As a child, I was taught God considers every individual life to be of great worth.
I’ve dedicated much thought-power to this concept, and consider it truth. Whether you believe in God or not, examine your opinion on this topic as you read. Particularly the worth you attribute to your own existence.
I’m puzzled by the importance American society bestows upon the social aspects of juvenile life. TV shows, books, movies, and casual conversation frequently revolve around our time as high school students: who we were, whether or not we’ve changed since, and if we’ve kept in touch with fellow students. The most common (and most baffling) theme is this notion of how we were perceived and how we perceived others. We still refer to ourselves and past peers by social statuses held in school. You know–“popular”, “geeky”, “nerdy”, “loner”, “jock”, “fat”, “goth”, “punk”, “slut”, “player”, “goody-goody”, “teacher’s pet”, “cheerleader”, “band geek”, “choir geek”, “tomboy”, “brat”, etc.
It’s not just high school, though. This practice extends all the way back to kindergarten. I’m willing to bet when any one of us thinks back on elementary school, we still remember at least one seemingly-confident “popular” kid, and one “outsider”.
It’s like, no matter how hard we work, what we accomplish, or how much time passes, we’ll never escape the petty labels others stuck to us, and that we stuck to ourselves. While this is trivial enough, we furthermore tend to deny others the opportunity to be seen as anything other than the labels we and fellow classmates attributed to them during a relatively insignificant moment of their lives–insignificant, at least, to our own lives.
It’s likely you’ve heard, as I have, exclamations like: “Did you know Mike runs an international software company now? Can you believe it? Who would’ve thought? He was such a loser in high school.”
It’s as if there’s an unspoken understanding within contemporary humanity that high school exists to define people. When I hear these types of things being said, I feel like I’m missing something that’s obvious to everyone else–surely the world isn’t so petty.
Labeling is just so outrageously petty.
I’m not talking about identifying yourself with a religion, or career, or even a talent or skill. Anything that contributes to us being who we are should be acknowledged and embraced. But the petty kind of labeling? Ugh. What a drag!
The two labels I have the biggest problem with are the same ones I hear most often. Their relationship is consequential and they convey abiding power in the self-identification process. Though opposite in meaning, both words appear to have lasting affects on those whom they define.
They are: bully, and bullied.
Before I get into it, I want to state clearly that true bullying exists. It’s ugly and psychologically damaging, and should never happen to anyone, especially in a setting like public school. Relevant adults should actively ensure that bullying doesn’t happen, not only by attaching consequences to actions, but by teaching and empowering students to rise above bullying. True bullying is outright brutality–harmful threats, physical abuse or intimidation, and taking an active role in administering misery to another person or people. The rest of this post will not address this kind of bullying, partly because I don’t think there’s a cure for it (someone, somewhere, will have an ugly heart and enjoy inflicting pain on their fellow human beings, and someone, somewhere, will suffer because of it if appropriate steps are not taken by those in positions of power), but mostly because I’ve never experienced this type of bullying myself and don’t think mine is the voice to lead such a conversation.
In today’s society, we don’t always mean the aforementioned bullying when we use the words “bully” or “bullied”. Often they’re used to define the individuals involved in a dispute based on superficial differences of opinion or personality. When two people don’t get along, children or adults, it’s common for them to accuse each other of “bullying” as if, by virtue of the word alone, that somehow affords them the moral high ground. A person involved in a disagreement, even a heated one, is not a victim of bullying. To suggest so is to diminish the suffering of true victims.
You’re not being bullied simply because someone doesn’t like you or share your opinion.
Disagreements, even arguments, are an important, useful part of life. They expand our mental horizons and help us understand how others think and view the world. Isn’t it fascinating that we only get one perspective throughout our entire lives? Though we can never fully comprehend how another person operates, we can get glimpses into their minds through conversation. That’s worth more than gold!
When our opinions are challenged, especially if we’re not accustomed to it, we can become hostile. All of us. We often say or do things in the heat of the moment, when our emotions are calling the shots, that we later regret or can at least acknowledge were inappropriate or drastic. This happens in moments of desperation, like when we can’t quite put our feelings into words, or we’ve never considered why we feel or believe a certain way and aren’t able to express it clearly. Especially when expected to do so at a moment’s notice without time to organize our thoughts or construct solid arguments.
I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt when defending their beliefs. It’s not easy, particularly if the belief strongly opposes my own. But I do try.
Disagreements aren’t the only case in which human beings treat each other poorly. Mere differences in personality can cause tension. Not connecting with those around us can feel isolating and embarrassing.
But someone choosing not to sit next to you or take a personal interest in your life doesn’t make them bad.
Loneliness can be terrifying. I know. But it doesn’t define anyone.
If we’re in a room with a dozen other people who get along great and see each other regularly, it’s easy to feel like an outcast, which leads to feelings of self-doubt, even worthlessness. But any one of those dozen people are just as capable of feeling “less-than” in other situations. A person we judge confident may feel anxious or awkward walking up to a stranger and striking up a conversation. Why is it on them to do so anyway?
