Here’s a pithy truth: All bullies are cowards, but not all cowards are bullies.
Notwithstanding my father, I met my first official bully when I was six years-old. First grade. For weeks I’d been making my mom a present for Mother’s Day. The teacher had us make a ‘bowl’ out of Playdough, then take real sea shells and push the imprint all around the inside. We removed the shells, and poured in the wet quickset mix. When it dried, it was a paperweight with 3-D sea shells.
I exited campus, my funky little gift clutched tightly in my hand. Walking on air. So proud and excited. I turned the corner for the last block home, and there he was. Sitting, waiting on the little split rail front yard fences that defined this tract-home development.
Funny I don’t remember The Bully’s name, only that he was 10. Fifth grade. And when you’re six, fifth grade is old. Probably shaving already.
“It will cost you 10¢ to walk down this sidewalk,” he said.
Now, when you’re six, your brain doesn’t do a lot of abstract social computation. Six year-olds are absurdly literally and even more absurdly honest. They also have a keen survival instinct. Scare a six year-old, and he’ll do anything to make the Boogey Man go away. Beg. Plead. Humiliate himself. Cough up his own soul. Hand you every last shred of his dignity, if only you’ll agree not to hurt him.
“I don’t have 10¢,” I said, already sick in my body with fear.
“Then I’ll have to beat you up,” said The Bully.
Next thing you know, I was kissing sidewalk, my head ringing, blood seeping from my eyebrow. He demanded to see the paperweight, clutched in my hand. I gave it up in quiet obedience. He mocked it, mocked me, and smashed in to the ground. In a move later nominated for “Pathos of the Year,” I gathered the broken pieces of my late Mother’s Day gift into my hand and headed home.
I hate bullies.
Which is funny, considering that I’ve been one. If the question on the table is “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done,” then somewhere in my top two answers is remembering how I treated my little sister when we were kids. I ridiculed her. Humiliated her in front of my friends. Physically bullied her. It never occurred to me – not once – how much she looked up to me and needed me.
Oh, I can explain it. I can cite you chapter and verse about abusive family systems and how victims of that abuse hand it along to younger siblings or sometimes the dog. I can explain it. Even understand it. Even forgive myself for it, and marvel at the way my sister ultimately forgave me.
But explanations are not excuses. I was once a bully. It’s a universal human disease. The Bully is a darkness in every human heart.
In truth, the bullies get worse in adulthood, because our culture often rewards, admires, emboldens and empowers bullies. There are bullies who wear badges and guns. Bobby Knight was a bully disguised as a NCAA basketball coach. Entire corporations can become bullies. Some bullies masquerade as honorable U.S. military personnel guarding Al Quaida suspects at Guantanamo. Some hide out as husbands and fathers. Or wives and mothers. Or as president-elect of the United States.
Hands down the most shameless bully I ever faced wore a clerical collar and a mitre.
Author M. Scott Peck believed one measure of human health and wholeness was this: The more power we have, the more reluctant we are to use it. A bully, conversely, is measured thusly: The more power he/she has, the bigger the whiz provided by making less powerful people squirm, tremble, and be willingly debased.
It’s despicable – whether within me or around me.
I regularly work with children and adolescents whose ego strength, social coping skills, not to mention, in some cases, their very will to live, are ground to a pulp by bullies. “Please don’t tell anyone,” they say. “Please don’t do anything. It will only make it worse.”
They are right, of course. “Things getting worse” is almost always the first thing that happens when we stand up to a bully.
But somebody has to stand up. There is no higher calling than “Never do nothing in the face of evil.” Stand up. Name evil as evil. And if the gleefully sadistic abuse of power in the hands of a pathetic coward isn’t evil …
… it will do ‘til evil gets here.
(Steven Kalas is a Nevada therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune. You can reach him at Skalas@marinscope.com.)