I was a bully until I was about 9 years old. I made arbitrary rules for my friends that I never told them about until they inevitably broke those rules. Then I would take my love away, swift and business-like, as though I were scooping up coins from the counter and dropping them into my purse. My friends would turn themselves inside out to try to get my love back, which I gave intermittently, to give them hope, retain some power and string them along for as long as I could. None of this was conscious. It came to me as easily as breathing. It was in my blood. It was how I was treated at home. I never knew when something I did would get me loved or get me punished or scorned. Eventually, I did learn the helplessness that I was being taught, collapsed in on myself and stopped trying to get love at all.
This led directly to an argument I had in college, in the middle of the street, in the middle of the night, with a girlfriend who, having an unbroken relationship with love, told me that she loved me in an effort to help me understand we were just having a fight, and we would get through it. I felt disgusted that she thought love would make a difference. I knew love made no difference, and I had no reference point for ‘just a fight’ having come from a family where people don’t speak to one another for months or years over a disagreement or even a small slight, imagined or not.
“But I love you!” she had shouted, as though knowing that would change something for me. To me, love was a tool with which to manipulate people. She yelled it to my back as I was walking away. I spun around and spat out the words,”Oh really? Well who the fuck are you?” As in, who are you to try to manipulate me? I wanted to remind her that I was more powerful than love. I wanted her to know she had no power over me. Then I walked off into the night feeling nothing but free, effectively pushing the image of her face, crushed and confused, out of my mind. Powerful, no longer powerless.
As I was driving back from dropping Alita off at camp today, the memory of that night spun on repeat in my mind. By the time I got home, I was in tears, mumbling to the eggs and soon-to-be rotting spinach in the refrigerator, “Please don’t curl up and die today. Please don’t curl up and die today.” Which eventually, and because I have invested decades and thousands of dollars into therapy, morphed into, “You can be okay today. You can be okay today.” I know, right? A pretty dramatic reaction that I moved through pretty quickly. But the shame of having been a bully, and the intense sensations of having felt so powerless all just rushed back into me at once.
This whole sequence of events was set off by a friend of Alita’s–I’ll call her K–who had been to a birthday party over the weekend for a girl in their class–H–who Alita doesn’t know very well. Alita knew she wasn’t invited to H’s party, because K had been talking about it all last week at camp. She came home crying one day last week and said, “Why is K invited to H’s party and not me?” I reminded her that she doesn’t know H very well, and hadn’t invited H to her party for that very reason. She seemed to understand that in the moment.
So, this morning, K says to Alita, “Wait, Alita, were you at H’s birthday party this weekend?” She had the smallest smirk on her face when she said it. Alita got momentarily distracted, which she tends to do when she feels hurt, but to be fair, she may also have just wandered off after a squirrel.
I said, “K, you know Alita wasn’t at H’s party, because you were at the party and you didn’t see her there, did you?”
K, still smirking, shrugged and said, “yeah.”
“Nice.” I said, sarcastically to a six year old. Yes. I snapped at a six year old. It’s embarrassing, but I did it.
It was the smirk that got me. It got me because I can still feel the vestiges of that same smirk in the muscles of my face and the curve of my lips. Here’s what I remember about that smirk–it was pure pleasure. It felt good to have power, even for a moment. It felt good, for a moment, to be sure of my place in the world, simply because I knew for sure that someone else was lower than me. And I knew that because I was the one who pushed her down and was now standing on her head, enjoying the view.
To be clear, I have no idea what’s behind K’s smirk. She’s not a bad kid–she’s just trying to figure out the pecking order in life like the rest of humanity is. Like my own kid is. The difference is that kids don’t really understand the nuances, or really even the building blocks of a system of power. They just know when they feel good and they go with it.
Adults, however, have no such excuse. I heard a story today about a man who admitted to his female partner that he has always believed that women are genetically and intellectually inferior to men, but decided to keep it to himself because he was pretty sure he wouldn’t get laid otherwise. Ya think, dude? As I heard the story, I imagined the little smirk on his face as he finally admitted the truth of his superiority, backed by fake scientific evidence, to her. I imagine, in that moment, he felt that same surge–the pleasure of certainty.
When I look at the faces from the White Supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, I see those same layers–the pleasure of certainty balanced precariously over a base of insecurity. I wonder what would happen if those men knew that they are not entitled to a life where they never have to feel insecure. That they are not entitled to a life where they never have to doubt themselves. And if they understood that, maybe they could learn to be with the sensations that feel alien to them–that they try to shut down by standing on someone else’s neck–the sensations of fear, insecurity and helplessness. Because look, dudes, no one likes to feel helpless. It’s a horrible feeling. But the rest of us have felt it so often–have been taught to expect it, taught that we simply are it–that we have had to learn to deal with it.
