Bullying. It’s an issue that’s as old as the schoolyard. In the space of a generation, however, it has metastasized from the verbal taunts and physical abuse inflicted by some kids on those whom they see as weak or different into the ubiquitous world of social media.
Once upon a time, the main fears of the bullied child involved being called an ugly nickname or being knocked around for no apparent reason on the playground. Today there may be no escape or refuge from this misery when a bully can attack in cyberspace for the whole world to see 24/7. We have all, unfortunately, seen and heard the news reports of youngsters driven to suicide by the relentless onslaught of online bullying.
There is a broad spectrum of thought on this issue, ranging from the belief that bullying is a natural part of childhood that builds character through its endurance, to those who believe in a zero-tolerance attitude toward bullying wherever it is found. One may ask where the answers are for the adults who want to protect the children and for those youngsters who feel the urge to stand up for their beleaguered peers.
It may also be asked where the models are for Catholics that offer instruction on how to act in these situations. All Christians are familiar with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and his admonition to his followers to “turn the other cheek.” But is that an instruction to meekly allow abusive behavior to continue unchecked? Father Gerald Horan, O.S.M., Episcopal Vicar for Faith Formation for the Diocese of Orange, does not think so.
“The words of Jesus make it clear that the way out of the abusive cycle of violence and harm cannot be more violence,” Father Gerald says. “This precept is basic to our Christian heritage. I’m not certain, however, that the Lord would have us stand by and tolerate a continued pattern of abuse.
“There is a difference between tolerating or accepting the small offenses of every day and enabling destructive patterns of behavior,” Father Gerald says. “It is not a violation of the Lord’s precept to put a name on evil and cruelty. Jesus is saying that we should not be vengeful, but he is not asking us to be any less than truthful.”
Father Gerald understands how some might come to the conclusion that ignoring a bully can take as much courage as standing up to one, but he says that “ignoring the bully is not a productive avenue for anyone and it allows the dysfunction of cruel or abusive behavior to fester.
“The power of the bully is that he or she preys upon the insecurity of the victim. All of us are too quick to believe the worst of ourselves. I truly believe that the more courageous pathway is to face the problem and call it what it is.” Even though that truth may not be easily spoken and may come with some embarrassment and risk, he says.
Father Gerald advises anyone being harmed by a bully to muster their self-confidence and share their pain with someone who might be in a position to offer support. “Reach out! Enlist the support of a parent or responsible adult. Institutions, churches and schools have a responsibility to assist the bullied individual,” he says. “But they really can’t begin to address such problems unless and until they are brought into the light.”