Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Evanescence of Self-Value

It's funny--I get really pissed off when I hear about certain instances of "bullying"--instances in which kids are told that their designer jeans aren't designer enough--that their haircuts look funny.  See--that's not bullying: that's kids being mean; hell, that's just kids being kids.  They're driven by different parts of the brains by adults--they see the world differently.  And so, from time to time, kids can be cruel.

But that's not bullying.

See, bullying is chronic.  It's not a cold that goes away after a week--it's mono--something that you wake up with day after day for months on end.  It's polio--something that lingers, even after you've beaten it like a limp in your psyche.

Bullying is fear--the propagation of terror from one person incapable of empathizing to someone perceived to be weaker, less significant.  Bullying is having the idea that you are not good enough shoved repeatedly down your throat by the echoing laughter of a group of people that you just KNOW will peak in high school and yet, it does nothing to stem the tide of insecurity--the feelings of insignificance.

I remember a conversation I had with a girl in college.  We had gone to high school together--neither of us in the upper echelon of popularity but both far from the bottom.  Whenever I'd do poorly on a test or have an outwardly shitty day, she'd rejoice and rub my nose in it until finally, one day at Baruch, I had had enough.  I got tired of being told that, "it's great to see you fail/have things go wrong in your life--to see that you're NOT perfect."  Apparently, doing well on some tests and keeping my mouth shut about the shit going on in my heart, in my head, and in my home made me seem infallible.  And so I emailed her--laid it all out on the table.  "You remember that day when?  Yeah, well THIS is what happened the night before/that morning."

She was shocked--said she had no idea.  But no one ever does, right?  And isn't that part of the problem anyway?  No one takes the time to ask--"Hey, are you okay?" to the people who need it most.

Junior high was three of the worst years of my life.  I was forced out of my comfort zone and the security of elementary school into something I wasn't prepared for.  During that time, I was the nerd, the fat kid, the skinny kid, the tall, goofy kid, the poor kid with Payless sneakers, the pimple-faced kid.  I went from having a bunch of friends to having my own cousin joining in the torrent of taunts barely a few weeks into school--tossing me aside so that he could be perceived as "one of the cool kids."

Survival of the fittest, am I right?

It's easy for me to sit here in judgment of those instances of so-called bullying because I went through the real deal--the daily fusillade of cracks and comments...and came out the other side.  There's something to be said for sticking it out--for finding a way to deal with the abuse rather than to run away from it.  Then again, it's easy for me to say that because I HAD a support network.  I had two parents who saw value in me--who nursed my wounds and helped me to develop the coping skills necessary not simply to overcome such adversity but to thrive in spite of it.  More importantly, perhaps, I had best friends like James and Ricky--guys who got varying degrees of their own shit but who were ports in the proverbial storm for me.  Shit might have sucked at school, or at home, but when I was hanging out with them, none of it mattered. 

From those relationships, I developed self-confidence and self-worth.  I spent most of my freshman year in quiet shyness--deciding finally that I didn't want to BE that way anymore only after I met Bobby.  I saw him as the "cool" kid but came to realize that we were more alike than I thought.  In fact, we felt the same about a lot of things and had gone through or were going through much of the same shit.  Together, we forged a bond in high school that helped me to become the person that I am today.  By sophomore year, I began shedding the shyness--had developed enough of a game that I was able to identify as a basketball player--one who was now routinely destroying the same kids that had picked on me years earlier.  Making THEM look like fools was great and I derived probably a bit too much satisfaction from it.  I developed a reputation, began earning respect, and slowly transformed from a wallflower into the guy who always has a joke--from the one who hated raising his hand to answer a question to the one who introduced a New York Times best selling author to an audience of more than five hundred people that included some of the most prestigious members of his alma mater.

The thing that surprises me most, though, is perhaps something that shouldn't surprise me at all.  Numerous times throughout the past few years, I've seen admissions by friends that they were hurting--that they had gone through the SAME THINGS THAT I DID despite the fact that, to me, they had seemed untouchable in junior high or high school.  Guys that I thought had NEVER encountered a single taunt or threat had gotten their fair share--from the SAME tormentors as me in some cases.  I say I shouldn't be surprised though because of experiences like the one I had at Baruch with my friend from high school.  Ultimately, you just never know who faced social adversity or, more importantly, the impact that it had on them.

That's the worst part of bullying--the lingering impact that sometimes never goes away.  Beautiful people who had the idea that they were ugly driven into their head the way mathematics tables were memorized back in the day--people who, throughout their adulthood, simply can't shake the notion that they're somehow less than.  For me, I never bought into most of it.  I didn't CARE that I was being taunted for being smart because I knew that it was something good--something that I benefitted from and would benefit from in the long run.  I saw other kids--nerds or kids picked on for their appearance--crack and try to assimilate.  They did poorly on exams or began acting up in school--they changed the way they dressed to look more like the ruling junta and were STILL ridiculed.  I realized that it would never pay off to seek the approval of the bullies because they'd never give it--and, more importantly, that it was never worth receiving in the first place.

