June 20, 2014
Posted in A Non Linear Life
For grades eight through ten, I attended boarding school. It was a small co-ed school without cliques and the girls in the dorms got along well enough. But one night I was part of a group of about six girls who bullied another girl. The incident was a one-time thing. There was no name calling or physical contact and once the event was over there were no lingering snickers or a retelling of the tale at breakfast the next morning. Nonetheless, it was nasty behavior and a gross example of peer pressure upon someone more vulnerable than any of the perpetrators.
I had a roommate who found a part of my body worthy of the adjective “ugly” and routinely called me by that description. She even used that moniker to address her comments to me in the yearbook. I ripped that page out immediately upon reading but the memory of the name she wrote is so fresh that the page might as well still be bound in the book.
I like to think none of us had an intent to harm but that doesn’t mean no harm was done. My 45 year old memories of being persecutor and persecuted attest to this.
Whenever I reflect on incidents such as these I do so with the insight I had at that time and not with the insight I possess now. “Could my roommate have been right?” I wonder as I look at my body in the mirror, oblivious to the empirical evidence of the past four-plus decades. If my daughters ever look through my yearbooks, what do I tell them of the undeniably ripped-out page?
As for my turn as the bully, did I ever mitigate the experience of my victim with a well-deserved apology? Here my memory is not so precise. If I had apologized, I would probably have mumbled “I’m sorry” and figured both she and I had a clean slate. But that is the wishful thinking of a young teenager. My present day, adult mind, questions if saying (or hearing) “I’m sorry” would have had real meaning given that most of us say “I’m sorry” innumerable times each today. “I’m sorry I didn’t call you back”. “I’m sorry I let the elevator door close on you.” “I’m sorry I ate your ice cream.”
Bullying isn’t on par with not holding open an elevator door or eating someone’s ice cream. The colloquial “I’m sorry” is an easy out for a teenage apologist. Asking for or granting forgiveness is another clean-the-slate approach; forgiveness granted or received cannot undo what has been done.
If forgiveness is impotent and “I’m sorry” is idiomatic what gives apologies such as those deserved in these situations the gravitas they merit? My adult self nominates “regret”. “I regret” has heft and substance and a seriousness that indicates if given a chance for a do-over, one would behave differently. Letting go of all hope for a better past, I am left with a need to commit myself to a more enlightened future. My present-day values free me to say I regret my participation that night in boarding school. These same values prevent me from repeating the non-exemplary behaviors of my past and heeding them is my redemption.