I stopped being a bully around the time I was nine years old because by then, the circumstances in my life had broken my spirit wide open. I know it’s kind of a mixed metaphor–our spirits get broken, and that’s a bad thing, our hearts break wide open and that’s a good thing. My spirit got broken first. As a result, I understood from a pretty young age that nothing is secure and nothing is sacred. I understood that I was entitled to exactly nothing, and hoping for something would only make things hurt more. When that happened I was infused with enormous feelings of compassion that I had no idea what to do with, but that made me, for the most part, stop bullying people. I still had to work out the kinks and it has taken me years to learn new and useful ways to have relationships with people. My spirit got broken open, and though it was painful, it made me a better human than I one I had been becoming before.
I grew up with an incredible amount of privilege, from which I still benefit everyday. I’ve also experienced the systemic oppression of being visibly queer and female, both in my family and out in the world. I don’t know a lot, but I know something about walking through the world without privilege. Being in an oppressed group in this country is a daily practice of being broken open, of hyper-awareness that nothing is secure, and nothing is sacred. At least, the assumption is that you will not be treated as sacred–you will not be given the benefit of the doubt. And you can never really rest and assume you are safe from harm, because shit can go sideways at any moment. Privilege is being able to rest in the assumption that your rights, your body, your well-being will be treated as important and worth protecting in any given situation.
How do we teach kids from the beginning that that moment of certainty, of privilege, isn’t worth the harm it creates? Does everyone have to be systematically broken down before they can understand why that pleasure of certainty is not only not worth it, but also not even real?
Alita came home today and announced that, after a morning of feeling excluded by K at camp, she said, “It felt so bad, so I made a decision. I said, ‘K, I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, but I want you to know that S is my best friend. And you are my second best friend. Mostly because you always exclude me.’” I love how blunt this kid is, but also, damn, that’s cold.
“Wow, Honey,” I said. “I’m so sorry you felt excluded today. But how did K feel when you said she was your second best friend?”
“It made her sad, even though I told her I wasn’t trying to hurt her feelings,” she said.
“That makes sense. It would make me sad if someone said that I was their second best friend. Even if it was true, it would make me feel sad,” I said.
“Why would you be sad if your friend said she wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings?” she asked. I am tired, and she is so earnest, and I want to get this at least half right.
“Well, I can appreciate that you are trying not to hurt your friend’s feelings, but just telling someone you’re not trying to hurt them and then hurting them doesn’t really work so well. What if I said ‘I’m not trying to hurt you’ and then I punched you in the arm?” I ask.
“I would be mad, because you punched me, and it would probably hurt, so I would cry,” she said.
“So, the fact that I told you I wasn’t trying to hurt you wouldn’t make the punch hurt less, or not at all, right?”
“I guess. I saw a ladybug today,” she says.
“Cool. I love ladybugs. Can I give you some advice?” I ask.
“No, thank you,” she says.
“Okay, but it’s really good advice,” I say.
“Does it have chocolate in it?” she asks, slightly more interested.
“If it did, would you take it?” I say.
“Maybe,” she says.
“Okay, advice is like a good idea. When someone asks if you want advice, they mean they have a good idea that they think might help you. There is no chocolate involved”
“Have you ever seen a dead body?” she asks, tracing a pattern on the car window with her finger.
“Okay, I’ll make this short. Never tell someone they are not your best friend. It just hurts and there’s no point. Trust me on that, ok?” I say.
“Okay. Do we have pudding?” she asks, taking her finger out of her nose and putting it in her ear.
I love this kid, and we will have to revisit this conversation later. In fact, it is becoming clear to me how often we will have to talk about these things. And not just talk, but model how we would like her to be by how we talk to her, how we talk to one another, how we talk about other people, who we let her spend her time with while we still have a say in that.
I think of the White Nationalists thinking that because they make it clear to everyone that they are definitely not racists, then why should we be bothered when they are explicitly racist? Because they said, “This beating won’t hurt, because I’m not racist. I’m just a guy who wants his privilege back.” Then the person being beaten should say, “Oh, thank God, you’re not racist, I got worried there for a minute,” and then spontaneously stop bleeding. Maybe if we just cooperate with their narrative, we will all spontaneously stop bleeding.