This has been a challenging year for so many reasons and I’ve had something on my mind for awhile. I know that sharing this isn’t going to win me any popularity contests, as there are going to be people who will take it personally. Sometimes you just have to walk the talk and it’s something that I think women, in particular, are uncomfortable doing. Preaching about anti-bullying doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t willing to actually speak out about it when it’s difficult to do so.
When I was in the 7th grade, a new kid joined our very small class. As if it’s not difficult enough to break into a circle that had been together for 2 years, he was incredibly smart. There should be no surprise that things got off to a rocky start. Middle school is notoriously tough. I am not one to follow the crowd now, and certainly wasn’t one then, so I decided to get to know him better. When people made jokes about him I spoke up in his defense. Eventually it blew over, and he was just another one of the gang. This is one of the experiences that comes to mind when I hear about a marginalized person snapping and harming others, or a young person committing suicide. Sometimes it takes just one or two people not following along with the crowd to make a difference in another person’s life.
Later, when I returned from college for winter break, I had another such moment. One of my circle of friends invited everyone over for a New Year’s Eve party. Everyone but me. When I called the person I considered to be my closest friend, she explained that he was angry at me about something. I never found out what as he never bothered to say. I did learn that my other friends did not have my back. They all went to the party and I spent New Year’s Eve at home on my own. To this day, I’m baffled by this situation. I can’t imagine sitting by and watching while one of my closest friends was deliberately excluded from an activity. Perhaps that’s why he was mad at me in the first place. If so, I’m OK with that.
Now, here is where I should qualify. I don’t believe that every person has to be included in every thing that happens. It’s not possible, it’s not reasonable, and it’s not the way the world works. That said, there’s a difference between not including everyone and deliberately excluding specific people. And had my high school cohort invited one or two people over and not the rest, I wouldn’t be talking about it today. Instead, he invited everyone from our group except me. My friends didn’t want to rock the boat.
It’s hard for me to believe, but this past summer it happened again. At the age of 41, I was deliberately excluded from a group by someone I had gone out of my way to include elsewhere. Now there is plenty of history there (and while I generally went for avoidance, I can’t say I handled everything as well as I could have), including some of the most passive aggressive behavior I have ever experienced, so I was not surprised to be excluded. I WAS upset to learn that the circle of exclusion had been expanded to involve my closest friends, none of whom had any negative history, and some of whom were both hurt and surprised by the slight. But I think what bothered me most was that even those who clearly saw what was happening over time didn’t stand up for any of us. And I’m not talking about choosing sides. I’m talking about speaking out to say, "This is not really OK." It can be so simple to counteract mean behavior if you’re willing to stand up against it, even when the person in question is a friend.
As we worry about bullying and violence and we look for solutions, I think we need to look at home. And I don’t mean that parents are to blame for everything their kids do. I mean that if we as adults can’t stand up to bullies, and if we are too [insert your adjective here] to call out calculated mean behavior when it happens, how can we possibly expect our children to do it? If we are willing to look the other way in the name of "not choosing sides" when people are hurt, we can’t really preach to our kids. My friends will tell you that if they go off the rails, I will let them know. And other than some occasional joking, I push for compassion, tolerance, and patience over ugly behavior. We don’t need to all get along, and we don’t need to all like each other, but we also don’t need to tear each other down. I want my children to be kind and compassionate with themselves and with others. I also want them to stand up for those in need of support. I don’t always shine in my effort to model that, but I certainly do try.