A Bully and A Coward Walk Into a Summer Camp

6 May

Call it the summer between fourth and fifth grades. It just happened.  He called me queer eye.  (I was born blind in one eye and it looks “off.”) I called him blubber boy (ironic, coming from a fat kid, but he was fatter).  I never did know who started it.  Steve and I circled around each other amidst a gathering circle of other boys.  “Fight, fight, fight!” Lord of the Flies at (Catholic) Cathedral Camp.

I’d never been in a fight and really didn’t want to be in one; Id’ always been afraid of getting beat up. Now there I was, and if I was going to fight anyone, I guess Steve seemed like a good option. He, like me, was probably always picked last for games on the playground. Now we each picked the other guy first amongst all those campers. Winners!

Circling around.
“Queer eye!”
“You’re a whale! Blubber boy!”
“Am not, Queer eye!”
“Blubber boy!”
“Think you’re tough, queer eye?”
“Blubber boy! Big whale!”

There must have been a dozen rounds of that highly-tactical verbal sparring. Then somewhere a “scaredy-cat” got thrown out there. That one always works: scaredy-cat. Good it did; we were each too scared to take the next step otherwise.

There was no punching; maybe a push or two.  We grabbed each other and then I tripped him (my first sweep!).  Steve fell and busted out crying. He lay there a long while, wailing and sobbing, while the onlookers eventually got bored and moved on. Not much of a fight.

A friend of Steve’s — one of those boys that always seemed older, tougher, more seasoned — got into my face yelling, “Why did you do it?”  I didn’t answer at first; I didn’t really know. Then I told him, “He called me queer eye.” He then leaned over Steve and asked him over and over, “Steve, why did you do it? Steve, you have to get up.” He seemed to know Steve was a gentle soul and wondered why he — surely picked-on in other instances —would do that to someone else. Good question.  Why did I do it to someone else?

Technically I’d won. I think I even got a bit of a reputation, the way facts spread into exaggerations: “He beat up the big, fat kid.” I do know that seeing Steve laying on the ground, sobbing for so long, with his friend unable to get him to stand back up, made me feel like crap. I didn’t feel like I’d won anything.  (Well, just maybe there was a sneaky little bubble of pride in being the last man standing . . .)

Who was the bully and who was the coward?  We each saw an opportunity to jump on someone else who might be even more vulnerable than we were. Bully. We each never in a million years would have stood up to most any other kid at the camp. Coward. Neither one of us behaved as who we really were; we each just fell into the trap of “it just happened.”  Boys will be boys.  Caught up in the heat of the moment.  Playing to the crowd.  Afraid to back down.

Bully and Coward are strong words.  I generally haven’t thought of myself as a bully over the years. The older I get the more I recognize instances when I behaved in enough of a controlling or manipulative way that I could be considered a bully. Not the intimidating playground or the nasty cyber type; no, the adult sneaky type.

Clever arguments and strategic questions can be great intimidations and put-downs; elevate me by reducing others.  I worked at getting good at that for a while. If people were going to try to beat me with those tactics then I was going to be better! I also closed things down and defaulted to position or rank when I wanted to just be done and make it so.

There was also playing the victim card and using guilt-infusing questions with my wife.  Big time winners; I made her feel crappy and I got my way.  Win!  For someone who was never a bully, I got the job done and succeeded in disempowering a few others along the way.  Oftentimes, I didn’t even really know I was doing it.  They were just the tools I had.

If I’ve not really thought of myself as a bully, I’ve often thought of myself as afraid, timid at least, not bold or brave.  Coward  At that very same camp, at some point before or after the Not-Much-of-a-Fight, I revealed to a camp friend that I was interested in — get this — taking karate lessons.  I’d been checking out a lot of karate books from the library for some time and had started to wonder if I might actually try that.  Up to that point I’d not told anyone about my weak aspiration.  His reply to me was, “You’re going to have to lose A LOT of weight if you want to do that.”  Aspiration-bubble popped!  Bully?  Chris tucks the idea of karate away into a deep, safe place.  Coward.  It wasn’t the first time I had felt that way, and not the last, right up through my adult years.

