I See You, Bully

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M_Heather

I see you bullying a friend of yours in fourth grade. Your target is wearing white sneakers, and she doesn’t want to get them dirty in the mud. You laugh at her because they’re so glowing white they’re ridiculous against the cut of her not-cool jeans and her squared-off K-Mart t-shirt.

This girl you’re trying to demolish, she’s in special ed. Her bangs are too thick against her forehead. You are examining her, flushed with power, trying to find all her cracks.

I see you. I know you. I know you because you are me.

Her name is Alisa. When she earns popcorn parties for whatever it is they do in special ed, she invites you and some of your other friends to join her. You like the popcorn. You feel entitled to it, even as you feel ashamed for your contempt. You are in all the advanced classes, “special” on the end that is acceptable, and so you know you have power, that your brain, at least, is a place where you can feel safe.

You’re only nine, but you know what you’re doing is wrong. You don’t quite understand why wrongness feels so powerful. Why do you enjoy the look on Alisa’s face as you show contempt to her at the parallel bars, with three other girls watching? Why does the dismay that blooms on Alisa’s face fill you with exhilaration?

You expect her to answer back, to cut you down to size. Instead, she looks down. For a moment, you wish she’d defend herself.

Not long ago, some other girls did this same thing to you. You were standing by the swing, hoping to join in their laughter. You’d been invited to sleepovers at several of the girls’ houses, and then, you weren’t. You can tell it’s dangerous, standing so close with your desire visible, and you’re right. Suddenly one of them turns to you and says, her face cutting your heart, We don’t want you.

Maybe it feels good to hurt Alisa because it’s a kind of initiation. You are learning that this is the way the world works. It’s a kind of dance, each person with a knife. You see this dance stretching out to the horizon, full of power and symmetry, and you see yourself wild as any dancer, covered in blood.

At least if other people are going to cut you, you can take someone down with you. You can take down Alisa, a girl who has shown you hospitality, who smiles hopefully when you include her in your play.

I see you, dear child I was, and I know you are part of me. The part that is afraid of people, and afraid of yourself. Afraid of being left alone. Afraid of the silence in your house since your sister left. Trying to find solace in something—in power over other people, in intelligence, in payback. Sure that unless you show you’re more than other people you will be trampled in the dance.

It’s cliché, dear girl, but your mother took you to therapy about then. You met with your counselor in a big room stacked high on one side with bean bag chairs, and you climbed to the top of the primary-color mountain. And you told your new counselor, hesitantly, about making fun of Alisa.

And your counselor looked at you steadily, and asked, How did that make you feel?

You noticed the shifting of all those millions of grains of plastic holding you up, and you considered her question.

How did it feel to savage your friend and crush her hope?

And you realized, with a start, that it felt awful. It felt like power, yes, but like the kind of power that incinerates your insides. You realized you felt small, and ashamed, and that was not the kind of person you want to be.

You realized, in that moment, that there’s a different kind of power available: choosing to change. Choosing to apologize to Alisa, like you did the next day. Choosing to lay down the knife you were clutching in your hand.

In the years to come, you’ll notice when you pick up new knives, bigger and sharper for every year you age. You’ll notice their heft in your hand, how they cut your heart every time you use them on other people. Choosing, with a shudder, to lay them down, much as you ache for the safety they promise.

Choosing to trust that disarming yourself is the only kind of safety worth having.

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Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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Heather Caliri
  • As I was reading, I kept thinking to myself, “Wouldn’t it be lovely if this kind of post were relevant only to teens and young girls?” Thank you for boldly exposing our refusal to “grow up” in this area.

    • Yes–that’s the thing. It’s a problem we keep facing, except it’s a little less overt, usually. It’s so easy to go on the offense against those we love because we’re afraid.

  • HeleneBurns

    Oh my heart – your closing sentence is such an exclamation point over the vulnerable truth you shared with us Heather…’Choosing to trust that disarming yourself is the only kind of safety worth having’.

