No one wants to admit that they were bullied. It’s bad enough to be privately humiliated by the aggressions of someone else. To then talk about it, to release it from its cage, rarely serves to assuage the feelings of dread and humiliation. It only exposes one to further misery. In this culture, and this country, we celebrate the tough guys, and now even the tough gals. We set them apart. We cheer them on. We want to see them lay waste to all opposition. America loves an ass-kicker, we always have. Turn on your TV, go see a movie, buy a video game, watch a sporting event. It’s all there in brilliant color and high definition—one person or team basking in the glory of whomping another. Sure, there have been times when we’ve celebrated the underdog, rooted for the loser to finally win having faced what seemed insurmountable. But in today’s America, do we believe the weak can win through dedication, decency, diligence, brains, and patience? That Americans hate weakness might turn out to be our greatest weakness.
It took many years for me to admit openly that I was bullied. To be truthful, it took many years for me to admit it to myself. People who are bullied find ways to avoid looking it in the eye and calling it by name. We rationalize, tell ourselves that we deserve it for some reason, and then we retreat into ourselves. It’s easier that way.
Science has now determined that exposure to violence in childhood causes actual changes to the circuitry of our brains and affects what neurobiologists call “plasticity,” the brain’s ability to adapt to the demands of its environment. Survival depends on this plasticity. Neuroscience also shows that those changes are permanent. They become part of the baggage we’re doomed to carry despite all efforts to leave it behind. There are industries that exist to deal with these things. They are called psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, and substance abuse rehabilitation centers. They do a brisk and very profitable business.
The first person I was bullied by was my own father. It was said that, like many men of his generation, he ruled with an iron fist. In the days when parenting dictated that to spare the rod was to spoil the child, he did not indulge in sparing. He ruled over his four children with anger, intimidation, humiliation, and sometimes violence. Even when that wasn’t the case, the scent of it was always in the air. What made it harder was that I loved my father. I wanted to be like him. That was what every little boy should want, and I wanted the same. But I lived those years with a sense of dread that waxed and waned through the hours of the day. Even now, I cannot feel comfortable in his presence. When he was at work, my mother would remedy any situation that did not please her with the threat that if I didn’t behave I would have to answer to my father when he got home. With four kids, there always seemed to be one who was going to be dealt with each night, and it seemed that the atmosphere in the house changed color when he walked in the front door each evening. On the shoulder of his business suit was a chip. None of us ever knew who put it there, yet we knew that it wouldn’t take much at all to knock it off.
When I was bullied in junior high by people I barely knew (something that continued for five years or so until I had a growth spurt that left me standing at well over six feet tall), I knew just how to handle it. I tried my best to avoid the bullies. I scanned the hallways for them, never turning my back and hoping that, for once, they wouldn’t find me, wouldn’t be waiting.
The first was a guy named Jim. He seemed to be twice my size when I was only thirteen. His locker was beside mine in the long hallway of our school. The first day of seventh grade he put a pencil on top of his locker. He told me that if he came back and that pencil was gone he was going to kick my ass. I believed him. To be honest, I can’t recall if he ever did. I recall that pencil, and I recall the look of it on top of that locker. It felt just like knowing my father would be home soon.
I also recall Tom. His locker was beside mine in high school. He never bothered with pencils. Every time he saw me, he punched my shoulder, hard enough to nearly knock me over. How did I respond? I smiled and laughed each time, made believe that it didn’t hurt. But it did hurt, in a place far deeper than he could see. What was wrong with me that Tom felt he wanted to inflict pain on me? I asked myself that question for four years. I never found the answer.
There was the guy named Rich, the football hero. I tried to not be in the locker room when he was in there. He really did kick my ass. Like I did with Jim, with Tom, and with my father, I tried to hang on, hoping it would be over soon, that they would tire of their abuse of me, that I would eventually be all right.
It took me until I was in my forties, after some years in therapy, to understand why I was the way I was, that I would never be entirely all right. I just learned better ways to cope, better ways to convince myself that I’d won in the end. I’m now sixty years old and I still can’t be around angry people. When I do encounter anger I try to break the tension with humor. The more threatened I feel, the funnier I am. All that anxiety makes me very popular at occasions where there is a belligerent person in the room.
In a great case of psychological irony, I seem to find these kinds of people and then I try to fix them, to quell their anger. As a result there hasn’t been a time in my life when I haven’t had some kind of connection to an angry, aggressive person. They have been friends, family members, lovers, co-workers and often just unpleasant acquaintances I had to suffer through in some or other social situation. Somehow I believe, deep in my thinking, that if I can fix just one of them, that I will have fixed all of them, even the haunting figures of my childhood. And yet, I cannot stand confrontation. Having even a mild disagreement with someone can make me feel physically ill, the anxiety manifesting in my gut. It can haunt me for days as I relive it again and again, trying to do it better than I actually did at that moment of showdown. It just gets added to the grand pile of humiliations small and large.
Incidentally, I’m incapable of expressing anger myself. I have never learned to stand up for myself, ever. The cost, as I have learned well, is too high. What I do is stay away, turn it off, avoid all aggression, anger, and confrontation. I’m lucky that, after two failed marriages, I finally found someone who understands it all. She took a different path after having had many similar experiences. She decided as a young woman that no one was ever going to treat her badly and get away with it. Between us we’ve found a lovely, sensitive balance. I can be a calming voice for her and she can deal with the bad guys on my behalf. What’s allowed me to be a doctor and a poet is simply a profound sense of empathy, something that has made me more vulnerable and sensitized to the suffering of others. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. There was a time in my life when I felt bad for the people who bullied me. I wondered what terrible things had happened to them that compelled them to treat others with violence and contempt. But here is my conclusion: there are explanations and there are excuses, and explanations cannot provide the excuse.
Sadly, in this country and this culture we seem to be losing the battle for decency, empathy, and compassion. Our president is a man who has made bullying and belligerence an art form, a man who humiliates, castigates, and celebrates his anger and aggression, a coward who carries a big stick and uses it as his weapon of first resort. He swings at anything that moves. He has given voice to every bully who ever lived and taught people that hatred, vitriol, and viciousness are the right of all Americans, except of course those who disagree with him. Our country is in a wretched, scary state right now. It leads me to wonder who bullied Donald Trump, but I wonder even more about the wreckage he is leaving behind. And I wonder, who will finally stand up to him?