who experience it. The starting point for the conversation was an anthology titled Dear Bully, in which young-adult fiction writers reflect on their experiences as victims of bullying. The vast majority of the input from guests and listeners had one clear effect on me, which was to make me feel sorry for bullies.

Before you jump to conclusions, let me clarify that this was not the sort of “I feel sorry for them” mentality that comes of condescending pity. It wasn’t a matter of the victims pointing out that they understood the frustrations, insecurities, and lack of control that made their bullies act in the way that they did. Quite the contrary, their reflections tended to give the impression of the victim willfully becoming the monster that he thought he was fighting.

If a person bullies someone during high school, they might make someone’s life difficult for a couple of years. But I feel sorry for the adolescent bully, because at least he is not cheerleading another person’s failures and unhappiness for the rest of his natural born life.

Several listeners who called and e-mailed the show detailed the identical, non-introspective rationalizations they went through in coping with their painful memories of being bullied. This convenient coping mechanism was made all the more accessible by Facebook and similar information-age resources. Each of them was able to reconnect with their bully and comfort themselves with the knowledge that they were doing much better in their later lives than the persons who had bullied them.

Evidently, none of these former victims are familiar with the very simple ethical truth that two wrongs don’t make a right. I listened to one self-indulgent sob story after another and found myself wondering, isn’t anyone capable of looking back on the past and saying simply, “It was fifteen years ago; it’s water under the bridge”? Instead of that, most people who found themselves victimized early in life responded to it in retrospect by indulging in ill will towards their victimizers and taking pleasure in the belief that that ill will had been fulfilled. Is it really so common that people find the best cure for their own pain to be the pain of others?

I was not severely bullied in school. I can’t say that I wasn’t bullied at all. I clearly remember another student spilling my books across the hall when I was in middle school. I had problems with him all year. The following hear, another student tried to torment me, the worst incident being him kicking me in the back before P.E. These were unpleasant, ongoing confrontations, but they didn’t crush my spirit, and they didn’t continue for long beyond that, the reason probably being that I didn’t put up with them. I harbor no ill will towards anyone who was cruel to me in school, and I wouldn’t be the least bit comforted by knowing that any of them are worse off than I am right now. In fact, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I like to think that whatever experiences I had with bullying as a child, I grew as a result.

I would hazard to guess that people who have let that wound fester for years, even decades, cannot say the same. One caller wept on the air as she recounted how she dropped out of a school dance program, rather than take it alongside the girl who had been bullying her. She said that she had complained to the instructor first, but had been told that she’d have to deal with it. And what was the alternative? That the bully be expelled from the program on the basis of someone else’s hearsay about things that she had done in completely different circumstances? This former victim wept and blamed a childhood bully for her loss of an important opportunity, when she might have done well to look within for a moment and attribute a part of that loss to her own lack of the emotional strength to stand up to her tormenter, or to even inhabit the same room as her.

As I moved into high school, I was increasingly undaunted by intimidation from others. I still recall learning a valuable lesson about myself on the first day of ninth grade, when most of my fellow freshman were in terror of the tradition of upperclassmen pelting freshmen with eggs on their way home from school. At the end of the day, I collected my things, and walked straight through a line of waiting upperclassmen, not the least bit fearful of the possibilities. In circumstances like that, people only make victims of the people whom they know are already victims.

My demureness abated gradually as I grew from childhood to preadolescence to each level of high school. I’ve never been the most assertive person, but my capacity for self-defense was well-developed by the time I was fourteen or fifteen. Still, I think that in the first half of high school, teachers perceived me as more of a victim of bullying than I was. Perhaps I was more of a victim than I perceived myself as. I remember a math teacher once having a conversation with me after class in which he made an uncalled for effort at steeling me against affronts from other students. He instructed me to keep in mind that someday I was going to be these people’s boss. Putting aside what a load of bullshit I now know that to be, I think my internal response at the time was much like what it would be now. That is, I didn’t see the comfort in that, and I wondered what the point of that sort of hope was.

Was I supposed to think that whatever lack of power I had at the time, I would make up for it later on when I was in a position to victimize those who would have victimized me? Was I supposed to hold onto the notion of payback until it was time for me to enact it? Of was the notion of my becoming someone else’s boss supposed to be the universe’s karmic payback? Either way, it’s an unjustifiably vicious mentality. I recognized the irrationality of that same mentality, as well, on the first day of school, when I wondered what possible motivation there could be for throwing eggs at a bunch of kids who are two or three years younger than you. When the freshmen who had trembled before that promised onslaught were about to become upperclassmen they talked about how much they looked forward to being able to do to others as had been done to them. Remembering that math teacher’s pep talk and listening to the schadenfreude of those Talk of the Nation listeners convinces me that people do not outgrow that impulse for petty, ineffectual, misplaced revenge.

When I was fourteen years old and now, twelve years later, I didn’t and I don’t want to be anyone’s boss. I don’t want anyone to be anyone else’s boss. I don’t want people to have power over one another, and I certainly don’t want them to have the opportunity to abuse that power. Even the ability to observe another person’s life and to judge it as more of a failure than one’s own is too much power. And untold numbers of people abuse that every single day.

The closest thing I found to humble introspection among the calls to Talk of the Nation was one man who recalled having a bully in elementary school and finding out that at eight years old he had died. The man admitted that his first thought had been, “good,” and then he indicated that even to this day he wishes that his response had been anything other than that, and that he hadn’t let his hurt override his compassion. But in forty minutes of airtime, the closest anyone came to forgiveness of bullying was the acknowledgment that it’s not okay to wish death on an eight year-old child because he pushed you into the mud at recess.

Yet, judging from the reflections of the other callers, it is seen as okay to wish a lifetime of hardship on a person for the same. But nothing that a person does wrong in their youth makes it right that they suffer financial struggles, or spousal infidelities, or illness, or tragedy. Their pain is no less awful than your own, and what is done to them is no less unjust than what they did to you, no matter how cheerful are your emotional responses to misery. So much of what we call karma is really just rationalization of human selfishness.

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