Bullying

I didn’t think, yesterday when I ‘restarted’ this blog, that I was going to be plunged into anything ‘heavy’ so soon... But here we are; it is what it is, and maybe I was ‘meant’ to restart it yesterday because of today...

Yesterday a friend innocently posted a ‘viral’ video on her Facebook timeline. I happened to see it - it ‘auto-played’ as I was scrolling. That moment was, possibly, the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced ‘on-line’. I can’t bear to hunt down a link to the video myself - if you want to see it, I suspect it’s not hard to find. Here’s a link to the story (but not the video) on the BBC website.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-australia-51590984

It was so painful to watch because it was like watching myself in the mirror - seeing the anguish of the poor little scrap - induced entirely by the way he has been treated by his peers - and all simply because he is ‘different’ - is not, for me, bearable in any way. I can’t watch it. I recognise all of it: the writhing agony, which is practically physical; the words of utter despair. I haven’t seen the whole thing - I can’t watch - I had to shut it down almost as soon as I saw it.

School, for me, was agony. I hated going - for reasons which were different from that little boy’s, but no less painful: I was different, in my own way - and sensitive, and that made me acutely vulnerable. And, though I’m not sure I ever voiced it (because I never felt as though anyone actually wanted to hear what I was saying anyway) I identify with everything I heard him say (before I had to shut the video down): the total despair; the sense of

‘I’d rather die than go on like this.’

There, I’ve said it. I’ve never admitted that before.

It took me over thirty years before I actually told anyone any of the details of what happened to me. It took that long before I learned to trust enough to know that I wasn’t going to be betrayed and rejected - such was the shame and fear. I’d never even told Linda, my wife - yes, she knew I’d been bullied, but what had actually happened was a closed book. Something always stopped me: a feeling, perhaps, that ‘uncovering the wounds’ wouldn’t just expose the pain, but that it would result in someone ‘poking’ them and it all starting off again: irrational maybe, stupid even, but that’s what it does to you.

Until today, there were only four people who really ‘knew’ all about it (though I’ve ‘hinted’ on my blog from time to time, and I’ve mentioned it in conversation, I have almost always ‘moved swiftly on’ from it). But today, painful though it is, I can’t keep quiet. I need to add my voice to the clamour of those saying this is wrong; it’s unacceptable. Partly I haven’t talked about it because I don’t feel able to describe the pain it causes - and I’ve never been sure anyone would (or could) either believe it or understand it unless they’ve experienced it (and then there’s no point, because they know anyway). But now there’s a video which shows exactly what it’s like - he’s a child; there are no filters; it’s completely raw, real, and honest. I’m not exactly ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, but because there’s now a graphic illustration of the pain bullying causes, it’s slightly easier to ‘come out’ about it.

I am, it has to be said, mostly ‘fixed’ - telling a few trusted friends, being listened to, being prayed for, have, in effect, brought healing to most of the hurts. I no longer wake regularly in the night, bathed in sweat, either choking or feeling as though I’ve been screaming; it’s a long time since I thrashed about in my nightmares so much that I hurt my wife - indeed, I don’t have nightmares any more. But there is still the ‘potential’ for pain, and for mental scabs to be picked, and for the pain to return: as it has today, on seeing the video of the poor wee chap.

What you see in the video is the reality of bullying. Every day it happens is that painful; it’s little less painful on the days when it isn’t actually happening, because you’re dreading when it restarts again. It is, quite literally, a form of hell on Earth.

People sometimes accuse me of being ‘too liberal’ in my theology, not least because I’m happy to welcome those who are LGBTQ (or ‘different’ in any other way) into the church. They’re usually victims too, and I refuse to believe that Jesus would reject them... Whatever ‘sin’ you may think is worthy of condemnation, and which leads you to reject ‘them’ - I’m sure Jesus sees the pain first and foremost and is moved by his empathy and compassion. Jesus came to save those on the margins, those who were sick and in pain, and by my reading of the gospels He didn't seem unduly bothered by the ‘rules’ of who was ‘acceptable’ to God according to the Law of Moses - in direct contrast to the Pharisees, for whom ‘purity’ was everything.

I’m not wanting, in any way, to trivialise this, nor to offer up some kind of ‘religious sticking plaster’ to minimise the gravity of this situation. But there is, I think, a spiritual dimension to it all. We see Jesus in all sorts of different situations, and there is a sense in which His life always seems to parallel ours. I am drawn here to Jesus’ suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, which is reproduced in slightly different forms in each of the gospels. I reproduce a couple of extracts here:

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” Luke 22: 39-46

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.” Mark 14: 32-34

...

Once more he went away and prayed the same thing. When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. They did not know what to say to him.

Returning the third time, he said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” Mark 14: 39-42

It’s clear that Jesus is in great distress... It’s easy to imagine his face looking not unlike that of the little boy in the video. And each time he returns to his disciples; his friends; those who supposedly care about Him - he finds that they can’t even be bothered to stay awake in his ‘hour of need’. Some friends they are! And that can be what it feels like when one is bullied - even those who are supposed to be one’s friends fall away, leaving one alone with the pain.

And then, consider Peter’s public betrayal of Jesus:

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.

“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.

When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” Again he denied it.

After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” Mark 14: 66-71

Peter was one of Jesus’ closest friends; how much his denial of the friendship must have hurt Jesus! Those who’ve been bullied know about that pain - those who you think like you, turning against you because they’re too cowardly to stand alongside you in your pain, too frightened to risk being treated as you are, and standing there, mute at best, while you suffer - or, at worst, joining the baying mob… Where was Peter during the final, public, part of the trial before Pontius Pilate? Was he in the crowd? Could Jesus perhaps see him?

Yet Jesus forgave Peter. That must have cost Him so much. We read the following passage from John 21: 15-21 as if it was easy, but somehow the account masks the feelings of betrayal - though Jesus asking Peter three times whether he loves Him is tellingly poignant (as well as being a sort of ‘parallel’ to Peter’s three denials). Can Jesus really trust Peter? History tells us that, ultimately, He could - hindsight is a wonderful thing - but at that moment, it must have felt far from clear.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” John 21:15

Forgiveness costs. I have forgiven those who bullied me. I’ve never been able to tell them that, but forgiveness is for my benefit, not theirs. It has taken a long time, and a lot of anguish, ‘revisiting’ incidents which occurred. And, every now and then, something I’d forgotten ‘bubbles up to the surface', accompanied by feelings of anger and resentment, and I have to set in and forgive for that incident too.

I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’ve been through - and continue, in small ways, to go through. The results of bullying can be lifelong. There’s beginning to be evidence that ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ such as bullying can cause a variety of health problems later in life - it seems entirely possible that the Graves’ Disease and the cardiac arrhythmias from which I’ve suffered may well be consequences of the trauma I suffered as a child.

We need to deal with bullying - all bullying, for whatever reason it occurs - and stamp it out. It’s devastating. Things do seem to have changed somewhat in the forty years since I left school - many schools do at least acknowledge that bullying is a problem; some even have policies which, whilst not perfect, can reduce and mitigate the effects considerably. But it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2020