Wednesday, October 19, 2011

You are every person you will ever meet

Many of us bloggers are taking time this week to write about a serious issue: bullying. We're writing about it because another teenager has died here in Ottawa. He took his own life, in order to escape from his struggles with depression and bullying.

As I sat listening to the words of his father, a councillor here in Ottawa, the sadness I felt from this wasted life turned into anger.

I'm angry because Jamie lost his battle with depression. I'm angry because Jamie couldn't be himself in a world that demands conformity. I'm angry because our society as a whole fails, time and time again, to help young people deal with the challenges they face.

But most of all, I'm angry with the bullies. I am filled with anger directed at them.

I realize that there are other factors that contributed to Jamie's suicide. I know that mental health issues are multifaceted, and take a long time to get under control. And I'm sure that Jamie's family, his school, and his friends tried to take action.

But I remember those bullies well. Although I can not begin to imagine what Jamie went through, I can certainly relate to the experience of being bullied. My middle school years are not fond memories. Several girls in my class, including me, were targets of gossip and cruel words and it made school life a rotten experience. I was extremely lucky to have a couple of great girlfriends, and the sympathetic ear of the vice principle, who did as much as she could to support us through those challenges. And although I was not a gay youth, I was called a lesbian and bullied about my sexuality. For a young teen, this is particularly devastating.

But my girlfriends and I did not receive the worst. I remember another young girl, slightly overweight, who was  the subject of relentless and cruel treatment. She was bullied physically and emotionally, and eventually had to move schools because of the abuse.

My thoughts go to the girls who did the bullying - what was wrong with them? How did they become so cruel? Is it possible to be inherently mean or does it have a lot to do with the skills of the parents? Or is it just that the parents weren't aware of what was going on?

I reflect on these memories now that I have my own daughter. The thought of her growing up to bully other children makes me sick to my stomach. How do we prevent this?

I'm far from an expert, but I think that raising empathetic children is the key. Teaching them - from the newborn stage - the importance of recognizing and sharing another person's feelings is the BEST way to ensure that children will become compassionate adults.

This reminds me of an episode of my favourite show Being Erica, which aired just the other week. In it, Erica is a "therapist-in-training" and is called upon to help a man who she does not like. As she struggles to help someone she despises, her own therapist tells her "you are your patient. You are every patient you will ever have, and you are every person you will ever meet."

When we put ourselves on another level, and look down on others, we are saying I am not you.

And that, my friends, is how wars are started; how fights or disagreements arise; and how we come to marginalize others. It is based on the fact that we have separated US from THEM, or ME and YOU.

As soon as we take this step to separate ourselves, and as soon as we draw that line in the sand, we have lost the battle. As humans, this is how we fail each other, time and time again.

I will make a plea to you tonight - I ask you to talk to your children about these lines that we draw. I ask you to work in your own lives to erase these barriers. And most importantly, I ask you to help your children realize that we are every person we will ever meet.

This is Matthew Barber's You and Me.


  1. This is an amazing post Misty.

    I was called 'retard' by one boy for years during elementary school. This guy was a friend of my brothers so he came to my house even...and I believed him on some level because I my eyes would periodically cross till 14 when I had surgery, I had to have tutors bc of a learning disability and one year I had an in class tutor...

    I had learned in Church which I went to from birth till I was 12 to 'turn the other cheek' and so I just let him say that...

  2. One night while getting ready for bed, my son punched his little sister because she was blocking him from the toilet in her naughty little mischievous way. I ignored him, and said, "Poor little Violet" as I pulled her into my arms. He immediately burst into tears. Once I'd talked to him about his behaviour, and other choices he could make in a similar situation, I tucked them into bed. He was still a bit weepy, and told me that "It made me so sad when you said 'poor little Violet". Treating my daughter with compassion, acknowledging how much littler she is than him, helped him experience empathy. It was a very powerful moment, and one I'm kind of proud of as a parent. We talk often about mean behaviour. When our kids mention someone at school who is naughty, we always say, "Maybe so-and-so is unhappy/lonely or is having a hard time at home. Please be extra kind to him/her". Our children are quite compassionate, and have a clear sense of what is right and wrong, even at the ages of six and four. The two year old is a work in progress...thanks for writing about this. I'll link to it when I get around to doing my own post on this issue!

