Treating Bullying Without Compassion
Treating bullying without compassion is like treating cancer with Band-Aids. I know that may sound a bit ridiculous but the truth of the matter is, unless we can get at the root causes and belief systems that give rise to the behaviors of a bully, we won’t change anything. Relying strictly on behavior modification is like treating the symptoms of the disease, but not the disease itself.
How do I know this, you may ask? My knowledge comes from my own experience as a person who was bullied, became a bully, and was later transformed by the compassion shown to me by others; compassion that I didn’t feel I deserved.
I remember going to an all-boy Catholic school where the teachers themselves were to be feared more than the schoolyard bully. Corporal punishment was widely accepted and took the form of devices such as rulers, yardsticks, or the dreaded leather strap. They were applied judiciously to the palm of the hand and the backside for children who misbehaved. My first ruler to the hand was grade four while my first yardstick was grade five; both for the heinous act of forgetting a homework assignment at home.
Because of the things going on at home that I was quite angry about, I started acting out both at home and at school. I became disengaged. The school tried all kinds of things to get me engaged but failed, and in the end, my parents met with my teacher to discuss a “special arrangement”. The teacher explained to me that I was being presented an “offer I couldn’t refuse” in which I was to be caned if I didn’t get a “B” on major exams and projects. If the carrot fails, use the stick. I was only 11.
What did that look like? I would be sitting at my desk and the teacher walked down the aisle handing out the papers with the results. As he came to my desk, I knew whether I got a “B” or not by the small wry smile on his thin lips as he handed me my results; 74%…Damn.
I knew what was next. He would wait a few minutes and then tell me to go and sit outside his office, which was outside the class and down at the far end of the hall.
Have you ever known something bad was about to happen and there was nothing you could do about it? What did that feel like to you? For me, it was an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. I started to get that feeling the second he stood up with a stack of marked exams in his hand. I knew I probably didn’t get a “B”, but still I held up hope until the last moment, praying that I had perhaps fluked a “B”. Sometimes that happened. When I got my “C” then, the feeling in my stomach sank even lower as I now hoped he might spare me the rod. Sometimes that happened, too.
As I shuffled hopelessly down the hallway to his office I knew what was next could not be avoided (except to flee the school grounds as some boys did and that only made things worse). Waiting in the chair outside his office until he came from the classroom took anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes. No matter how long I sat there, inside I was always begging for one more minute.
Sometimes, the anticipation of a bad thing happening you know you cannot stop is worse in the event you fear. Not in this case.
Finally, he came and opened the door and led me into his office and mumbled some nonsense about how “it was going to hurt him more than it was going to hurt me”. Yeah, right.
I remember that first time where I stood at the front of his desk, facing his name plate, bent over with my hands placed on the edge of the wood while he stood behind me with the yardstick.
WHACK! (across my buttocks) … “ONE”, calmly uttered from behind me, while the sting set in.
WHACK! … “TWO”, after a rather sadistic pause.
The first time was two whacks and then each time I re-offended I got an additional two until I hit the cap of eight. How merciful. By three and four I fought the tears as much as I could, and by five and six, out they came. Seven and eight brought whimpering and pleading.
The last part of the whole exercise was the humiliation of returning to the class being barely able to sit down with my cheeks flushed with humiliation; teary eyes and post cry sniffles that told every boy in the room that I was weak because I cried. The tough kids came back stone faced but no tears. They had everyone’s respect. I was not that kid. Again, if there is one feeling that sums up the whole experience it is the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness.
I learned to overcome that feeling of powerlessness by exerting power in other areas of my life, and to that end, my brother took the brunt of that as he was five years younger than me.
The cruelty of my grade 6 teacher was nothing compared to how tyrannical I was with my brother. My response to being bullied was to, in fact, become a bully myself, and I didn’t stop with my brother. In my constant search for power, or to be more accurate, avoiding the feeling of powerlessness, I became a white power skinhead and attacked people with my words and my actions.
Over the past 16 years, I’ve engaged in a lot of self-examination to understand how I became a bully, and more importantly, how I stopped. You see, when I look back at my life, I didn’t stop my actions because somebody told me I was wrong, that my behavior was wrong, that I was hurting others, or that I was hurting myself; it was compassion towards me that changed me.