Even if they’re genuinely uninterested in being your friend, it’s important not to confuse indifference with viciousness.
Another person’s lack of interest in you doesn’t make you uninteresting. The only entity capable of making you interesting, or not, is you.
Besides, viciousness shouldn’t scare us into a box. So what if others are mean? That’s a reflection of their character, not yours. How you respond to unkindness, however, is on you. We all face unkindness in life. We all decide how to deal with it.
On the flip side, we’re all capable of cruelty, too. Have you ever snapped at a bank teller, cashier, customer service representative, telemarketer, or salesperson? How about a coworker, boss, or employee? A neighbor, friend, or family member? Have you ever said something rude with the intention of offending someone?
You get my point.
The reason I don’t like the words “bully” or “bullied” is because we’re all “bullies” and we’re all “bullied” at some point. Nobody is perfectly kind all the time. Are some people kinder than others? Of course. Are some more patient and understanding? For sure. Are some generally unpleasant? Absolutely. Is a world with only kind and respectful inhabitants ideal? Maybe. Either way, it’s not reality.
A person will more likely acknowledge when they’ve been cruel in a specific incident and apologize for their actions than accept or admit they bullied someone, and have consequently become a bully. The average person wouldn’t identify themself as a bully, and if this label is forced on them, they likely won’t take responsibility for their actions though they might if we let them simply be an imperfect human who makes mistakes.
I wish we didn’t label anyone a “bully” as it then becomes their responsibility to prove they’re capable of goodness though they’ve done cruel things. I wish we didn’t label anyone “bullied” as it then becomes their responsibility to prove they’re worthwhile though they’ve suffered intense feelings of worthlessness. It’s nearly impossible to convince others we’re not who they think we are or who we once were.
Labels I can get behind include “imperfect”, “human”, and “valuable”.
Every individual life has great worth because we’re all endangered. When one life passes on, it’s never replaced. There are not more of me than the singular me. There are not more of you than the singular you. We are all embodiments of the phrase “one of a kind”. There is no other “us”. No other person will ever see or experience the world exactly as you do. You’re the only one who can describe what life looks like from your perspective. Nobody else can teach the rest of us what it means to be you.
I’ve arrived at my main point, which is:
You should never define any aspect of your existence based on another person’s opinion of you, especially–and this is essential–especially not when they were a teenager or child when they formed their opinion. Just like you, they were in development. They were learning. They were observing life and figuring out how the world works. They were interacting with new people, assessing their feelings and the actions of others.
Live life according to your unique potential, not according to how some random adolescent treated you in your past. Don’t let anything so irrelevant limit you. Adult you has a wonderful, unprecedented life to live.
It’s easy to assume the people around us have life figured out, that they’re capable of perfection, that they know something we don’t. It’s easy to feel they have more of a claim on the earth than we do. It’s easy to feel like we’re in their territory. But let me ask you something…
Who is “they”?
Don’t you know that from another person’s perspective, you’re one of “the people around” them? This message is for everyone. We all came into the world the same way. That’s the true measure of our worth.
There is only “we”.
And we change constantly. We become someone new every day. Life is change and change is life.
Throughout your life, you’ll develop skills, start a career or two, have a family, travel the world, meet new people–people who have actually experienced a little bit of life, who aren’t adolescents in a tiny, structured world. You’ll learn and expand your mind, you’ll teach others what you’ve learned, you’ll share in the true experiences of life.
High school, middle school, elementary school, even college… These are not life. High school, for example, was just a short experience you had with people who happened to live nearby you at a given age.
It was essentially nothing.
Please, don’t even take into consideration your high school experiences when defining yourself. Don’t limit yourself in that way.
You are not the way you were once treated. You are not the opinion of others. You are capable of happiness. You are the only person in the world that can realize your distinct potential. Don’t give credence to what a child thought of you when you were a child. That’s called “wasting time”. All we have in life is time. There’s none to waste.
Most importantly, remember that this advice is the same for everyone. Don’t define any person based on your few and easily-misconstrued interactions with them. Don’t expect others to be perfect, to have it all figured out when you meet them. We’re all just fighting our way through the mud of life. Sometimes we catch each other in the eye with our elbows. Apologize, forgive, and move forward with a sincere smile. If someone you know learns to grow wings and flies away, let them go. They’re here to experience their life. You’re here to experience yours. You might also grow wings. You might be made for something else. Either way, get living!
Be the person you know you are. If you don’t know yet, be patient. Don’t give in to the temptation of letting the world define you just because you don’t have it figured out yet. Continue seeking, and keep an open mind. Be kind to yourself. You’ll be amazed what happens when you are. Let others be who they are. Don’t force labels on them. Don’t waste your precious little time trying to make the world something it’s not.
You’re so much more than that.