As another school year dawns, many of our young people will face the inevitable torture of a bully. It's a growing news item over these past few years, and I doubt the 2013-2014 year will be any different. I want to use this space to say a few words to those students on the receiving end. Because it wasn't so long ago that I happened to be one of you.
You get all kinds of advice on how to deal with bullies. Some people will tell you to ignore them, although I personally found it rather difficult to ignore someone who was punching me in the face or who took every passing in the hall to whisper a derogatory term about me. Some people will tell you to sit there and take it, never fight back. There's some of kind of seeming wisdom in this because you'd think if you never fight back, you couldn't possibly get in trouble when they finally get their due. That's not, unfortunately, how the world works. In a climate of zero tolerance, the bullied may be punished as much as the bully. Take this from a girl who spent several days in-school-suspended for getting beat up. There are still other people who will tell you to fight back, to stand your ground and get a few good punches in. They'll tell you to go down fighting. It's supposed to be empowering, but it's rather defeating. One day, you fight back and you look in the mirror and discover you're the bully and that doesn't feel good. That's not who you are.
Jesus tells you to love a bully. This is where it gets kind of tricky, but not if you understand what a bully really is. A bully is someone without power who is using their strength to feel powerful. A bully is an insecure individual trying to secure his or her place by brute force because they don't believe they are capable or worthy of anything.
Are you watching Big Brother this season? (Don't judge.) One of the players on the game is Amanda, who is a bully by every definition of the word. She threatens people into doing what she wants. When they don't go along, she blows up and makes a huge show of it and thinks she's making the other person look like a jerk when, in fact, it's quite obvious who the real jerk is. She's highly controlling and seems like a force to be reckoned with, but she's a farce. She hasn't won a single competition in nearly two months of being on the show. In fact, she cried and threw a fit worthy of a two-year-old when her on-screen "boyfriend" didn't throw a competition on purpose so she could win. Then he threw the next one and she still lost, at which point she had another meltdown about how incapable and stupid she is. And when another player on the show called her out on some of the scheming she'd been doing and on some of her annoying habits - this other player actually called her a bully - Amanda fired back, her voice growing louder, a series of hurtful names and derogatory comments. It's all she knew to do. She can't handle questions. She can't handle truth. She can't handle failure. So she creates this persona that's above all that while her hollowed spirit is caving in on her.
Here's the truth about bullies, though it's hard to believe some times: they are some of the weakest, most insecure, most broken individuals among us. They aren't vicious because they're mean; they are mean because they are hurt. Which is why I think Jesus is right. I think we need to love them.
It's hard. It's hard to love somebody who is breaking you down. It's hard to love somebody who hasn't said a nice word to you, who hasn't smiled in your direction, who wants to play petty games in an effort to get under your skin. But when you think about their brokenness, when you think about the questions they ask themselves every morning, consciously or unconsciously, for which they have no good answer, you can almost kind of relate to them. Then you look at them with compassion and realize as much as they want to get under your skin, the best answer for a bully is to get into their heart. They need someone to know them, not as they appear to be but as they are. They need someone to create a place for them so they don't have to make their own any more. They need someone...to stop being afraid of them so that maybe, just maybe, they can stop being afraid of themselves.
It's tough. It doesn't always work, especially not right away. I've lost contact with the gang of girls who labored to make my middle school years hell. I never threw a single punch back. I never shouted, or even muttered, an angry word. I never even tattled on them. When they came after me, I went about my business because I knew that I would have to look in the mirror and more than anything, I wanted to see me. I didn't want to see what they thought of me, and I didn't want to see who they wanted to make me. I wanted to see me. So I kept my head. And the truth is I don't know whether my grace made any impact at all. I don't know what they think today about so many days for so many years that they were scared and hurt and broken and fighting for something they couldn't even name. I hope they found it. I hope they figured it out. I hope they found peace and wholeness. I fear not all of them have.
Because here's the hard truth: even as a grown-up, this world is full of bullies. Follow politics or Twitter for any length of time, and you'll see that. Watch Big Brother tonight. You'll understand what I mean. There are people in the sixth grade, the seventh grade, the eighth grade with incredible insecurities that make them mean because they don't know what to do with themselves, and there are people in their sixties, seventies, and eighties who are just the same way. It's sad.
And it's not a problem we're going to fix with all these worldly words of advice. You won't break a bully by standing down to them. You won't break one by standing up to them. The only good thing to do to a bully is to stand beside them. Let them know you see past their hurt, past their ache, past their brokenness. Let them know you see the answer to their questions in more than their biting tongue and shaking fists. Let them know you love them. And continue to be who you are.
That's what Jesus says to do.