    Thank you for teaching such a powerful truth here today. xo

  • Leah Kostamo

    Wow, this is powerful. Thank you for your vulnerability. Blessed are the peacemakers — that’s you. 🙂 (Oh, and I just read your beautiful piece on your own blog. Did you grow up in Tucson? I went to university there — 85 – 89 …I’m old. 😉 Maybe we were kicking around Sabino Canyon at the same time. :))

    • Ha! Oh, yes, that’s exactly when I was there 🙂 I love Tucson–the beauty there is so unique.

      • Leah Kostamo

        Yes, I love Tucson — so much more naturally aesthetic than my hometown of Scottsdale. 🙂 And I found out not too long ago that Esther Emery and I overlapped in Moscow, Idaho of all places. The world is small.

        • I also lived in Scottsdale. ~Wooo~

          • Leah Kostamo

            Wooo!

  • Roos Woller

    It’s hard when someone hurts you but as we get older we realize we have done the same or worse to others and that is so much harder to deal with to be honest about the times we were the bully, manipulator or oppressor and as you mentioned in your post it hurts us too. We cannot hurt someone without it hurting us in return to, we are all connected. Thank you for sharing this perspective and I am pondering what areas of defence I have to dismantle.

    • I think there would be a LOT less abuse in the world if we all realized we’re all capable of misusing our power over other people. Same too with racism–it’s hard to confront if we all keep insisting there’s no racist bone in our bodies.

  • This is powerful, Heather. Wow. Thank you for your deep vulnerability here … I would like to show this to my tween. I’m with Michele: I think young girls need to read this.

    This is how we’ve hurt each other–and I certainly have my own stories of hurting others. But here you are also showing us a different Way. Thank you! xo

    • Thanks, Idelette. I’m so thankful Jesus has given us such a spectacular alternative–one that frees us all.

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  • The dance with knives is such a powerful image here – and with it the two sides of saying “I am unarmed”. On one hand, yes, I see that you can hurt me and on the other, can you see that I am not here to hurt YOU? Powerful stuff.

    • Yes: I think it’s important to note that not everyone lays down their knives, and we’re not called to just get eviscerated. “Wise as serpents” applies here too 🙂

  • Oh, this is so good! I was both bullied and a bully growing up. I think I was in my late 20’s before I really comprehended the damage it did to those I was bullying. And it wasn’t until my mid 40’s when I did my first “fearless and through moral inventory” of myself that I realized the full extent of the damage not only to those I bullied, but to myself also. I knew how much it hurt, and did it anyway. I can’t undo the past, but I can act better now, and make amends to those I’ve hurt along the way.

    • Wow, I appreciate this, Martha. I don’t think every bully has been bullied, but I think it’s common. It’s hard to break the cycle of taking our pain out on other people, but you’re right–it hurts us AND others. I’m grateful I got therapy right then and stopped my bullying before it became a habit. I doubt I’d have had the maturity for years to pull myself out of that cycle without someone speaking truth into my life.

  • Megan Gahan

    I read so few stories about bullying, and I know why: it’s a vulnerable, tender topic. Though this moment happened years ago, I’m sure it was still a challenge to dredge up that moment and those feelings. Know that you’re illuminating something that so desperately needs to be brought to the forefront with your courage. Amazing work, my dear. xx

    • Thanks, Megan. It’s hard to look at the part of myself that’s capable of ugliness, but honestly, it’s also freeing to stop trying to pretend it doesn’t exist 🙂 I so appreciate your encouragement.

  • Nicole A. Joshua

    This is an incredibly powerful post, Heather. I’m going to share it with a friend who had just recently started working with children, because I believe it is a good resource to have as one navigates the complex issue of bullying. Thank you for your vulnerability.

  • Saskia Wishart

    Woah. This is raw and strong and such a hard topic to talk about, but you have done it with such grace – grace for yourself and for those around you. The imagery of disarment is powerful here.

  • pastordt

    Nothing like a Heather Caliri sandwich today! Just finished your piece at Seth’s and this one was next in my saved folders line-up. Powerful, powerful. So hard, but so true – thanks, as always, for your honesty. We all carry a wounded bully around inside us somewhere, I think. And choosing to put that dang knife down is the key to helping that piece of ourselves be healed.

  • kristen gunning

    Beautiful!!!

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