Bullies and Heroes

"What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." 


But I've heard two separate, equally terrible, stories today--one about child abuse and one involving school bullying on a grand scale--and I have the awful notion that sometime soon, if not already, both of these kids--one teen boy, one eight year old girl--will have this particularly confusing line of encouragement thrust at them, as loved-ones or random semi-strangers help them "get over it".

What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger, might be the single most overused line in the history of advice-giving.

I've received it dozens of times, usually from a well-meaning (perhaps slightly condescending) self-positioned "mentor".

It took me years to understand why I wanted to throw [insert something disgusting here] at them and scream. But the crux of the problem is that I didn't feel stronger for the humiliating or devastating sequence of events I'd just experienced. I felt weak and pathetic. And any strength I finally achieved due to the "challenging circumstance" seemed like a sad consolation for the strength I might have gained had I not been hit by that particular bus. Also, the word stronger is said with reverence. It's meant as a pure positive (i.e. this "challenge" sucked, but you'll be a better person for having survived the ordeal.) 

On some level, I get it. You get cut and when the skin grows back it is tougher, harder...stronger. But scar tissue is often rigid and inflexible. Rough, inflamed, gnarled. Deadened nerves. Numb. Stronger doesn't have to equal sleek pecks on the cover of Mens Fitness. Stronger might not be pretty. It might be so ugly other people shy away at first glance. And maybe second glance as well. 

The defenses we build to cover our internal pain can be just as twisted and rough. 

After a year of being bullied in the 4th grade, I was a people-pleasing, fake-smiling, cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof, with the backbone of an amoeba. Eleven moves before 9th grade left me too timid and desperate for friends to have an opinion about a song on the radio without taking a poll first. Each time my family moved, which was a lot, I'd make up stories about my life in the last place. Half truths, exagerations. Half of me walked the straight and narrow, the other half was a compulsive liar. This kind of personality repulses people. They smile and back away. I went years without meaningful relationships. My social skills grew even further behind.


Far from the heroes we read about and see in the movies, I didn't stand up to my 4th grade bully (she was 6 inches taller and always had two friend with her, and I was alone). I have no stories of the time I found my courage and fought back. I was not heroic.

Years later, as a middle school teacher, I realized the "bullied-taking-a-stand-against-the-bully" trope is everywhere in fiction, but rare in reality. More common is the bullied child who hones less-than-lovely survival skills--invisibility, people-pleasing, lying or passive-aggression--which further isolates them. 

Maybe I'm guilty of writing those heroic fictional characters. Matthi and Karig think on their feet. They don't freeze or run, but face their demons and don't back down. They have noble flaws and, of course, they'll learn from them. I write them how I would have like to have been.

In real life, survival itself is a heroic act, and heroes come in all shapes and textures.  

To the abused teen boy and the bullied eight year old girl:

Your spirit was probably given daily evidence you aren't at all heroic, and may, in fact, be fatally flawed. 

So I will amend that poor, sad line of half-baked advice:

What doesn't kill you, shapes you.

However freakish the shape feels, and however socially unacceptable, I guarantee you are not the only one covering your particular brand of ugly. And though the ugly might feel like your greatest weakness, it might also--with time and understanding--turn out to be a vital nutrient for your compassion, your creativity and your unique perspective.

And--even if it doesn't seem like it--there is strength in it too, I promise.