Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lessons from Having Been Bullied When Young

How much of my life has been about endurance.

I was writing recently some thoughts about self-assessing oneself as a creative writer, and I got into a long memory tale about being bullied while in elementary school. I was a small kid, a runt, who didn’t have a growth spurt till he was 14 or so, and I wouldn’t fight back. Not because I was afraid that they would hurt me more for fighting back; but because I knew I had such a reservoir of power in me, a volcano of berserker rage, that I knew if I ever let it out I would fucking kill them. I was more afraid of my own dark nature, and the power it contained, than anything else.

All this thinking about my childhood has led me to some self-knowledge I was able to formulate for myself in a manner that finally sank into my own being enough to really hit home, and be retained once and for all. There are two pieces to this: First, that no one who has been bullied for a long time ever completely trusts authority; authority figures back then were ineffectual, clueless, or just plain stupid, and not to be turned to for actual support, then or now. Second, it was another lesson in endurance.

I can look back on my life, now, and see how many lessons there have been about endurance. I’ve often been impatient and frustrated about feeling stuck in endurance, again and again, and I’ve prayed some dangerous prayers, at times, to break up the log-jams, as I framed them. For example, for three or four years, when I first lived in Minnesota, I prayed daily a most dangerous prayer: Thy will be done. That’s really asking for your life to be stripped clear of everything that isn’t in alliance with the will of Heaven. You’re asking for it, when you pray that prayer; and I got it. When you pray that prayer, you’re that asking everything that you don’t need, that gets in between you and the will of Heaven, to be removed; and it has been, from my life, as it has from others. I still get into anger about it, and I can still fight it, when I don’t like the guidance I’m given. That doesn’t mean I won’t do what Heaven wants me to do—most of the time. A few times this past summer I’ve had just about too much, and said so, and told the Powers That Be to go fuck themselves. Which you have to do, sometimes, or they start to take your compliance for granted, and get uppity. Respect for your own needs must be maintained: that is part of taking care of yourself, in that you have to know your limits, and refuse to be pushed into self-destruction via exhaustion or overwork. You have to be able to say STOP, and be heard. I’m significantly tougher about this than I used to be. And dangerously less willing to be tested to destruction–dangerous to anyone who pushes me in that direction, that is: that volcano is still there, the force of it available to be directed where I will, if need be. I know the mere possibility intimidates some folk, and that’s not my problem.

But another thing I learned from being bullied: keep going. Do the next thing. Don’t stop, don’t let them stop you, and don’t give up when you know better. Some of one’s innate skepticism about other people’s motives, and much of the willingness to trust one’s own inner compass over what other people claim is better for you to do—this is all part of that, too. One thing I have noticed about kids who have been bullied, myself included: they tend to develop an inner moral compass, an innate sense of wrongness, that they trust more than any received wisdom, especially if it’s been shouted down from a pulpit or microphone, by some messenger of social authority. Bullied kids tend to innately be skeptical of authority figures, no matter what arena they are in. Bullied kids tend to be harbingers of resistance, when the social fabric veers away from social justice.

I am reframing some of the arguments around poetry and the arts I found myself in the midst of, over the past year: I realize now that what I was really objecting to was being bullied. I was refusing to drink the kool-aid. I refused to just shut up and take it, when obvious ignorance and stupidity was on the attack. I was unable to stay silent in the face of obvious injustice—which amounts to being unable to stand on the sidelines, anymore, and watch other people, whether or not they were friends, get bullied. When someone I knew was being attacked for apparently personal reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of their work—when they were being targeted for vendetta—I could not keep silent. This got me into loads of trouble, and I have now left, by choice, every single poetry board I once considered home. I regard this as their loss, not mine. I cannot claim that any board I have joined since then will ever gain my complete trust; perhaps one will, the key point is that I cannot guarantee it. Once bullied, thrice shy. Still, I’m able to go forward, and participate where and when I feel like, and speaking up against injustice, still, without being too dented by attack. I’m all for cordial disagreement. The gods forbid everyone agreed on everything; nothing would make for a more bland world. My tolerance for shouting matches is at low ebb, however; if people can’t discuss their disagreements amicably, I will be happy to show them the door. I have enough drama of my own to deal life, in my life. Life is too short and too sweet to willingly take on the drama that rightly belongs to others, and not to oneself.

Anyone who thinks this is a demand for them to drink my own kool-aid is wrong: I have actively, openly, and politely solicited discussion from people who I have had disagreements with. I am always open to a good discussion. For most of the questions I’ve asked, the queries I’ve made, the viewpoints I’ve invited response to from those who disagree with me on the issues, I have for the most part received in reply a ringing, and very telling, silence. One might say, a deafening silence that communicates a great unwillingness to actually engage in discussion. So be it.

How deeply does this history of being bullied go as an underlying motivation in my recent decisions to back off from the online poetry community, and go my own way? I think, a lot. Probably a lot more than I realized, up till now. Re-framing the discussion in this way seems to lead me to insight after insight, within and without. It all seems very connected, very relevant.

I keep returning to what Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said: A prophet is one who interferes with injustice. If you place that next to the tendency for poets to be truth-tellers, to write as I often do in the vatic mode, then you can see more clearly how poets are prophets. And why they must speak out. Poets must interfere. There is no real choice but to speak out, when one sees an injustice being done.

