I was 9 then, the year of grade four. I had a best friend who lived up the street until a new girl moved into the neighborhood. She was vivacious and outgoing, full of fun and mischief, all the things I was not. And for whatever reason causes nine year olds to set their sights on things, she wanted to be best friends with my best friend. So I lost. But I didn’t just lose. I was thenceforth reminded how much I lost. I was given notes in class about how much they hated me. How ugly I was. How dumb. Friends who previously asked me to hang out at recess wanted nothing to do with me. I was humiliated on the bus by their friends who enjoyed taunting little girls. And on one particularly ugly day, I was followed off the bus by a mob of elementary schoolers who wanted to pummel me to the ground. My older brother, who didn’t much like me himself, came to my rescue that day. Flattening the new girl with one swift push, landing her butt on the pavement. I don’t think I ever loved him more.
Bullies. That’s what she was. What they all were. Mean, awful children who didn’t care about anyone but themselves. Unable to see the trauma their actions caused another person. Many years later, I could see them for what they were, but at the time, all I felt was shame. Humiliation. And deep sadness for being disliked for nothing more than for being me.
Schoolyard bullies are a dime a dozen. My son has encountered his fair share. A kid who stole his hat and buried it in the snow. Another who made fun of him on the fieldtrip bus. Kids who run away when he asks them to play. Selfish little kids who don’t know how to love others and don’t realize how much their actions hurt.
But schoolyard bullies grow up. Some, like my best friend from grade four, grow into compassionate young adults and apologize for what they did. Some regret being who they were so many years before. Some, however, do not. They grow into new forms of hatred. They get more manipulative, more cunning, more mean. They no longer push and shove, they speak, they write. They use their tongues to spew evil of others and plant malicious seeds. Sure, many abuse others physically, but not all. Not most. Some of the most dangerous offenders are much more subtle in their approach. They post on social media. They email. They gaslight. They text. And though their methods are more subtle, their wake of damage runs deep.
They invade the privacy of their unsuspecting victim. Once a week. Twice a month. Never on a predictable schedule in order to cause the highest level of angst when they strike again. The abused wife never knows when the next verbal blow will come. The abused child walks on eggshells, hoping her efforts at perfection are enough to stave off the wrath of her parent. The friend is blindsided by the vitriol coming from a confidant. Trauma. All of it trauma. Causing anxiety. Sleepless nights. Doubt. And pain that is not easily overcome. Sometimes, never overcome.
All at the hands of a bully. Someone who is often popular, with a reputation of being incredibly fun. Charming. Someone you want to know, to have as a friend. Or date, even marry some day. Someone others would never suspect of the hatred and destructive behavior I’ve described. No, they’re loved by all, because they don’t let anyone get too close. And anyone who does gets burned.
Sadly, these bullies thrive in Christian communities, more than any other place. Communities where believing the best about others is expected. Giving grace when wronged is necessary. Forgiveness is essential. Time after time, secret sins are perpetuated and never see the light. No one wants to be a gossip, after all. No one wants to seem unloving, un-Christlike. And even if they did try to talk about it, no one would believe them anyway. Because bullies have ways of protecting their image. A tangled web of lies they weave. To keep on bullying others. So the abused wife cries in silence. The abused child withdrawals into herself. The abused friend avoids fellowship and gatherings where the bully may be.
I’ve come a long way since I was 9. But the pain still cuts my heart, over 40 years later. I’m not alone. I know that for certain. That is how destructive bullies can be. But their actions no longer define me. In fact, their actions have nothing to do with me. I know who I am and I’m thankful I’m me.
I’m thankful I’ve been bullied. It’s created in me a heart that strives to love others. The scared little boy. The timid little girl. The wife who is so scarred, she’s only a shell of the person she once was. The friend who holds her secrets close for fear she’ll be rejected once again. I’m thankful I know them. I’m thankful I was them. God can redeem even the most painful parts of our lives. I know he has done that for me.