Still, it's those vestiges of the past--the echoes that still resound in our hearts and minds from days of lesser confidence--that remind us that, at some point, we were the weak ones.  For the most part, I draw confidence from those recollections but there are still aspects of my life that will likely remain forever changed.  Junior year of high school was the first time that I saved up money to by a pair of Nikes.  For YEARS I refused to wear anything BUT the Swoosh until I finally realized what a joke it was.  I convinced myself that it was about better quality but it wasn't--it was about being tired of getting ripped for the pairs of Champion or Rawlings sneakers that I wore as a kid.  It was hard just buying a pair of New Balance running shoes even though I KNEW they were a solid brand.

The worst of it is the fact that, to this day, I still hate the two most egregious assholes from those junior high days.  I can't even remember a single instance that involves them specifically--something that might seem encouraging but strikes me ultimately as disconcerting; it makes me wonder how bad it was that I probably bottled it up tightly enough to make it seem like it's not there anymore when, in fact, it's just dormant like a sleeping dragon.  I know it had to have been bad though because I remember finding out that one of the guys was involved in a car accident in high school and I was genuinely disappointed that he managed to walk out of it.  Anyone who knows me know that I don't carry around hate in my heart--hell, that I generally ABHOR any sort of discord in my personal relationships--but with those two guys?  I wouldn't piss on them if they were on fire.

I'm one of the lucky ones.  I became well-adjusted and moved on from my experiences, able even to engage in civil social interaction with some of the worst offenders that I encountered again in college or later in life.  It's taken me a very long time but I've even become friends with a lot of the people that I grew up with.  Part of my problem as a kid was that I just never clicked with the majority of the people I went to school with.  I'm not sure what THEY thought of ME but I know that it was pretty clear by the time I started junior high that I wasn't on the same page as them.  While a lot of those kids were going to parties, drinking, and smoking weed at the park, I was riding my bike, playing basketball, or playing video games mostly by myself.  I always felt like I was perceived as being snobbish because I refused to do the things that damn near everyone else was doing but, even then, I adhered tightly to MY moral compass.  I'm sure the bulk of people from the beach who might read this fit into that category--attended keg parties in the weeds, sparked up at each other's houses, and did what teenagers do.  At the time, it bothered the hell out of me--probably because I felt ostracized for not wanting to go with the flow--but ultimately, I think that a lot of the bullshit that I got from kids in the neighborhood stemmed more from misunderstanding than anything else.  Again, basketball played a key role in mitigating the flak because, though I never partook in any of the booze/drugs that were going around the park, I WAS there playing ball and, at least on the court, we were all on equal footing.

There will ALWAYS be bullying because it is inherently human to think in terms of differences.  If only two people were left alive after some unimaginable cataclysm, the odds are that they would find a way to thrive together--relying on each other for survival...but if there were THREE?  Sooner or later, it would break into a two-against-one type of situation.  That's just how it goes--ESPECIALLY in school and especially growing up.  The key to dealing with it is never giving up--knowing that, SOMEDAY, you'll look back on it and think, "Man...I made it THROUGH that."  It's critical to offer support but adults--especially parents--have to realize that it goes only so far.  Ultimately, in order to make it through relatively unscathed--you need to find a fellow lost soul along the way--a kindred spirit united inexorably in the pain that you both share.

As a parent myself, I dread the coming of tear-stained school pick ups--those moments where I'll want nothing more than to rip the throat out of the kid that made MY kid cry...but I won't.  I CAN'T.  That's just not how it works.  Taking your kid out of public school and putting them into private school or homeschooling them just tells the child that they're not strong enough to handle it--that there are safer places and the key to survival is running until you find one.  As much as it kills me to think of the fact that my daughter will probably get picked on for having red hair, my son for being left-handed, BOTH of them for their ethnically diverse gene pool, I understand that it's my job to HELP them in their personal journeys--not to take over the wheel and steer them away from things in the water that will dent and ding their respective ships; if I did, I'd be doing them a disservice.  What I WILL do is to help them to develop a proper perspective on things the way MY parents did--my mom, especially.  Don't sweat the petty stuff and don't pet the sweaty stuff--can I get an AMEN!?

Not everyone is as lucky as me and, when it comes down to it, I think THAT'S really the point where bullying comes into play.  EVERYONE deals with it but not everyone CAN deal with it--you feel me?  It's those kids--the ones who are floating through life, hanging on barely by the thread that keeps them tethered to this world--who need the most reassurance--who need to feel loved and reminded that they ARE valuable and valued. 

Because they are.

And so are you.

(The following is an awesome video my buddy Frank shared on Facebook. Scope it out--you'll probably relate to it at least on some level.)