I raised my children as a single father and it was their love and compassion that helped to change me in subtle and profound ways of which I was not consciously aware.
I also need to acknowledge the compassion shown to me by my mentor, Dov Baron, who happens to be of Jewish heritage.
Can you imagine… A Jew having compassion for a person (me) who had been a white power skinhead, who had idealized National Socialism and Adolph Hitler?
It was his compassion that helped me to transform into the person who I am today and taught me much of what I know about compassion. These changes, unlike the changes facilitated by my children, came with an abundance of self-realization and acute awareness. You see, I was not only greatly affected by his acts of compassion for me, but also in my own practice of compassion towards others; I found that I was also profoundly changed.
When I see a bully now, I ask myself this question: “I wonder what events happened in their life that allows them to rationalize and choose behaviors that are mean, cruel, and damaging to others?” I think of my own story and wonder what theirs is.
This is the very first step in compassion—empathy.
For me, the definition of compassion is empathy, plus action, and in the next edition, I’m going to share with you my thoughts on compassion in action; how I think compassion is so very misunderstood and the number one place where compassion breaks down and doesn’t work ( I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t in the compassion part). Finally, I’ll hope to leave you with an understanding of how compassion and character development (such as in our Kindness Not Weakness program) is essential in every anti-bullying curriculum.
Issue 34 of Life After Hate commenced by welcoming Jack Varnell—poet, author, photographer, artist, and social media master of The Good Men Project—with his debut contribution, Like Minds, Like Missions: The Good Men Project.
We were honored to welcome back Life After Hate alum, Kipp Efinger, who shared a personal anecdote about self awareness, discovery, and how his own inspired meditation practice keeps him engaged in the cycle of life in Samsara Doesn’t Seem So Bad.
What Is Patriotism?, by another Life After Hate alum, Terry Hoffman Vincevineus, addressed some very real human issues, challenged the “us vs. them” mentality, and did so in a refreshingly non-aggressive way.
Bridging Divides, another debut by an amazing woman whom we met via M.A.D. for Peace, Sahar Shahin, honored us by encouraging communication and understanding in the face of adversity, and who did so with awe-inspiring grace.
We welcomed back Life After Hate author, Theresa Nickol, who courageously shared about some of the difficulties she has overcome, and taught us a few imperative lessons about navigating some of life’s most difficult experiences with Chaotic Blessings.
Frog and Toad: A Lesson, by Laura Gonzalez, who happens to be another new author and friend of Life After Hate, poignantly examined lessons such as the basic goodness of our humanity, and how in exercising it, we make the world a better place for all human beings.
Distinguished Life After Hate board member, Frank Meeink, kindly allowed us to republish his article (which we titled) Colors, which offered a fresh perspective on political polarization and rhetoric as the US Presidential election draws nearer.
In light of the terrorist violence leveled against three teen-aged schoolgirls in Pakistan, survivor and founder of Pakistan Terrorism Survivors Network, Tahir W. Malik, offered a heartfelt poem to express his grief and to show that we stand in solidarity against violence and terrorism with In Honor of Malala Yousafzai.
Marina Cantacuzino did us the great honor of adding her voice to and introducing the Life After Hate family to her story, her work, and her non-profit organization with her article of the same name, the Forgiveness Project.
To close out Issue 34 of Life After Hate, we were deeply honored to share, Who Am I?, a moving article written by Life After Hate veteran, Sammy Rangel, former violent gang member turned advocate, author, peace practitioner, and Kindness Not Weakness Warrior.
VANCOUVER, B.C.: A former associate of the White Aryan Resistance Movement (WAR), Tony McAleer served as a skinhead recruiter, proprietor of Canadian Liberty Net (a computer operated voice messaging center),, and manager of the racist rock band, "Odin's Law." Tony was found to have contravened section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Commission that prohibits the dissemination of messages likely to expose groups to hatred by telephone. He was later jailed for contempt when he circumvented the CHRC decision by establishing a telephone message system in Washington State, in a case that went to the Supreme Court of Canada. His love for his children led Tony on a spiritual journey of personal transformation. Financial hardship and the harsh realities of single parenthood brought him to a place of compassion and forgiveness for himself and for others. Tony has spent the past six years as principal of McAleer & Associates Wealth Management and traveling as a motivational speaker.