This isn’t about superficially political poetry. This is about the spirit of injustice and bullying being rejected in all modes, in all ways. It is about refusing to sit on the sidelines when you see one side or another of an aesthetic argument resorting to name-calling and innuendo, rather than logic. It is about calling even your own friends on their bullshit, when they step over that line. No one will love you for this; it might even cost you some friends. But it essential, or you abdicate the right to call yourself a poet-prophet.

No wonder so many contemporary poets avoid this prophetic mode in their work, preferring to think only about small topics, and write narcissistically confessional poems about their feelings, or how their boyfriend just dumped them, rather than engage with these larger cultural issues. Speaking out against injustice can be scary, and it doesn’t make you loved—and the desire to be loved, to be right, is far stronger than most will admit to, even within ourselves. And the issues are indeed very large, and occasionally daunting to contemplate.

But if now us, then who? If not now, then when? The future is coming at us faster than we expect. And my art is my activism; it’s the most effective tool I’ve found, so far, for changing lives and making the world a finer place. I’ve achieved a great deal more, I feel, with my art and writing than I ever did marching in the streets. Although there will come a time, again, for marching. There will always come a time for all of these modes of interfering with injustice, in turn.

I object to political partisanship on the grounds that it is bullying, in exactly the same way I object to partisanship between literary and artistic camps. Anytime someone tells you that they know better than you do, it’s a kind of bullying. Taken to its revealed extreme, or extremism, it is a form of fundamentalism that insists that it owns all the right answers. When things get desperate, people reveal more, via their rhetoric, than they realize. They let something slip, and reveal the rot of corrosive emotion underlying their previously polite rhetoric. When the going gets tough, the bigots reveal themselves. I refer to literary bigots as well as any other variety. Those poet-bigots who get on their soapboxes about their own kind of poetry being superior to all others, let it said plainly, are bullies.

Being bullied, I now know, also made me tougher. I’m a lot tougher than I look, and tougher-minded than even some of my friends can imagine. Some few know. They know because we can argue points of belief without losing our sense of honor, or our respect for each other. We can still value each other without losing sight of each other’s basic humanity. What a bully does is target someone who seems weaker than they are themselves; targets them to pass on the abuse that probably received themselves. Bullying someone is inexcusable because it places both blame and consequence onto the world while taking no responsibility for the consequences of one’s own actions. Being a bully is easy, you can always beat someone up then when they finally turn on you, you can claim you were a victim too, as your excuse. Bullies are existentially insecure; unless they are outright sociopaths, they know what they do is wrong; on some level, they know they haven't got any logic to stand on.

Being a warrior is not easy: it demands honor and personal accountability. Not all soldiers are warriors, just as not all people are fully human beings. It’s something you have to strive to be, and learn to become, and work hard to achieve. It is not a given, and it is not an entitlement. Being a warrior means honorably refraining from violence unless it is absolutely, unavoidably necessary. Genuine warriors love peace; even as they prepare for violence.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I was the biggest boy in my class at school, broader and taller than all but one beanpole. So, physically I wasn't bullied. And those who did pick fights with me never had a hope of doing any real harm. All I ever did was stop them hurting me. The idea of offensive fighting just isn't a part of who I am. Verbally it was a different ball game and I was often picked on. Now you'd think being good with words that I could dazzle them with verbal pyrotechnics but it never really worked out that way. These were not clever people. So I defended myself, or ignored them but resisted tearing a strip off them.

And I've been that way all my life. I avoid confrontation. Even with people like you, I know that you're just getting caught up in the moment which you do all the time but I often feel I'm getting backed into a corner. You're not the only one who has does this to me. It happened on Zoetrope all the time, longer and longer and more involved and passionate posts that simply exhausted me. Maybe I lack passion but I really am done with proselytising; people can think what they like.

I have my opinions and I state them. I don't feel compelled in any way to force others to stand in my corner in fact as you well know I'm keen to see what's going on in those other corners. But I'm not a warrior. I'm a conscientious objector.

As for the subjects I choose to tackle, I write about what interests me. Big issues don't. I show my concern for the environment by making sure I recycle and by not owning a car. I'm never saying I'll never write a 'green' poem because you never know but don't hold your breath. I wrote an anti-war poem (sort of) and that came as as great a surprise to me as I'm sure it did to everyone else. Or maybe they never even noticed.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

No intention of backing you or anyone else into a corner. I know I can burn at white heat, and I also know that not everyone does. I've been told more than once that I scare people when I get intense. That power behind everything; there's a good reason it's the Dragon's Cave, not the Fairy's Cave. I know I can come on strong, but it's all just opinions, and I'm always open to discussion and civil unrest. Like you, I don't try to convert anyone to my way of thinking; people can indeed think what they like. That doesn't mean I won't challenge them on it, when their logic shows holes. Like you, I also like to discuss things with people who disagree with me.

I do go for big issues, sometimes, but that's partly because I can see them. I know they exhaust a lot of people. It's all a matter of scale. But I believe the universe is fractal: make small-scale changes, and you do affect the larger scale. One voice crying in the wilderness can change the direction the army is marching. I've seen it happen.

12:11 AM  

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