Bully's Burden

| 8/20/2014 10:18:00 AM


Tim White, PhD, LPC, NCC offers advice on family planning and parenting, LGBT issues, disability issues, education and work issues, relationships, ethics and "unusual" social issues. Send questions to Tim for future columns through his website

Hi Tim,
I am a man in my 50's who taunted and teased a quiet, smaller boy when we were in elementary through junior high. Me and my friends cornered him in school and in the neighborhood. Sometimes we hit and kicked and humiliated him, too. I can't even remember the exact reason except that he was small. He was taught to fight by someone older and fought back, which is when I backed off but the other boys reacted by ganging up on him and causing him serious injuries. He was in the hospital and recovered, but immediately his family moved. I recently reconnected with a friend from high school, who is unaware of the bullying, but she has been his romantic partner for the past 4 years. She told me he has terminal cancer without much time left. I have been a good person since that and my family is doing well. I believe that I changed. Should I visit this person and make amends?  Would that help ease his pain at all?
- Ex Bully 

Hi Ex Bully,
Thank you for your letter. It reminds me of that classic but wretched sitcom plot; kid gets bullied, relative teaches him how to fight "like a man," and then he scares off the bullies. Making peace is not so simple in real life. Teaching a victim to be violent can be like pouring gasoline on a fire. We need to teach our children self-defense for confidence and safety. However, as a knee-jerk reaction to current bullying it is counterproductive. What you are telling a victim is that violence is the answer. You are also leading this David to believe that standing up to Goliath will fix the problem once and for all. In fact, violence tends to incite more violence until someone is seriously hurt, or so chronically angry that victims romanticize revenge violence and ultimately carry it out, or internalize it and hurt or even kill themselves. The bully's behavior, and not the victim's, is the problem. 

In reference to your inner conflict, circumstances make all the difference. If you had become friends and stayed in touch with this victim, or if he were not terminally ill, then a letter or a call may have been innocuous. You do not even know this man, or why you helped a gang of cruel children terrorize him. Maybe if you had ever been stalked and assaulted as you simply tried to attend school or walk to the corner store, or had to constantly look over your shoulder every time you ventured out into daylight you might better understand his experience. But you did not. I imagine your former victim might consider the same conclusion I have; you want closure for yourself. I am happy to hear you have learned from your mistakes, and you may very well have changed. But the guilt belongs to you, forever. You should not swoop in for a quick confession and absolution via acknowledgement of your past cruelty. It sounds like you and the friend will be okay at a distance since three decades have already passed. That boy has made a life for himself without any apology from you and may never have given you a thought over the years. If you need closure for yourself, speak with a therapist on your own time or volunteer to help others. Mind your own business and give this man some peace.

8/24/2014 1:52:20 PM

Absolutely! I agree that one deserves to look up one's former bully anytime on their own terms. But that ex-bully dropping in on you out of the blue "to help you," is specious and just plain creepy. -Tim

8/22/2014 8:16:52 PM

Dear Ex-Bully, Speaking as one who had been torturously bullied in junior high, I would appreciate an apology from my bully. I think of him quite often. I've even looked up his address.

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