The fear that a young person who is bullied experiences – albeit in varying degrees of intensity – morphs into a sly, shape-shifting demon in adulthood. The demon is constantly lurking, performing his dark deeds from the shadows, his presence felt but his nature rarely identified. He is darkly powerful, able to thwart career and relationship, undermining confidence and stoking self-doubt, draining positive and creative energy, and kindling the fires of anger and resentment.
Joseph Campbell tells us, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” This statement could not be truer for those who have been bullied in their youth; the greatest fear we experience as adults, a fear that is the source of all our insecurities and phobias, is that of being ourselves. As children we were ridiculed and assaulted because of our timidity, our sensitivity, our sexuality, our physical or psychological anomalies – in other words, for being ourselves – so we withdrew; we tried to hide in order to escape the torment. When we are adults, however, we cannot always hide from the world; we must interact with those in authority or with peers in order to make a living, get a higher education, or enjoy a social life. So we present what we hope to be a pleasing face to our boss, to our professors, to our neighbours, to minister or priest, to many or even most of our friends, even to our potential life partner. The fear of ridicule is manifested as a desperate need to please and to be liked, and we unconsciously become like chameleons of identity, automatically adapting our personalities to every situation in which there is a danger of our being “found out” and put down.
There is a kind of paradox here in that the chief consequence of a life of hiding who you are out of fear is that in the end you don’t know who you are. You are in a state of confusion but you have no idea why you are confused. Your true nature has been so repressed that when you finally realize that you must be who you are in order to be happy, your authentic self is buried under so many layers of who-you-are-not that peeling those layers away one by one seems like an impossible task. And still you may be afraid to remove entirely the armour that has been your “protection” for all of your adult life.
I have written elsewhere about my lifetime journey of struggling to be someone I was not.
The good news is that rebirth is possible, even in later life. At the age of 56 I finally came to the point at which I realized that the life I had been leading for over thirty-five years was in its essence circular; rather than growing and evolving, I had been repeating the same behaviour in different forms. And I was simply weary of beating my head against the wall. I knew that I had to effect a radical transformation if I hoped to be happy, if I wished to be fulfilled. I have spent that past ten years struggling to break through the shell of fear and resentment I had grown over three and a half decades of adult life. While the work has not been easy, it has, for the most part, been a joyous adventure.
In a delightful and insightful film about the work of Joseph Campbell, called Finding Joe, the story is told of a golden statue of the Buddha in a Thai village which was in danger of being looted when the village was about to be overrun by a hostile neighbour. The villagers quickly covered the statue with mud and concrete in order to deceive the invaders and as a result of their quick thinking the statue was left un-plundered. But the golden figure under the mud was forgotten by the people and stood unremarked for many years “until one day when a young monk was sitting on the Buddha meditating on his knee, and as he got up a little piece of concrete happened to crack off and he saw something shiny. He realized it was gold under there and so he ran to his fellow monks and said, ‘The Buddha’s golden! The Buddha’s golden!’ They all came out and they realized he was telling the truth and they took their picks and hammers and eventually they unearthed the golden Buddha.”
The point of the story is that each of us is that golden Buddha – “we are born golden.” If only we could chip away the mud and cement that has been caked, as a form of defence, on top of the gold over our lifetimes – by our childhood experience, by our parents, by our church, by the media, by our teachers, – we would behold our true selves in all our stunning beauty, in all our divine potential, in all our natural serenity. I feel as if my crust of mud is thick and the process of chipping it away is laborious, but I do live in hope that one day soon, my chisel will strike a vital point in this armour and the entire coat will fall at once to the ground in a spray of shards and a cloud of mud dust.
