And more important, all the life-potentialities that we never managed to bring to adult realization, those other portions of ourself, are there [in the infantile unconscious]; for such golden seeds do not die. If only a portion of that lost totality could be dredged up into the light of day, we should experience a marvellous expansion of our powers, a vivid renewal of life.
Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
In his seminal work on mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell introduced the concept of the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, a journey that involves heeding the “call to adventure” given by the unconscious mind, a journey that all must take in order to have truly lived and experienced life. Refusal to answer the call will result in a life of dysfunction at best, disaster at worst.
Campbell, who taught at Sarah Lawrence College for 38 years, always encouraged his students to “follow your bliss,” to pursue the dreams that come from the heart rather than obeying the dictates or suggestions of parents, teachers, and peers that sought to lead them into lives of safety and security. He liked to tell a story that seemed to him “to embody the essential image of living one’s life, finding it and having the courage to pursue it.” It is the story of Arthur and his knights sitting at the round table and deciding to “all go in quest of that [Holy] Grail to behold it unveiled.” The part of the tale that so interested Campbell was this: “They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group. Each entered the Forest Adventurous at that point which he himself had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no way or path.” To Campbell, the message of this story was that each of us must choose his or her own path in life; in doing so we release ourselves from dependence on our parents and begin to realize our own potential.
As for those who refuse the call to adventure, Campbell offered this rather severe judgment: “Marx teaches us to blame society for our frailties, Freud teaches us to blame our parents, and astrology teaches us to blame the universe. The only place to look for blame is within: you didn’t have the guts to bring up your full moon and live the life that was your potential.”
Stephen and Robin Larsen’s superb biography of Mr. Campbell, A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell, reveals, however, that young Joe did not require a great deal of courage to answer his call to adventure. Unlike many of us, he was not bullied as a child; despite the fact that the Campbell family had its problems, Joe grew up in an emotionally and financially supportive environment. He was outgoing and naturally athletic and he possessed innate musical talent and a certain intellectual brilliance; all of these attributes were nurtured by family, friends, and teachers. So Joseph Campbell did not have to carry a heavy load of psychological baggage into adulthood, a burden that very well could have held him back from the stellar career and long and happy marriage with which he was blessed.
There may indeed be a tendency among some of the less fortunate or the more profligate members of society to lay blame for their misfortunes or for their failures on agents other than themselves, thereby abrogating responsibility for bringing up their own full moon. And many victims of bullying express the desire, even well into adulthood, to see their tormentors suffer in the way that they were made to suffer, as if such suffering on the part of the perpetrator would bring comfort to the victim, especially so long after the wounds were inflicted.
This essay is not about blame or lust for revenge, however, just as it decidedly is not an invitation to a pity party or a litany of excuses for a life of failure. It is rather a plea, sent out to all who witness a child in torment from bullying, a plea to not only consider the child’s immediate suffering but to understand that ten or twenty or forty years in the future, the adult that child has become will likely still be suffering, still living in fear.
The term “paralyzed by fear” is often used in a hyperbolic sense, in movie trailers, novels of suspense, and in the news media, to describe an individual who finds – or perceives – himself or herself in a situation of extreme danger of being injured or killed by another person, by an animal, by a force of nature, or by some other agent beyond the control of the potential victim. Many of us, especially as children, have experienced this paralysis, when, for example, we thought we saw a sinister hooded figure lurking in the corner of the room as we lay in bed or heard an eerily shuffling footstep in the dark when we were alone in the house at night.
There is, however, another kind of paralyzing fear, one that does not last for a terrifying, adrenaline-charged moment, but in some cases endures for as long as an entire lifetime. This fear paralyzes in a far more insidious way, often with the result that the victim does not even know that he or she is experiencing fear and its effects. Doctors and other health professionals like to call this fear “generalized anxiety disorder.” But that term does not, in my view, begin to describe its long-term paralyzing effects.
And where does this fear come from? In my case, it had its genesis in an unfortunate combination of several years of relentless and unmerciful physical and psychological bullying by my older brother; a stern and remote old-school father who believed that only babies or sissies cried and complained of being picked on; taunting and ostracism by classmates in an all-boys school; and intimidation by teachers in that same school who regularly employed physical punishment – sometimes brutal – to enforce rules of classroom behaviour.
The American Psychological Association defines bullying as “a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions.
The bullied individual typically has trouble defending him or herself and does nothing to ‘cause’ the bullying.”
A person who has been bullied does not “grow out of” the fear that unremitting bullying causes; the fear simply goes underground, quietly working its poison into the nervous system of a life, shutting down passion, stifling creativity, mocking love.
Recent research has shown that bullying in the family and bullying by peers, usually at school, is not simply part of growing up or of normal competitive behaviour between siblings or classmates. Nor is it, as some parents and teachers might believe, a necessary step in the process of “toughening up” for children who are weak or over-sensitive. Bullying does, in fact, have long-term detrimental – we might even say devastating – effects on the victims.
In one study, the results of which were published in the April 1, 2013 issue of the journal JAMA Psychiatry, subjects were assessed several times between the ages of 9 and 16 and again at the ages of 19 and 21, and finally between 24 and 26. The researchers found that “victims of bullying in childhood were 4.3 times more likely to have an anxiety disorder as adults, compared to those with no history of bullying or being bullied.” This research project focused on victims of peer bullying (as well as on the bullies and the so-called bully-victims).
Another study, on sibling aggression, published in the July 2013 issue of the journal Pediatrics, reveals that “those [subjects] who were attacked, threatened or intimidated by a sibling had increased levels of depression, anger and anxiety.” A New York Times article reporting the study quotes clinical psychologist Dr. John V. Caffaro as saying that “the effects of sibling abuse often continue into adulthood.” The article reports that Dr. Caffaro “has treated patients who struggled with emotional issues and sabotaged themselves in their careers because of repeated humiliation they experienced at the hands of a brother or sister.”
There is even an increasing body of evidence to show that bullying has long-lasting physiological effects. In a 2013 article entitled “The Biological Underpinnings of Peer Victimization: Understanding Why and How the Effects of Bullying Can Last a Lifetime” appearing in the journal Theory into Practice, the authors review research in neuroscience, neuroendocrinology, and genetics which “indicates that … the experiences of peer victimization become biologically embedded in the physiology of the developing person, placing him or her at risk for life-long mental and physical health problems.” The study focuses on peer victimization but one might reasonably speculate that similar long-term physiological effects will be felt by victims of sibling aggression as well.
These studies render an invaluable service to educators, parents, physicians, mental health workers, and most of all to the victims of bullying, by underlining the serious harm – now recognized as long-term – that results from childhood bullying. One positive outcome of this research might be that more adult victims of childhood bullying will seek an appropriate form of therapy to help them overcome the debilitating effects of the torment they suffered as children.
But each of the subjects in this impressive and ground-breaking body of research is more than a statistic; he or she has a story to tell, a story that can breathe life into the database entries of research projects, a story that translates clinical terminology like “generalized anxiety disorder” and “antisocial personality disorder” into the reality of the bewildered disappointment of a life shunted to the sidelines. They are stories of talented – often brilliant – and sensitive people held back by paralyzing fear from the passionate pursuit of their bliss or from healthy, emotionally satisfying relationships – or from both.
Mine is one of those stories.
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)