18 Adar, 5773
February 28th, 2013
Parshat Ki Tissa
Emily Bazelon (who wrote the book on bullying) was at Sixth & I last night. Last week, this came out.
I was bullied as a kid. My mother once told me, years into my adulthood, that she didn’t know how I went to school everyday. Luckily, I was a big kid, so the encounters were rarely physical.
I am uncomfortable writing this post, partially because of the intimacy of this subject. But mostly I’m concerned that to admit that one was bullied is to admit weakness. The way of things is to pretend that we have always been invincible.
Luckily, I am not the boy I once was – few of us are. The blessings of my life after outweighed the curses of life before. I am content.
Still, when I reach inside I can trace the scars, the places where my soul is rough and abraded. The injuries are long healed, but some of those limbs will never quite work as they were intended. That too is the way of things. To a greater or lesser extent, everyone has these injuries.
And after the profusion of anti-bullying material of the past year or two, my question is not why do kids bully, but why do we tolerate bullying? Why isn’t it perfectly unacceptable?
I remember this line in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life: “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.” And though it’s a Christian idea, I believe it’s true. Our brand of the idea is ol malkhut shamyim – accepting the yoke of heaven.*
Nature is brutal. Beautiful, but brutal. One eats, or is eaten. And in nature, dominance matters.
Not so in spirituality. What matters in the life of the spirit is strength – the kind of strength that is filled with love, goodness, and principle.
The two are, ultimately, mutually exclusive. Dominance requires lessening others. Strength is not strength unless it extends to others.
But I see people confuse strength with dominance. Tragically, it is often the people who have been bullied who confuse the ideas the most, for dominance is all they have experienced.
We need a world of strength. Everyone is vulnerable. Everyone is scared. Only true spiritual strength lifts us up out of the mire of fear. Strength is worth choosing.
May you go from strength to strength.
* The Jewish image is a bit earthier and more workaday than the Christian one. The idea is that we give up being creatures of wild nature in order to work in heaven's yoke – towards a better world.