Marking the anti-bullying week, I am uploading the text of a brief talk I recently prepared for the Vatican Scholas initiative.
You are ugly, and stupid, everything you do is rotten. That’s why nobody loves you, nobody even likes you. You think you have friends. You don’t. They all lie to your ugly face. You’re nothing.
How do you feel? Did I hurt you, even just a bit? Perhaps I did – and for that, I’m sorry. But why would you hurt because of my words? Think about it – it makes no sense at all. You don’t know me, I don’t know you. I didn’t even look at you – in fact, if I was looking at anything, it’s a lens; if I was looking at anyone, I was actually looking at my own reflection, saying those hateful words to myself.
And yet, it may have hurt you. And it hurt you not only because at that very brief moment you were hardly thinking, just feeling; it’s also because you too may have, at some points in your life, been thinking negative things about yourself. Perhaps not so severe, perhaps not often – at least I hope not. But such fears, deep doubts about our worth, always lurk, laying the groundwork for the bullies, who are even more destructive if they can actually claim to know us.
What a bully does best is to tap straight into these fears and insecurities. Bullies sense these weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, and attack. We know why. Bullies want to control others because of their own insecurities, about themselves, and about the world. They find strength in weakening others. The world, to them, is a zero-sum game, of winners and losers, of predators and prey: either hunt, or be hunted. Do we sometimes feel, and think, the same? Does our sense of self-worth depend more on people who hardly, truly, know us, than upon ourselves? If so, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that bullies get to us.
Suppose we flip the coin.
You are beautiful, and smart, everything you do is wonderful. That’s why everybody likes you, even loves you, why you have so many friends. You’re the best.
Does it make more sense? It shouldn’t. I still know nothing about you. And yet, if you believe the many feel-good people out there, telling you such niceties, here too you pave the path for bullies.
Bullying is personal – and political. Some politicians, some powerful leaders, are bullies, in and outside the cyberspace. Need I mention them by name? I think you know them, heard their hateful speech, saw how they spot the vulnerabilities of their political rivals – whom they regard as enemies – then sink their sharp rhetorical teeth, and bite until they bleed.
Bullying can be horrifying, but we can learn to be brave, learn about the darker parts of the human soul so we can realize – both understand and live up to – the best in us. This is the task of the new online course, HOPE, that we recently developed at Princeton University. It’s a journey into our distinct humanity – to human nature, identity and authenticity, freedom and reflection, happiness and dread, meaning-making, truth and trust, morality, God and religion, alienation and love, and finally – hope. Please join us on this journey. The course is free and open to all and requires no previous knowledge. Come along and discover our humanity. See you in HOPE…