Bullying: a Postscript

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February 19, 2013 by lucieromarin

So, of course, about half an hour after posting the last piece, I remembered half-a-dozen things I’d forgotten to write! Never mind – here they are now:

1) I left out the most important thing of all about saying ‘no’ to people who want you to go places or do things you don’t want to do. It is this: never, ever give your reason for refusal. You say, “I have an assignment to do,” and he’ll say, “You can do it afterwards.” You say, “I haven’t been well recently,” and he’ll say, “Mother Teresa said it was better to burn in this life than in the next.” What I’ve noticed, though, is if I just say, “I can’t – I’m already booked – but give me a bunch of flyers; I’ll help spread the word!” the person never asks me what I’m booked with, and never asks later what I did with those flyers. (This might just be that I’ve learned to give this line in a don’t-ask-questions way, but I really think it is also that the statement just doesn’t give a combative person enough to feed off, so he leaves me alone.)

The other thing to remember here is that even if your plan was to sit at home reading novels, that’s still a ‘booking’. Even if your plan was simply to not be at that bossy person’s thing, it’s still a plan, so it isn’t a lie to say that you’re booked. And the person has no right to know what you’re booked with. If I ever encounter someone who says, “Why? What are you doing?” I plan to say only, “Private stuff,” “Other stuff,” or “Stuff that isn’t your thing,” or “Why do you want to know my private life? You want to know my sins as well before I go to Confession?” (That last line, though, is to be delivered with a half-smile and the relaxed attitude of Father Ironwill; it’s not to be delivered with a snarl.) I would also like to say, “I’m sorry; that’s when I get the stigmata, and my spiritual director says I’m not allowed to go out in public then,”…but some instinct tells me that that would be wrong.

2) I also forgot to emphasise this: that temperament isn’t destiny. It’s possible to feel that the bullies will always get their way, but it isn’t true. Even when an oppressive childhood has made you particularly susceptible to bullying, change is possible. It’s simply a matter of being willing to grow gradually, without castigating yourself for being unable to change overnight. I know this is true, not just because of the saints, but because I’ve seen it in my own life and the lives of those around me.

The secret is in the baby-steps. My inner melancholic had to be trained with the practice of doing one small scary thing every day. (It was horrible.) My choleric took more work – but after I gave up unsolicited negative opinion for Lent one year (that was even more horrible), and then gave up all unsolicited opinion the following Lent…guess what – by the end of it, I was both less scary and less scared.

3) It’s also important to remember that every temperament, no matter what kind of battering it has received, has its strengths. I used to think that dominating types would always be the bosses of everything…until, about a year ago, when I sat in a meeting with seven fearsome and untrained cholerics and watched them be herded into obedience by the chairman, who was a melancholic-sanguine. How did this happen? I know I say mean things about sanguines all the time, but they, in their defense, are nature’s diplomats and negotiators. This guy was an industrial lawyer, and he’d trained that part of himself, so that not only did he get everyone to do exactly what he wanted, he managed it in such a way that they walked out of the meeting thinking that that was what they had wanted all along. Everyone has a latent power; he has only to learn the right way to use it.

Which reminds me – phelgmatics, guess what? Cholerics are scared of you. That’s why one of the super-choleric-super-aggressive men in my loop, who has no trouble telling other men what to do, verbally attacked a woman once for her husband’s behaviour in her husband’s absence. (The husband, I note, was being attacked for saying ‘yes’ when the local priests asked for some help from him!) You see…The husband is almost 100% phelgmatic…and the choleric, who had stood up to some pretty intense characters in his time, couldn’t go near him.

4) We may not be able to change the problem of bullying overnight – or at all. But we can make things better, both publicly and privately.

4a) Publicly. It’s possible for strong-willed persons to learn to use their powers for good rather than evil. (Yes, I’m deliberately writing as though this is sci-fi. Who wouldn’t?). I’ve seen it happen. Several years ago, I was part of the crowd milling around after a long and exhausting ordination. It was mid-afternoon; the priests had not eaten all day, and they were bone-tired. I saw a woman start talking at one of the priests…and, when it transpired that he was travelling to some place that boasted her favourite grocery store, she said, “Oh! So you could get some stuff for me and then mail it to me! Can you?” She then proceeded to detail to him what she wanted…and she really meant it. Then, a heretofore silent woman beside her cocked her head and said, in querying tones, “Can we just clarify that you’re asking an ordained man to do your grocery shopping?” The woman suddenly opened and closed her mouth – and the tiny little smile that the priest tried to hide was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen. The shopping-list woman went away, and now, thinking it over, it occurs to me that the woman who sent her away behaved like Father Ironwill in the last post – direct, but also relaxed, calm, and evenly-spoken.

So, I think that (at the risk of sounding a bit preachy) those of us with the ability to be direct have some kind of duty to look out for people who, for whatever reason, cannot speak up for themselves – like the priest in the abovementioned situation, who felt that shutting down the pushy female would have been impolite. We just have to make sure we don’t follow up our acts of charity with equally awful forms of support: “You shouldn’t let him treat you like that! You need to do this, this and this!” etc

4b) Privately. I saw a text message once; someone had written to a male friend to the effect that she had noticed him being treated badly at lunch, had gone home to consider taking revenge on the bully by writing a satire about him, but had decided instead to be Christian and limit herself to saying how much she respected my friend for the way he comported himself during the public humiliation. Well, it was pretty funny that anyone thought that writing a satire constituted vengeance, but it also remained true that the message of support made a difference. And I think it would make a difference if more of us were willing to do that. Everyone knows that some bullies are unstoppable – but as soon as you find out that not everyone approves of him, and as soon as your own feelings are validated by someone else’s sympathy, you feel better.

5) Which leads me to this point – telling priests. I know some priests are less-than-helpful on this score, but some are not. There are good and strong priests around the place who will tackle these problems – but they’re not psychic or telepathic, and sometimes they have to be told where the problems are.

It’s easy to assume that our culture is more tightly-woven than it actually is. If you hear a pro-homeschooling sermon, and a week later a homeschooling mother tells you you’re endangering your child’s soul with your choice of school, it’s easy to assume that the priest is in some way okay with that mother’s attitude. But he isn’t – he gave the sermon because his brother homeschools, or because he’d had lunch with a really cool homeschooling family who inspired him, or because he just didn’t think through the possible consequences of his sermon. Likewise, if the priest advertises a conference from the pulpit, it doesn’t actually mean he approves of the person hounding you to sign up after Mass. He thought it was a good flyer, or his sister worked on the conference, or he got bullied himself into advertising it. When people use our priests words and actions as an excuse for bullying,  that’s all it is – an excuse.

Oh – look! This had turned out longer than any of the previous posts.

Well, you know the saying: ‘The gist of a woman’s letter is in the postscript.’

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