Facing the Coward Within

Bullying: Image from Wikipedia

I was raised military.  My father was a career warrior, my mother was a career warrior’s wife and, in our house, adherence to a code of honor was required.  The code went basically like this:  honorable people practice courage.  They stand up for what’s just and try to protect those who are more vulnerable than them.  It’s what my father was fighting to do for us every time he went off to risk his life, and it’s what we were expected to do back home while he was gone.

The opposite of honorable people, we were taught, were bullies because they target the vulnerable instead of protecting them.  An act of bullying was cowardly and dishonorable because it didn’t offer any kind of meaningful challenge.  It was weak, a sign that they didn’t think they could face somebody their own size.  That’s why men never hit women or children, women were the protectors of children, older kids didn’t lead younger kids into trouble, and nobody targeted old people, disadvantaged people, or animals.

It’s was okay to fight with equals though.  That’s how we honed our skills.

In the last month or so the disturbing number of boys and young men committing suicide because of bullying has finally hit the headlines.  The recent cases were all targeted because they were gay or perceived as gay and the bullying grew so vicious and sustained that it finally became unbearable.   This is hardly a new phenomenon.  Our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender children have always been among our most vulnerable,  but far from receiving the additional support and understanding every vulnerable child needs, they’ve traditionally been scapegoated.  And they’re not the only children being driven to these kinds of extremes.  While those who seem different are always at highest risk, with the anonymity that cyberbullying provides, any child can now be targeted and potentially destroyed.   We’ll probably never know just how many of our children we’ve lost to the pain and despair this kind of treatment inspires, but the rates seem to be rising and I’m deeply grateful the issue is finally getting mainstream attention.

It’s not easy to manage the intense rage these incidents can invoke.  However I know that, while justice is necessary, we can’t just turn around and scapegoat right back in a blaze of self-righteous smiting.  Even though that provides a measure of relief in the short-term, in the long run it won’t change the dynamics of the bullying going on.  It’ll reinforce them.   Bullying the bullies is not a strategy for lasting change.

Like any kind of deep and meaningful change, it has to happen on the individual level first before the society as a whole can change.  We each have to look in the mirror and find the bully that’s lurking within.  Then we have to own it and challenge it, whenever and however it shows up.  We all have issues of cowardice and dishonor hiding down there.  It’s part of being human.

Look.  If we, as a society, genuinely valued honor and courage the way we claim to, this level of bullying would never have gotten a toehold.  But we haven’t valued those things.  We’ve valued their opposite.

Not only have we tolerated escalating levels of bullying for years, we’ve encouraged and rewarded it.  We’ve laughed at the comedians and gossips (conservative and liberal) whose jokes are harmful and belittling.  We’ve tuned into radio stations and analysts (conservative and liberal) that blast, rant, spew, and demean.  We’ve allowed ourselves to be swayed by the politicians (conservative and liberal) who turn us against one another.  We’ve divided our very communities, neighborhoods, and schools into those who are like us and those who are not, and then shunned, mistrusted, belittled, or even targeted, the latter.  We have all done these things to varying degrees.

And now we’re reaping the whirlwind that we’ve sown.

These shining, beautiful boys who are now lost belonged to every last one of us, and we’re all to blame for the fact that they took their own lives in order to escape the society that we created for them.  The gifts they carried and contained for the rest of us– their joy, determination, promise, insights, creativity, solutions, strength, courage, sacrifice, and love–is now gone.  Lost.  Forever.  We’ve not only flagrantly and stupidly wasted the greatest treasure that any nation has, its children, but we’ve also invited an epidemic of suicide into our midst.   While there were specific individuals involved in each case, that in no way absolves the rest of us from the thousand, thousand little ways we each helped to establish a culture of bullying in the first place.  Nor does it relieve us of the responsibility to do whatever is necessary to change it now.

Here’s a role model that’s helped me.  I’d like to leave this post with one of the most inspiring examples of courage and selflessness I’ve seen come out of all this.  If anyone is wondering what the kind of honor I’m talking about looks like in practice, please take the time to watch this.    It’s a video (about thirteen minutes long) of a city councilman in Fort Worth, Texas who is risking his career in order to reach out to those who might also be considering harming themselves.  He’s speaking specifically to gay children but the message goes far beyond that.

It’s one of endurance, love, and faith, and speaks to anyone who’s ever experienced the kind of despair that can lead to a journey down the dark road.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

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