For anyone who has ever been bullied, the memories of the experience fade little over time. When I was in high school, it was two brothers who, for a time, held me in their sights. In the final confrontation, I was bumped by one brother in the hallway while the other took a cheap shot that sent me sprawling across the concrete bleeding from my nose and mouth. In those days, you got up and kept on walking.
I haven’t forgotten that day or the brothers. It takes a special kind of person to blindside someone and then laugh as if it were supposed to have been some kind of victory. I thought then how deeply flawed their character.
I cannot say whether either one remembers, but I like to think they do and that over time they have experienced some regret. Things happen.
But if those things can affect us, move us and change us, in the end they have intrinsic value. Forgetting or deceit about such matters is of far greater consequence.
The man who forgets such petty tyrannies is the man in whom evil lurks. So unaffected is he by the pain inflicted on others, so commonplace is his aggression, it fades into the abyss of all of the other suffering exacted by his hands, keeping the aggressor eager for new expression.
Fortunately, precious few have known what it means to hold another human being to the ground, to humiliate him in front of peers, friends and acquaintances. More fortunately still is that it is the rare individual for whom the darkness of such acts would fade, without some drop of wisdom or compassion falling to cleanse the soul. For most men, the memories of such acts are vivid and their repentance is profound — but not for all.
Having taught for 20 years, I know the kind well. Among the thousands of students I have encountered I can count on one hand those capable of such aggression, of such oblivion to the harm they inflict, not able to consciously remember or acknowledge their transgressions. Three of those have been in prison (one for homicide) and two are at the head of their respective fields, basking in the glory of their dispassionate rise. That’s how it seems to go — all or nothing.
Those former students have not changed. When I have found myself in their presence, I still recoil as I did soon after meeting them. I remember having one of them in my office when I was a principal. Angry and belligerent, he looked at me and said, “I don’t care what you say or do, I’m waiting for my dad to die and when he does I will own you.” He meant it.
Imagine holding someone down on the ground against their will. Imagine raising scissors to their head because you didn’t like the style of their hair. Imagine cutting the hair while the boy or girl beneath you struggled to get free. Is she crying? Is he? Is this a moment you could forget? Once you had matured would you want to? In the best scenario, a lesson is learned and behavior changed; in the worst, the behavior is rationalized and outwardly forgotten, finding rest in the dark recesses of the soul.
And in the scuffle on the playground, in spitting nasty taunts, in the senseless aggression, where is their God? Where is the peace and love so earnestly spoken and worn so proudly at the Temple? Where is the mercy and forgiveness so readily demanded and poured out upon the chosen but selfishly restrained for those outside the flock?
The story hasn’t changed. It was the bullies Jesus shamed; it was their victims that he healed. It was the bullies who stood watch while Jesus passively and persuasively ministered to the weak and disenfranchised. He gave them hope. It was the bullies who, when threatened, put Him to death. It was the poor and lowly who took Him down, who in the end deserve to call Him their own.
It is fascinating how easily our world is turned upside down. Disturbing how readily we accept and then proselytize that down is up and up is down.