I hope you don’t miss Dennis Milan Bensie’s latest essay, titled A Bully Comes Around. It’s about a homophobic bully Bensie knew in high school who, following Bensie’s posts supporting gay marriage on a rather conservative Facebook group page, contacted him. I hope you read it, so I won’t say more, only that the bully apologizes for being an asshole.
While promoting the article on Twitter, I asked the question, “Do bullies deserve forgiveness?” The only people who responded said they did not.
This is interesting. Here’s a guy, Bensie’s bully, who grew up in a conservative community, one that actively taught its children that they should fear or loathe homosexuals. If they should not fear them, they should look down on them because God was going to judge gays harshly. The bully, perhaps while acting out his own rejection or perceived failure, took this lesson and expressed hatred and aggression just as he was taught. In his adult years, after following the gay marriage debate, he comes around to perceive homosexuals in a new way, then he asks one for forgiveness.
But the bullying stays with us, doesn’t it? Many of us will remember being bullied, and we immediately return to the feeling of powerlessness. It’s crushing, and the pain returns.
In my view, we risk a lot if we allow this pain to cloud our wisdom. It’s rare for most of us to have lived life without ever hurting anyone. Yes, most of us were not bullies, but we probably remember harming someone, and we probably wish we had not done it, especially now that we can look back at the events and know we are different people.
I think we reject forgiveness because we idealize it. Some of us, especially those raised Christian, fetishize it. But forgiveness does not mean we have to submit to someone or become completely powerless, even selfless. If we tell someone, “I’m not hurt by you anymore,” or “I wish you much peace in the future—don’t let the harm you did bother you,” we do not have to spend time with them. We barely even need to acknowledge that they exist beyond that moment. Think about it. The bully no longer exists. A bully cannot ask forgiveness. That’s what a bully is, someone incapable of empathy. We become similar to them when we cannot honor their request, especially if we refuse because we revel in their pain, shame and self-loathing. If we kick them in the face of their courage, we gain revenge. But we have not conquered the bully. Instead, we become a shade of bully. Do we want that?
I recall Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, one of my favorite books. A man takes a woman’s life because he believes that he is serving a greater good—she is harmful to people and killing her removes the harm. The young man has, in essence, inflated himself to an uber-human and perceived himself as a demi-god. And yet, he is dependent later on a selfless creature, someone incapable of hatred, barely able to grow angry. It’s a powerful book and left a lasting impression on me when I was very young, about as young as Raskolnikov, the killer, the first time I read it. I know from Dostoevsky’s personal notes and a biography that his dream was for the court system to be able to say, “You’re forgiven. Go forth and never commit atrocities again.” Of course, Dostoevsky was not naive. He knew that kind of forgiveness would collapse society and put it in the hands of assholes.
But it does not have to collapse the individual. Paradoxically, it can empower us. Here is someone who used to bully me. Now he is begging me for civil contact. I can judge him freely, act in any way I wish. I can play the bully or I can kill the bully completely. It’s a moment of shocking enormity.