In 2012, the day after Obama won the election, a connection on Facebook posted a meme about “The Top 10 Reasons to Elect a Democrat” Number one was: “I believe in the right to be able to marry your dog” I didn’t comment, but immediately unfriended that person (the most passive of passive-aggressive actions). Two years later, this same person was confused as to why I didn’t reach out about my own wedding in Philadelphia. It took everything I had to bite my tongue and not mention it…mostly because I didn’t want to hear it referred to as a “joke,” or be told that I “shouldn’t have taken it so seriously.”
I didn't need to hear that excuse again. That is the defense a bully will use. We have heard it so many times from 45 in the past four years: I was joking. You are a snowflake for taking it seriously. But the truth is that it is just a bully, using the pulpit of entitlement, to dole out hate in the form of diminishment and ridicule. Worse, it was a hurt person lashing out because they felt safe to do so, felt they vent their anger in public- and call others to join in.
I hate bullies and bully energy. Lived with it all my life. All my life I was told I was too sensitive, and told my feelings are a joke. My mother’s second husband, was a bully, and he raised a family of bullies. Bless her heart, my mother had spent months telling me that she had talked to him about the relationship between James and me, and that he was excited to meet James: we’d arrive at her house the day before and spend the night there, then meet the Haskins for brunch in New Jersey.
Of course, my mother had never talked to him: in her own way, she was to scared of him herself. She’d hoped to charm her way around any situation that arose, and prayed he would not make a scene. If she had told him in any way that I was gay, he was clearly in denial, and it was a denial that being confronted with a 6’2” ginger in Converse hi-tops and long curly hair could not withstand. He was immediately cool, needling, bitter and hard, no matter how my mother tried to make the introductions with James kind and gracious. In the end, I finally grabbed the arms of his Barcalounger, turned it straight to face me dead on and said, directly and calmly:
“Listen old man: I don’t care what you do, or what you say. But my mother does. James does. His parents will. So decide if you are going to be kind and polite, or don’t come at all. These people are family, and I will not have you hurt them. Do you understand me?”
Like all bullies, didn’t answer me. He sort of looked to one side and nodded- as if he could concede but not actually really see himself conceding- and in this way not concede at all. I had made it clear that life goes along without him, that he does not have all the energy in the room, then went about my life. That is the only way I had learned to be able to manage a bully. Years later, when he died, his family descended upon my mother and made her life hell. They blamed her for his death, said she had soiled the memory of their mother, called her all sorts of names, and snatched any household utility still in his name and shut it off. She’d tell me these stories, and in trying to deal with her panic, I told her: “Ma, you’re exaggerating. No one does that. No one goes out of their way to be so cruel. You are letting your imagination get carried away.” She told me: “Oh, Michael, you don’t understand: it’s Old Country. You’ve never seen Old Country. Old Country is bullies. I raised you to be better than that.” My mother passed away within three weeks of his death, and that family turned their bile on me and my siblings. Everything my mother had said was true, of course, and as we stayed at the house to clear out her things, we found out too well how vicious they were. Having the heart to face down a bully doesn’t mean being violent. It doesn’t mean shutting them out or blocking them. It certainly doesn’t mean matching their energy, shouting them down, or gloating when they are shamed. Stay present, stay visible, but do not give them air: keep doing your do. Even today, as voices work to signal that the vote is fraud (though it clearly and patently isn’t), I find myself struggling to not be intimidated, to do my do and whistle down the wind. Being present and not afraid. It is a feeling with which I am all too familiar, and it still triggers me; I still find myself breathing deep and trying to go forward, in spite of it. But one thing I know, the bully is diffused if I stay present, and do not let him dictate the terms and forms of the energy and engagement. Stay present, and do not snipe or push back. Stay present, and build into what I want to see in the world. Stay open, stay direct, model openness, and move through the world where the power of their intimidation does not exist.
Any other path only feeds bully- your fear, your panic, and even your anger. With a creature that feeds on emotions and responses, even being shamed and shunned is a victory, an opportunity to feed their own victimhood and pain.
Then, you continue the practice, and never stop...because the bully won't. One thing I learned as a bullied kid, the bullies anger and violence does not leave, it hides. Bullies do not nurse their pains in the open. They nurse their pains in burning quiet, in the bottom of a bottle, at sitting alone at quiet tables in a beerhall in Austria, in hidden chat rooms on Parler and 4Chan.
I hate that we live in a world where this brutality is given so much freedom. I am anxious and angry, and hurt all the time. I don’t want to make peace with these bullies, or shut them out: I want only for them to see me in this world living a stronger life, and one where the fear doesn't make me close down, but tests and builds my practice of going forward. Because finally, that is what the bully will never do...and that moving forward is how I separate myself from letting the fears and anxieties draw me back to their old fights. It is, after all, how my mother raised me. En Avant.