If you’re “of a certain age,” you have or will soon receive such an invitation. Typical responses might be: I got so fat, I lost so much hair, I’d better get some Botox . . . OR I’ll show them, I look terrific . . . OR they didn’t like me then, why should I go now . . . and so on.
If you were a kid who was bullied, this invitation may bring on heightened feelings of dread, unpleasant flashbacks, anger and sadness.
The last thing you’d think is that this could be an invitation to freedom.
You’re probably not the same person you were 25-plus years ago and I bet the one who bullied you isn’t either.
At my 25th grammar school reunion, I went to the bar to get a drink and there stood the ringleader of my tormentors. We exchanged awkward hellos and vital statistics (where we lived, marital status, occupation). He then said he’d thought a lot about how he treated me when we were kids and how awful it was and how sorry he was.
Here’s a guy who from fourth grade to eighth would gather a gang of other boys and chase me to ballet class calling me horrible names, making fun of me and throwing rocks at me. It felt like something out of the angry villager scene in Frankenstein or The Hunchback of Notre Dame (movies I can’t watch again).
In that moment, my own angry villagers began clamoring in my head: “Oh, so, now you want me to forgive you? Now I’m supposed to understand? Now I’m supposed to say it was OK? You made my childhood a living hell and, by the way, you owe me lots of money in shrink bills! NOW I’M SUPPOSED TO BE NICE TO YOU?” I had a momentary fantasy of throwing my drink in his face with righteous aplomb.
While those are all valid and perfectly legit options, I didn’t really want to live out any of those fantasies. What I really wanted was to figure out how to honor myself.
At the same time, I knew that a polite, “that’s OK,” would have been a lie without any self-respect. Passive niceness would have been like saying “oh don’t be silly, it was all in good fun.” A bland, dismissive response simply wouldn’t do.
Time seemed to stand still as I weighed each option. Kenny had extended the proverbial olive branch and I could hit him over the head with it or figure out a way to put the values of the self I aspire to be into practice.
While the possible snarky responses to his vulnerability clamored in my head, deep down I knew that what I chose to say would make a huge difference for both of us. If I punished him with my response, I might feel a momentary retribution, but he and I would walk away diminished. That was unacceptable. I didn’t want to remain his victim and I didn’t want to become a bully myself.
I looked at Kenny. Still there. Waiting.
Beneath all the noise in my head and the roiling emotions, I found myself in a tiny space of peaceful silence.
There I saw that Kenny’s apology was an invitation to something new for both of us – whether he knew it or not. The choice was mine: turn the possibility into a chance to get even or apply the emotional depth I so acutely developed through the pain of having been bullied and that makes me who I am today. There had to be something available besides dismissive dishonesty and scathing vengeance; but what?
He’s going to walk away if I don’t hurry up!
Could I actually tell him what it was like for me without red-faced venom? I heard myself say, “Yeah, it was really awful – I can’t tell you.” I waited; took a breath. Then I heard myself add, “It really means a lot to me now to hear you say that you’re sorry and that you get it. Thank you. It makes a big difference.”
For the first time, Kenny and I saw each other as human beings. By telling the grown-up Kenny what was true for me, allowed me to speak powerfully to someone I used to run away from. Everything was transformed. It wasn’t forgotten. I still remembered everything. It was brutal and painful for me as a kid. It made me who I am, though, and I turned out to be a good person all-in-all.
Kenny stood there with that olive branch risking that I might spit in his eye. That cowardly bully had become a man brave enough to walk up to me with respect and apologize for the impact of his behavior. It takes courage for a bully to acknowledge their shame, acknowledge you, and apologize for it – all the while risking that you could spit in their eye.
Because I was honest about how I felt, the voices in my head could stop screaming. Compassion in this present moment – – his for me then, mine for him now – – led to forgiveness. I gave my little 10 year old the voice of the woman I’d become. That essential first step made all the difference. I was able to accept the invitation contained in Kenny’s apology.
In that moment at our 25th grammar school reunion, I could finallybreathe and look Kenny in the eye and he could put down the weight of shame.
Have you ever done something you felt terrible about, were ashamed of, regretted and wanted forgiveness? Has forgiveness ever been withheld from you? Yeah, yeah, yeah . . .I know, you never chased anyone with rocks. C’mon, there’s something you did you wish you hadn’t.
You might think, “I don’t need to apologize because ‘they’ deserved it.” That’s easier, isn’t it? But is it really more comfortable for you as you drag it around through the years?
You could also quite rightly think you were hurt and the person who hurt you doesn’t deserve your forgiveness. Please remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean what happened was OK. It means acknowledging what happened and making room for everyone concerned to grow past it, including you! It releases everyone from being trapped in the pain of the old roles of victim and tormentor. You could stay there entrenched in being sad and right about it, but you’ve done that long enough.
Now when I think of Kenny, what I remember most is our last exchange. While I remember us as kids, I now am able to see us as adults. It is released: I was Kenny’s victim and he was a bully, but that’s just not who we are today. (THANK GOD!) The result: I feel stronger, lighter, more grounded in myself. Somewhere, when he thinks about me and our shared past, I know that Kenny gets to feel stronger and lighter now, too.
“Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.”