Friday, October 28, 2011

Bullying, Abuse, and the Boddhisattva Path

There has been a great deal in the news the past few months about bullying in the schools, and how it can affect some kids to the point of fear, depression, or even suicide. We used to tell children to deal with bullying with an aphorism, "Sticks and stones can hurt my bones, but words can never hurt me!" Unfortunately, words can hurt, and badly.

We are only beginning to deal with the idea of abuse in ways that give children the degree of safety and support they always should have had. Physical abuse—those "sticks and stones"—tend to leave obvious marks: bruises, broken bones, being sick "all the time," too many emergency room visits. Teachers and the public are taught how to spot these injuries and to intervene to stop the abuse, which can be traumatic for both abused and abuser, especially when family is involved. Especially when family is simply continuing behaviors with which they were raised themselves, and have no idea constitutes abuse.

Sexual abuse is harder to detect, as the scars it leaves are generally concealed as is the act. It is likely to show up in a child's behavior, and the abuser will usually fight fiercely to deny it ever happened. While the child needs to heal emotionally from such assaults, confronting the abuser is almost never worthwhile because they will only deny the abuse took place. Sexual abuse leads into what I call "mystification," where a child's perceptions and experiences are repeatedly denied to the point they begin questioning whether it actually happened.

But bullying, along with humiliation, verbal attacks, denying a child's reality, "teasing," and other forms of emotional abuse can in many cases be worse than physical or sexual abuse because the scars they inflict are completely invisible to the outside observer. They manifest in flinches, withdrawal, hiding, depression, and other ways that disconnect the child socially and emotionally from others, and provide their own form of painful "mystification."

When verbal or emotional abuse is directed at a child by his or her peers, it is important for adults around them to intervene. Children often react to anything that is different with words, and need to learn when and how it is appropriate to say something about that difference. It is particularly hard for a child when that difference is something they cannot help: size, an accent, clothes that aren't fashionable, early pubertal development, late pubertal development, cognitive impairments, and so forth. While many Conservatives in America deride the focus on multiculturalism and "political correctness" in our society, it serves to promote changes in how we teach children to interact with one another that are positive and profound, rather than simply repeating mistakes we know are hurtful.

When verbal or emotional abuse is directed at a child from his or her own family, the pain of "words" can be even more traumatic. Such abuse is often hidden behind the closed doors of the family's home, and the child is denied a sense of safe haven, support, and even love he or she needs as a foundation for dealing with the outside world. This can lead to bullying and abuse by the child's peers because the child has already learned to flinch and react to verbal taunts in a way that feeds the bully's ego, thus becoming a perfect target. And the bullied child may be even more likely to drift into depression or suicide from feeling they have nowhere to go to be safe.

Why am I focusing on this in such detail? I was one of those children. I came from a white, middle-class family, am very intelligent, always had clothes and shoes and things I needed, thus giving the appearance that everything was ok. But from the time I was a baby, I had been subjected to physical and verbal abuse by my family that would turn your stomach, and which left me grossly unable to cope with my peers, who teased and bullied me constantly. I managed to make a few friends over the years, but in general, I spent as much time as I could hiding from everyone—physically, or in books, or in fantasy if forced to be in the same place as my abusers.

I've learned to compensate, and to be able to act socially with others—although I'm bad at it—and often use self-deprecating humor to ease my interactions with people, especially those I don't know well. Many people see me, or read my writings, and think I have a lot of self-confidence and even arrogance, but in fact I do not. I have to fight every day not to be overwhelmed by the pain of those old "words" that were not supposed to hurt me, but did.

By the time I was in my teens, I had learned the best way to hide that I could: I simulated a surface persona that reacted as my family expected me to react, or to not react at all. I would hold onto that surface as long as I could, but was prone to react with extreme rage if pushed too long and too far. I felt trapped, like an animal, and every so often, I would react in ways that scared and horrified me. For those actions, I have felt shame most of my life because they are not the person that I really am, underneath it all. I know how bad it feels to hurt inside (or out), and I would not willingly do that to anyone else.

I began psychotherapy in my 30s, during a bout of severe depression that my boss recognized—and out of his own experience and compassion directed me to the help I needed. I've suffered from bouts of depression since childhood, and therapy and medication have helped me gain some measure of control over it. After many attempts to get off the medication, I recognize that it is simply something I will need to take for the rest of my life; my brain does not make enough of the neurochemicals to sustain a "normal" mood without them. I'm not happy about it, but it beats the alternative.

Therapy has also helped me to break through the shell persona with which I inhabited the world, and allowed me to begin inhabiting my skin as the person I've always been. To put myself out there living in my own truth has been one of the most terrifying things I've ever done, because I still expect to be ripped to shreds by those "words" that can never hurt me. My bouts of depression are one of the "scars" left by that verbal abuse. I also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder; certain words or situations can trip me into intense flashbacks, reliving painful events, and it can be a serious struggle to get out of them. One of the courses I took in graduate school for psychology was called "Life-Span Development." Finding out what a normal child's life looked like, and what normal family interactions looked like landed me in flashbacks lasting for days—which made it very hard to keep up with the class!