In spite of the work I have done on myself, I am not completely free. I still experience anxiety, insecurities, and fear. I still too often fail to answer “Yes” to the call when I know that I should in order to fully embrace life. I am too often ruled by anger and resentment instead of compassion and patience and forgiveness. It is clear to me that much of the thick layer of mud remains to be chiselled away. I understand also that my childhood experiences caused me to lock my heart away in order to protect it; thus my newfound passion – my bliss – is predominantly intellectual – in the head – and so has not been allowed to fully blossom. I am not yet enjoying the privilege of being who I am.
In Robert Redford’s gem of a film, Ordinary People, the psychiatrist, perfectly portrayed by Judd Hirsch, helps both the son, Conrad, and the father, Calvin, to unlock the door that is obstructing each of them from experiencing the freedom to be who he is and to love without reservation. I wonder now if a skilled and empathetic therapist might help me to strike that final hammer blow that will release my heart from its iron casing and allow it to soar joyful and free.
Many who read this essay will agree with Joseph Campbell: “You didn’t have the guts to bring up your full moon and live the life that was your potential.” And they would be right: I did not have the courage to slay the dragon guarding the entrance to the cave and make my way inside to seize the treasure. But they would also have missed the point: internalized fear caused by years of bullying had resulted in psychological paralysis; I was not even aware of the need for courage.
But little of this would be of concern, and indeed it likely would not have been necessary for these words to be written, if fifty years ago some disinterested but compassionate adult – a teacher, a priest or nun, aunt or uncle – had noticed a boy lost in the woods and afraid and had given that boy a light so that he no longer need fear the darkness. The boy might then have used the light to discover a unique pathway to his bliss and thus been able to realize his potential and live a fulfilled life.
The cover story of the March 30, 2014 Food and Drink issue of the New York Times Magazine featured 15-year-old aspiring chef Flynn McGarry, who, the piece revealed, was more than passionate about cooking. At the age of eleven, having begun cooking seriously one year earlier, he threw a dinner party for his mother Meg’s friends, using recipes from Le Bernardin Cookbook; the experience (the guests all applauded at the end of the dinner) led him to decide that cooking was what he wanted to do with his life.
McGarry, who had long been bullied at school … asked his mother if he could be home-schooled in order to focus on cooking. “I was actually relieved,” says Meg, who at that point had spoken to several principals about the bullying. “I don’t want him to be unhappy. And I want him to do what he likes to do.”
Meg’s awareness of both her son’s victimization and his passion profoundly influenced Flynn’s life. Had she failed to take the bullying seriously and remove him from an unhealthy environment, the fear he experienced as a victim of bullying could have stifled his creativity and his passion and led to an adulthood of social dysfunction and unrealized potential. Moreover, Meg and Flynn’s father encouraged and supported their son as he embarked on his own hero’s journey. As a result of their vigilance and concern, this young chef is already experiencing life fully.
Now that research has shown that childhood bullying produces long-term detrimental effects, it is even more urgent that every effort be made not only to put an end to bullying but also to seek out and embrace and protect its victims, to help them summon the courage to be who they truly are, to find and follow their bliss. In the article “The Biological Underpinnings of Peer Victimization: Understanding Why and How the Effects of Bullying Can Last a Lifetime,” cited above, the authors state: “It is not clear (as yet) if the biological scars brought on by peer victimization can be reversed – putting people back on a healthier trajectory, although there is evidence suggesting hope.” If it is this uncertain as to whether the biological scars can be reversed, what of the long-term emotional or psychological effects?
It is, therefore, the undeniable responsibility of every parent, of every teacher, of every minister or priest – of every adult whose life touches the life of a child – to utilize the entire array of personal and professional resources at his or her command to ensure that all children are given the opportunity to recognize and reach their potential and to experience life to the fullest. There are countless versions of Flynn McGarry out there in the world, young people whose talent and passion are in danger of being smothered by bullying and fear. Who will show them that they too can bring up their full moon?
“Golden Buddha at the Golden Triangle, Thailand” by Rex Gray. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Recent Ross Lonergan Articles:
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Four
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Three
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part One
- Bullying, Fear, And The Full Moon (Part Four)