Bully-Proof Your Heart

Bully-Proof Your Heart

I'm back on US soil after a few weeks of roaming my old stomping grounds in Amsterdam, a visit to my sister's place in France, a few days in Norway, a week each in Mumbai and Bangalore, and ten days in Goa. I planned to stay much longer in India, but I had to cut my trip short for personal reasons. No worries, I'll pick up where I left off next year.

While I was in Amsterdam I visited the neighborhood where I grew up, and was surprised at how little had changed after 50 years. More cars, more people, but otherwise, not much change. I love that about Europe; things just last.

I also visited my old school, a big brick building with a huge, mostly paved playground surrounded by a tall wrought-iron fence. There were a few basketball hoops, some tall cypress trees in the corner where the faculty would hang out and smoke cigarettes, a large sandbox, and about 500 kids. The Dongeschool, Dintel Straat 7, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Feel free to Google-Earth it. As for me, I never saw it as anything other than my personal prison where I was bullied and beaten up pretty much on a daily basis from first to sixth grade. I was made for it too: undersized, shy, insecure, buckteeth, dressed in hand-me-downs from two generations back, Coke bottle lenses in large metal-framed glasses, and so forth. I am sure you get the picture. Every school has a kid like that. In my case, I played my role to the max. My only escape was books and art, which doesn't exactly make you more popular among the bullies and the jocks.

As a result of my popularity, I would come home with a black eye or a bloody nose once or twice a week, which always elicited the same spirited response from my father: "You're going to have to learn to stand up for yourself, Boy. Otherwise, you will find yourself a victim for the rest of your life."

Thanks, Dad. That was great advice for a 10-year-old. Unfortunately, the few times I "stood up for myself" didn't work out too well. Like any kid who has been bullied, by the time I risked life and limb to fight back, it was too late. My sanity, discipline, and functional muscle-eye coordination replaced by blind rage, I'd transform from a cowering, scared kid into a punching, biting, screaming, kicking, scratching, out-of-control maniac in a split second. I came to call that moment, when I'd lose control and fear no longer made a difference, my DTT moment, for "Damn The Torpedoes," a war cry attributed to David Farragut (according to Wikipedia). To me, it simply means you no longer care about the consequences. And make no mistake, these DTT moments are always memorable and gratifying, even if they sometimes do a lot of damage. Once it resulted in a kid twice my size loosing several teeth and breaking a wrist. Another time, when I was a little older but no less victimized, I used a solid wooden chair to beat a group of half a dozen kids out of the class room, and two of them into the hospital. (A lesson to all bullies: never push a person too far across the sanity threshold. It's like giving him or her a superman pill.)

And you know what? I still have the occasional DTT moment because bullies don't stop or die, at least not quickly enough. Bullies rule, seemingly forever. They muscle their way into all corners of society. You find them among lawyers, car salesmen, dentists, politicians, police officers (it seems law enforcement absorbs more natural-born bullies than any other group), business people, bankers, mortgage brokers -- everywhere you look bullies take up space. Perhaps, due to my less-than-happy childhood, I have an increased sensitivity towards bullies. Certainly I have no patience for them, and I tend to respond in disproportionately confrontational ways that, according to my friends, don't help. "Be tactful," they say. "It would be better to diffuse the situation," they advise. "Just ignore it," is another common suggestion.

I disagree with that. Bullies need to be knocked down. Period. Besides, there are few things more enjoyable than to see the tables turned. It appeals to our sense of justice. That campus police officer who thought it necessary to pepper spray a bunch of students peacefully sitting on the sidewalk: I want him fired and humiliated. The business man who bought a struggling company so he could fire the workers and sell the assets, I want him broke and in jail. That developer who threatened and harassed the old lady out of the house she lived in for the last 50 years, I want him dragged into court and fined an excessive amount in punitive damages. The hospital administrator who, upon realizing that the couple didn't have insurance, told them to take the baby home and hope for the best, I want him demoted to janitor.

Right, so after this little rant, I would like to point out something else: we are all bullies. Given the right circumstances, you will be surprised at what you are capable of doing. Fortunately for mankind, the opposite is also true. That campus police officer who behaved like a bully, that same guy may one day donate a kidney to a stranger. The greedy businessman? Change the circumstances and he might just be the guy who risks his life to save yours. The hospital administrator? A different time, different place, and he could be the one sacrificing everything to help out another human being.

We are complex creatures capable of almost anything, whether cold and cruel or heroic and compassionate. Good versus evil; the war goes on, inside of you and outside of you. And you only have one weapon, one resource you can trust to make the right choice, always, without failure. It's not your mind or your intellectual understanding of right and wrong. In your head, the battlefield is a level playing ground. Your mind will tell you one thing this time, but something else another time. Your mind doesn't know right from wrong, even while it parrots saints and devils and claims the moral ground from the pulpit, or a philosophy professor's lecture stand. Whatever the circumstances demand, your mind will be much too willing to bend and twist until the self-serving conclusion it desires overrides everything else. Your mind, I hate to point this out, is as cold as ice; a truly calculating bitch. Never trust your mind, for it has no feeling, it's just electricity and chemicals jumping around, an efficient computer -- and with about the same amount of love and compassion.

The one resource you do have though, your infallible guide to what is right and what is wrong, is your heart. I know, sounds like a cliche! Some old hippie talking. But look at it this way: When you watch a movie, an honest-to-God tearjerker, and you sit there trying to stop yourself from bawling your eyes out, where does all that emotion happen? Between your ears? No, it happens in your chest, right around your heart. It's not your physical heart causing all that commotion. Your heart is just doing what it always does: boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom. No different from any other time, any other place. In fact, you can take that heart and replace it with another one, and it won't make a difference when it comes to your emotional experiences. And yet, that is where you put your hand when you subconsciously want to protect or get in touch with those feelings. That space, there's something there: the real, immortal you!

So here's my advice: let your heart do the talking. Keep your mind on a leash and let your heart roam free. That way you can be sure you will never be the bully, never be the bad guy.

I guarantee it.

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