Out of the morass of memories, pain, sorrow, and struggle, I have had one main goal: Never again! I have worked hard on my side of things to spot behaviors I don't like and change them, learned to act in ways that accord with my sense of morality and ethics even when those are unpopular, and learned to give shelter to others whom I see being hurt by bullies and abusers. That last has landed me in some trouble over the years; however, I cannot stand by while someone else is in pain without trying to help them. It is what I wish had been done for me, and what I have to give back to the world.

The years I've spent learning to be myself freely have led me far afield of my family, the religion in which I was raised, and the people I've met along the way. Those all failed me over the years, such that I knew I had to look elsewhere for answers to how to conduct my life; I did not want to continue to cause pain and heartache to others. Abuse always repeats itself; it's a hard habit to break.

From Buddhist teachings, I learned about the Boddhisattva path: choosing to manifest compassion for all living things as they progress through their own spiritual challenges in this lifetime. For me, this is a major step in healing, as one of the living beings for which I must find compassion is myself. But finding compassion for myself and for those around me who have given me pain helps me to be the self I truly am, and allows me to be more present in this time and space. Living the Boddhisattva path is a good counter to bullying and emotional abuse, for it rests on recognizing that what hurts any one of us ultimately hurts all of us. Emotional pain is still pain, and it hurts just as badly for each person. There's no competition for whose pain is the worst—it all hurts.

To live this path, I ultimately had to turn my back on my family because they could not change their habits of behavior, would not respect the changes I was making to my own behavior, and interacting with them almost always led me back into the pain and rage from which I was attempting to escape. I've outlived my parents, and had not spoken to my sister for over 20 years, until I tried to reach out to her once again this past couple of weeks. I had hoped to tender to her my apologies for my actions that hurt her, as well as share some of the things I've gained through my own growth process, but it was not to be. She still lives with the abuser's mantra: "Everything was not that bad, I didn't do anything, you were mean to me, too, so there's nothing to talk about." It denies my reality and experience while at the same time denying her own, which may give her mental safety in the here-and-now, but leaves her lost in "mystification." I feel very sorry for her.

But that doesn't mean I'm willing to continue in contact with her.

I feel compassion for her pain, and that of my family members that led them to behave in the ways that they did. Studying psychology and history has helped me see how they ended up as they did, and why certain of their behaviors were what they were. It helps me move toward forgiveness, which does not validate their actions, but accepts that those actions were what they chose at the time. Whatever actual malice lay behind them I recognize is their own problem, not mine. My job is to heal the malice that remains in my own heart after so many years of "mystification."

We often say, "People don't change." But like "words will never hurt me," that's not entirely true. One can choose to change, when one does not like the way one behaves, when it rots and degrades the life one wants to live. Compassion is not "unconditional love," nor is it a simple-minded acceptance of everyone as they are, although those form a part of compassion. What it really comes down to is recognizing that every being feels pain, and all pain is as bad as any pain. What I have felt causes me pain, and what you have felt causes you pain, and in that pain we share a knowledge of what it means to hurt. Compassion acknowledges that pain, recognizing it is a part of living in this physical world, and that it leads us along our own spiritual journey, even though it is difficult to deal with as it happens.

For me, compassion is a means to change myself into the person I am in my heart, to become a better person than I have been in the past, and to grow beyond repeating the cycles of causing pain and receiving pain. This is the Boddhisattva path: recognizing oneself in the other, and choosing to heal what can be healed, and grieve what can not. Buddhism says that Boddhisattvas are enlightened beings who have chosen to remain on the cycle of karma to help others achieve enlightenment; I don't know about enlightenment (for myself), but I acknowledge the ability to choose.

Bullying, verbal and emotional abuse are wrong, intrinsically, morally, and practically. It does not help to "toughen up a kid," it just adds to the pain in the world. It is time for all of us to take a boddhisattva stand, and recognize that we must choose to change, for "words" can most definitely hurt. What hurts one, hurts everyone. Those being bullied suffer pain and confusion; those doing the bullying suffer a different pain. They lose their ability for empathy, and some measure of their own humanity, traded against the cheap sense of power they achieve over another. In compassion, we must teach them that their behavior has consequences for themselves and for others; only by choosing to change as a society can we begin healing the agony this has caused so many of us.

May you walk in compassion. May you see the pain of others, and know it is your pain as well. May you give shelter to those who hurt, and help those doing the hurt stop doing so. May we choose to change our society to reach out with compassion to all, no matter how different they seem from ourselves. Only through walking the Boddhisattva path can we become fully human.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written Michael, and a subject that I have much empathy with.