"The tyrant grinds down his slaves and they don't turn against him, they crush those beneath them."
-- EMILY BRONTË, Wuthering Heights
This is the legacy of bullying. It doesn't always begin at home, but I know educators who handle bullies with kid gloves, because they've seen and experienced those kids' parents wrath first-hand. It's easier to discipline kids who are basically good, whose parents cooperate and don't stand toe-to-toe with the school principal, screaming with indignation and raised fists. Kids who are bullied don't turn on the bullies; they don't rise up and take away their oppressors' power. They figure it must feel good, and God knows, they need to feel better. They turn their rage and frustration on those who are even smaller and more helpless. Sometimes, they turn it inward, and there it festers in a toxic stew of depression and self-loathing. I had this conversation with my son, about a year ago:
"Mom, I'm a bad person. Sometimes I feel good when I hurt someone's feelings. I hurt R's feelings today. I don't think he's going to be my friend, anymore."
"Did he hurt yours? Did he do something to make you mad?"
"No. I just wanted to make him feel bad."
"Did you feel good when you told me you hated me?"
"But you don't hate me."
"You get picked on, at school, and you feel powerless, don't you?"
"You figure it must feel good, to be so powerful, right? Do you sometimes want to see for yourself what that kind of power over someone else feels like?"
"Does it feel good?"
"Kind of. At the time."
"Does it feel good now?"
"No. I think I lost a friend." I'm happy to report that they've since mended fences, but it got me to thinking.
Bullies are deeply unhappy people. That doesn't mean they're to be pitied, nor does it mean their bad behavior should be overlooked or tolerated. It's a vicious cycle. Who hasn't felt a twinge of schadenfreude? Most of us are content to indulge in it from afar, and our consciences find it cringe-worthy; the bully, on the other hand, manufactures it. For the bully, it seems to be a way of life - the only thing that brings a semblance of joy. I didn't worry about my son becoming a bully - he was too clearly miserable about the whole thing.
"Can you make it right?" I asked him.
"I don't know. I can try." We talked about the importance of sincere apologies, and things he might do for his friend to begin mending the friendship.
This year, I enrolled my son in Tae Kwon Do. He's watched Karate Kid I, II, and III. I'd forgotten what good movies those were - even if there's no "crane technique." It's very empowering to be able to think, "I could knock the wind out of you with one well-placed kick, but being the bigger person - the smarter, kinder, more decent human being - I'm going to spare you." W. is perfecting Mr. Miyagi's nose-honk maneuver, along with his side kicks.