Bullying leaves life-long consequences. Is one of those consequences a lifetime of clouded judgement?
I hope you haven’t missed Dennis Milam Bensie’s latest essay, A Bully Comes Around. I’m returning to it because the piece raised an important question that I think is worth considering. Dennis writes about a homophobic bully he knew in high school. Following Bensie’s recent posts supporting gay marriage on a rather conservative Facebook page, this bully, named “Zack”, contacts him. The bully apologizes for having been an asshole so many years before.
While promoting the article on Twitter, I asked the question Do bullies deserve forgiveness? Not very many people answered but those that did were quite firm. Bullies might deserve compassion. But forgiveness? No.
This is interesting. Here’s a guy, Bensie’s “Zack”, who grew up in a conservative community, one that actively taught its children to fear or loathe homosexuals. If they should not fear them, they should look down on them because God was going to judge gays harshly. The bully, perhaps while acting out his own rejection or perceived failure, took this lesson and expressed hatred and aggression just as he was taught. In his adult years, after listening carefully to the gay marriage debate, he comes around to perceive homosexuals in a new way, then he asks one for forgiveness.
But we don’t want to forgive. The bullying has stayed with us, hasn’t it? Many of us will remember being bullied, and we immediately return to the feeling of powerlessness. It’s crushing, and all the pain returns as if the bullying were happening in the present.
In my view, we risk a lot if we allow this pain to cloud our wisdom. It’s rare for most of us to have lived life without ever hurting anyone. Yes, most of us were not bullies, but we probably remember harming someone, and we probably wish we had not done it, especially now that we can look back at the events and know we are different people.
I think we reject forgiveness because we idealize it. Some of us, especially those raised Christian, fetishize it. Forgiveness should not mean we submit to someone or become completely powerless, even selfless. If we tell an apologetic person, “I’m not hurt by you anymore,” or “I wish you much peace in the future—don’t let the harm you did bother you,” we do not have to spend time with them. We barely even need to acknowledge that they exist beyond that moment.
Think about it carefully. The bully no longer exists. A bully cannot ask forgiveness. That’s what a bully is: someone incapable of empathy, someone who passes his or her own pain on to another. We become similar to them when we cannot forgive, especially if we refuse because we revel in their shame and self-loathing. If we kick them in the face of their courage, we might convince ourselves we have gained revenge. But we have not conquered the bully. Instead, we become a shade of bully ourselves. Do we want that?
I recall Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, one of my favorite books. A young man, Raskolnikov, takes a woman’s life because he believes he’s serving a greater good—she is harmful to people, and killing her removes the harm. The young man has, in essence, inflated himself to an über-human and even perceives himself as a sort of demi-god. And yet, he is dependent later on a selfless creature, someone incapable of hatred, barely able to grow angry. This powerful book left a lasting impression on me when I was very young, about as young as Raskolnikov, the first time I read it. I know from Dostoevsky’s personal notes and a biography that his dream was for the court system to be able to tell criminals, “You’re forgiven. Go forth and never commit atrocities again.” Of course, Dostoevsky was not naive. He knew that kind of forgiveness would collapse society, put it in the hands of assholes.
But it does not have to collapse the individual. Paradoxically, it can empower us. Here is someone who used to bully me. Now he is begging me for civil contact. I can judge him freely, act in any way I wish. I can play the bully or I can kill the bully completely. It’s a moment of shocking enormity.
This post originally appeared on Liquid Ink.
Photo by AleBonvini.