I never thought of myself as a bully. I was usually the one standing up for other people—often to the point that I got in trouble for it.
But one Saturday afternoon, I learned that I could just as easily be the bully as anybody else.
I’m pretty sure I was a sophomore in high school, but I could have been a freshman. We were at church with the youth group after raking leaves on the property, and we were all enjoying pizza. As we polished off our slices, we began to run around the church while waiting for our parents to pick us up. We were playing hide-and-go-seek with a twist. Instead of hiding our bodies, we were taking personal items from one another and hiding them around the church. Someone took my barrette. Someone hid someone else’s coat. I took my sister’s shoes.
I was laughing. The other kids were laughing. Only my sister wasn’t laughing.
I had found my barrette in a box of crayons. The coat was unearthed from somewhere—under a table or behind the piano. Only my sister couldn’t find her shoes.
“Come on, Beth,” she urged. “Where are they? It’s not funny!”
“Yes, it is,” interjected one of the boys. “It figures you wouldn’t be able to find it.”
“Yeah,” added my sister’s best friend at the time—a perfect example of the term frenemy. “You always give up. You aren’t even thinking.”
I just giggled. I’d chosen a great hiding place—the back of the freezer in the church kitchen behind some Cool Whip.
About half an hour later, my parents arrived. My sister, who had stubbed her toe, was now in tears and still hadn’t found her shoes. My father, called “Daddy” by everybody, demanded in a very un-“Daddy”-like manner that I produce those shoes right now.
Still unrepentant, I bounced downstairs, retrieved the shoes from the freezer, and returned to the van where my sister and father were waiting for me.
It turned out that the stubbing my sister had done had broken a bone in her foot. While I still thought it was a fluke, my parents took a different attitude toward the whole thing. They claimed that what I had done was pure meanness and that it didn’t matter how the other kids laughed, it mattered how my sister had taken the situation.
“The line between enough and too much is different for different people,” my mom said.
“If somebody’s crying, you’ve gone too far,” my father said.
My sister was eventually diagnosed with depression, a combination of the bullying she received at church, in school, and in the neighborhood with some other factors. I had changed my ways somewhat. I had learned that some things were too much. I had learned that some expectations were too high. And I had learned to help those who appeared to be in distress. But those were mainly reactions to behaviors, not words. Even her diagnosis wasn’t enough for me to realize how poisonous those barbed remarks had been.
It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that I understood just how toxic those comments had been. The boy, who had ridiculed my sister that evening, a kid who went after her for years, committed suicide. Life had since taught me that how we talk to others is often how we talk to ourselves. I realized that the same venom that he had been pouring out on my sister he had also been showering on himself all of these years.
I became far more conscious of loving others—the bullied and the bullies.