Bully’s Burden

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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.

Femme Nazi

Hi Tim,
I am an attractive, single, straight, female graduate student in my late 20’s. I happen to be very involved in women’s causes. I work at a women’s bookstore, volunteer at a rape crisis center, and run a campus women’s organization that provides information and the occasional peaceful protest. I have been in the local paper due to these efforts, and gotten a reputation around campus, and our small town. Unfortunately, that reputation paints me as a ball-busting, man-hating lesbian, and none of these are accurate. I am quite attracted to men, at least the ones who use their brain, and I even like girly things but I would feel like I am sending the wrong message if I indulged that part of me. I just happen to need equality. But I have other needs too, and the few men who have dared to ask me out won’t make a move on me because of that reputation. How can I get a willing date? Since you are a male feminist I thought you might offer a fresh but sensible perspective.
– Femme Nazi

Hi Femme Nazi,
First, I hope you change your nickname. Second, be sure to take some time for yourself and do something you enjoy regularly; something that has nothing to do with working or volunteering but brings you joy. Third, nothing at all. You are supporting a social cause that is worthy and your leadership is desperately needed and invaluable. Take care of your physical and mental health, and do not let the cause crowd out your personal life. You know that any changes you made would be for a potential man, and I do not recommend it. Wear girly clothes, or get a pedicure or whatever it is that makes you feel girly. Do not worry about the “image” you are presenting, your actions speak a lot louder than any wardrobe or hairstyle or mannerisms. Attend some non-cause gatherings as yourself, not a representative or role model for anything. Living only that way can be exhausting. There are indeed a few guys out there who are mature and equality-minded enough to appreciate your natural style, your passion for the cause and your commitment to action. 

Worried Witness

Hi Tim,
I am a man, 30-something, and associate professor at a private university. I was asked to retrieve some information for a much older colleague who was at conference. This information was on his personal laptop in his office. I was on the phone with him when he gave me the password and I unlocked it. I was greeted with a desktop brimming with open pornographic pictures and some videos! It was so unexpected that I stammered while he gave me instructions, and I think he could tell I was having trouble concentrating. I closed the pictures on the desktop so he wouldn’t think I had seen them. Now he is behaving strangely toward me. I am an awful liar, I could never convince him that I was ignorant of his collection. We aren’t close but do work together on a few committees, so I will see him often. Do I just come out with it to ease this tension?
– Worried Witness

Hi Worried Witness,
I suggest that if he ever calls you and asks you to enter his car or home, to politely decline. I assume that all models in question were at least 18 years old, or you would have mentioned otherwise as you mentioned that the laptop did not belong to the university. This avoids most if not all conduct violations. I usually have to tell snoopers that they got what they deserved, but yours is a pickle from a different jar. Your discovery was made during a favor executed in good faith. I suggest you give that good faith one more try and do your best to “unsee” what you saw. You have not a single clue of the origins of this racy research. It could be a teenage relative who borrowed the laptop. Or, maybe this colleague likes looking at legal pornography on his personal laptop … not exactly scandalous. Whatever the circumstances, focus on your committee work together and in time, the memory should fade. If you are not able to do so, then perhaps on the sly mention, “Hubert, you may want to be careful of your desktop artwork, it looked a bit unorganized, just FYI.” Try to laugh it off together, relax and get to work on forgetting as soon as possible. 

Editor’s Note: The opinions offered in this blog are the author’s alone. Tim White, and any experts he may consult and/or quote in responses to letters, will never provide medical or psychological advice, diagnoses, treatment, or counseling of any kind. General advice, opinions, and suggestions may be offered with no obligation on the part of readers to accept or act upon the content published within this column. Anyone in immediate crisis and/or mental/physical distress should call 911 or related resources of assistance.

Photo courtesy Thomas Ricker, licensed under Creative Commons

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