Yet, I’ve done some courageous things in my life.  In my legally-adult years, I’ve done these ten Quick-Off-The-Top-of-My-Head things:

  1. Went to college at Providence College, in a whole different state, a whopping 20.3 miles door to door. (Growing up, a trip to visit Tia Maria in Providence was a big deal.)
  2. Moved (drove) from Massachusetts to St. Louis at 22 years old, with what fit into a rented Pontiac Grand Prix
  3. Started an MSW program at St. Louis University when it wasn’t at all in the plan.
  4. Decided to get married.
  5. Decided to have a children.
  6. Moved from St. Louis to Duluth, Minnesota for a job.
  7. Started Taekwondo at age 33 (thanks to my son).
  8. Stayed in Taekwondo, class after class, belt promotion after belt promotion, color belt to black belt to master and beyond.
  9. Operated one, then two, martial arts academies.
  10. Started a new company in a new area of focus.

I bet you can list your own ten brave actions in about a minute, too. Give ourselves some credit!

So, I’m not a bully and I’m certainly not a coward.

Nope, not a bully. Except . . .

Maybe when I listen only to get enough ammunition to better push my point across and get my way. Maybe when I ask the other person questions and eventually get them to give in or stop participating. Maybe when I check out of a situation so that it might eventually go sideways and then I can say, “See, I was right, I told you so,” and step back in and push the right (aka MY) way. Maybe when I whine about how hard I have it and how poorly I’m treated until people all appease me and I get my way. Bully is a strong word. Controlling? Manipulative?  Savvy? Let’s just call it little “b” bully.

Not a coward. Except . . .

Maybe when I hold back from stepping up and calling that person to present our services. Maybe when I hold back from participating in a club activity that needs me to be more successful. Maybe when I avoid having that conversation to broach a tough subject (sometimes I’d just as soon go back and fight Steve and all his friends together than do that).  Cautious?  Timid?  Using good timing?  Maybe small “c” coward.

As adults we chalk-up these situations of cowardice and bullying to, “What can you do?”  “It’s just the way it is.”  “It’s just business.”  “It’s only human nature.”  “These things happen.”  “You can’t take things too personally.”  “It’s not my responsibility.”  “Fair is fair.”  “What goes around comes around.”  “It’s not my thing.”  “She always . . .”  “I have my pride, too, you know.”  “I have the right to . . .”  “That’s the game.”  “There’s nothing anyone can do.”  There are probably four-hundred-and-forty-nine more “chalk-it-up-to” sentiments; I’m sure I’ve used two-hundred-and-seventeen of them.

As a martial artist who aspires to live up to the tenets of Taekwondo there is really no option to be a bully or a coward.  Just as I should use my physical skills for “Self-Defense Only” (the first things we teach students), I am obliged to use the tenets of Courtesy and Self-Control to be sure that my interactions and words do not harm, leave no bruise or injury, and fully respect despite difference.  If anything, they should build-up, empower, heal.

I am likewise obliged to use the tenets of Perseverance and Indomitable Spirit to step into interactions that need attention because there is some sort of discord, some lack of harmony, lack of understanding, lack of peace, or perhaps pain or misfortune.  I can no more avoid those interactions than would I run away without aiding someone who is helpless and in need of protection from a physical aggressor, or than would I quit in training or competition.

The tenet of Integrity guides me to put ego aside, acknowledge my responsibility in matters, openly listen to understand, and act to the fairness and benefit for all concerned. Integrity also guides me to be who I really am in all situations.

Perseverance also guides me to not give up in any of these things, to not wash my hands and step away, but to drop ego, take a breath and step in, or get back in.

A bully and a coward walk into a summer camp . . . and into an office . . . and into a church . . . and into a board meeting . . .  and into a teenager’s room . . . and into a Taekwondo dojang.

Let it not be me.

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