  3. My mother used to tell me that the girl that were mean to me (we didn't call it bullying) were jealous of me and all I could think was jealous of what. There is no excuse for being outright cruel to another person. And bullies do it because they can.

    I think empathy is the key.

  4. Thanks for bringing this up.... "Senseless" is the word that comes to mind. I got the "lesbian" thing too, relentlessly, after I changed high schools in a small town. The bullying got so bad that I had special permission to leave each class 3 minutes early so I could avoid everyone between classes, I even had a beer bottle smashed across the back of my head as a guy yelled "dyke!" while walking through the front yard of the library - all because I dressed differently. Back before "goth" was mainstream. I wasn't alone though, in fact one image will always haunt me... There was a popular girl who was a tad on the dramaqueen side, came to school in winter wearing a tank top with her arms scratched up and bruised, obviously a cry for help but would say "I don't want to talk about it" any time someone questioned it. Everyone surrounded her with love and support. Meanwhile, a very unpopular quiet girl who was teased, had very few friends, was waiting for the bus. I saw her standing there and the wind lifted her dress to reveal many, many cuts on her legs. Old and new. Nobody else ever knew about it. No outpouring of love and support.... It's all around us and all we can do is be that love and support when we can, and teach our children well.

  5. Thank you for writing this. I too have been thinking a lot about the bullies. How did they get like this? I hear so much about bully prevention and awareness in schools - but I truly believe that parenting is where it is at. How are these parents teaching their children to treat and accept others? It's very sad and angers me to hear these stories time and time again.

  6. @Lisa - 'retard' is a word that needs to be erased from our vocabulary. I think many of us turn the other cheek, because we don't want to make a "fuss."
    @KGH - That story about J. is so sweet. Although we don't know each in person, there's no doubt in my mind that you are raising the most caring kids in the world!
    @CapitalMom - we'll also often hear "just ignore them." Really? Is that good advice? How do you ignore relentless taunting (and even physical violence) every day of your life?
    @owlandmushroom - I am so sorry that you went through that alone. You're right, we only seem to care about the "popular" girls in high school. I even remember how much teachers favoured the kids who were outgoing and smart. They had no time for the ones who were a little different.
    @Alicia - and I worry that sometimes the parents aren't even informed. Even if we do our best raising empathetic children, there are always lessons we can teach in helping others (for example, sometimes the "cool" kids aren't the bullies, but they'll stand by and watch their friends torture someone. When is it time to speak out?)

  7. Thank you for sharing this powerful post, Misty (and Being Erica is an excellent show). I shared it on our Facebook page. I completely agree that in order to raise empathetic children we must treat them with empathy. I endured some pretty nasty bullying when I was younger, too. It can be devastating to a vulnerable teenager. We all bleed when cut, though the wounds are not always obvious without a close look.

  8. I've been thinking about this so much this week. I'm tired of the 'whose fault is it game'; that kids are jealous, or they have low self-esteem (which is so ridiculous), that it's the teachers fault, that it's the parents fault. Let's stop trying to figure out who's responsible and do something. Teenagers, irrespective of the fact that they are still maturing, need to understand that what they say/do has consequences, as do their parents (who often model the behaviour), and their teachers and other community leaders (also models & examples of how to act) who spend countless hours with them. As adults we bully each other and we dismiss so many behaviours as being the result of personality or circumstance or 100 other thing. Like you said, all it takes is empathy, something that is universal irrespective of how you were raised or your life circumstances. Why not teach that.

  9. Thank you for this powerful post. I have not much to say except that you have completely affected me with your words. Great song too. I believe you are right that bullying in schools mimics far greater problems going on in our world.


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