My Experiences of Bullying Growing up as a Weakling and a Physical Coward

I was fairly lucky as a kid as far as bullying went. In my family, I was the baby and the relatively “spoiled” one. My brothers were 9 and 8 years older than me, respectively. While I was frequently at loggerheads with one of my brothers, our conflicts never came to blows. I have a vague, doubtable, childish memory of enlisting my other brother to physically fight that brother on my behalf. My parents were never abusive to me in any way whatsoever. They were both very loving and for all the time they spent verbally ripping each other apart, they never treated me cruelly, selfishly, or discouragingly.

I do remember vaguely, the feeling of being stuck on occasions with strange, ominous kids and having no choice in the matter and feeling very uncomfortable. But ultimately, I don’t remember anything really bad going down.

When I was in 7th Grade in a middle school where 8th Graders were the oldest kids, the most notorious bully among the 8th Graders once pushed me from behind while everyone was running in gym class. I just kept on running. That’s about the extent of the physical fights I was in in school.

Several summers I attended a summer day camp. I remember there being a lot of tensions with other kids, though I have completely forgotten about what in almost all cases. That was the one place I had to endure a malicious derived nickname that became common usage. They called me “Finckletoes”.

But I did spend one week of my childhood being really terrified and feeling really unsafe. It was when I was 13 and volunteered for the first time to be a “G-Man” at the Christian camp where I would spend a few weeks each summer. This camp was kind of a ramshackle affair. The counselors were typically a combination of Bible college students who toured the country volunteering at camps and random volunteer adults from Long Island churches with no particular qualifications for working with kids necessary.

The camp weeks were each devoted to a different age group. There were a pair of weeks for elementary school kids of different ages, a week for middle school aged kids, and then a week for high schoolers. If you were 13 or older and a boy, you could be a “G-Man” for a week of camp with kids younger than you. If you were a girl teenager you could be a dishwasher. I thought of the term G-Man as meaning “groundsman” but apparently everyone else thought it meant “garbage man”. We were the ones who would clean all the bathrooms, mop and sweep the floors, clean up the grounds, assist the counselors with logistics of setting up the props for games, etc. G-Men who were older, stronger, and/or better with their hands were given more sophisticated building or repair projects to work on.

Being a G-Man had a kind of glamour to it. They were almost always older than the campers and they had freedoms the campers didn’t. G-Men were mostly unsupervised and did whatever they wanted when off duty. The G-Men were not typically the most devoutly religious of kids. They were kids who loved the refuge of camp but didn’t necessarily buy into its religious indoctrination and intensity. And sometimes they were the camp bullies who carried out a sort of hazing role. They would be surly with the campers, give them wedgies, and be unsympathetic taskmasters when punished kids were assigned to doing chores for penance under their supervision.

I was a very well-behaved, religious, sheltered, sensitive, good natured kid who was spoiled with love from his family. And I didn’t have a physically aggressive bone in my body, was physically fearful, and excessively risk averse. I never learned to ride a bike because I knew that involved falling off and scraping up a few times and wanted to avoid any injuries whatsoever. It didn’t help when one of my few experiments in growing in physical courage and doing something that seemed dangerous to me (climbing a dome shaped metal playground set at 9 years old) ended with a somewhat serious injury (the loss of a permanent tooth).

I also had a strong consciousness of being a physical weakling that pervaded my sense of self when I was little. I was small, thin, slow, and had little power. So there was no way I felt confident getting into fights with anybody. I was completely comfortable letting other kids thump their chests if they wanted and just walking away. And I was the lucky kind of kid who didn’t get chased down and beaten up anyway when I did that.

Though I was talkative and outgoing on one level, I was also naturally sedentary and introverted and spent a ton of time alone, lost in my imagination or in introspection. After my two closest friends moved out of my neighborhood within a couple years early in elementary school, I had trouble forging new close friendships. I didn’t understand how making plans with other kids worked and was mostly content being alone. I spent a lot of time writing stories and dreaming up imaginary baseball games so that I could practice being a broadcaster. This was typical of me as a kid. My intense love of baseball made me dream of talking about the sport for a living, not playing it.

So my first week as a G-Man, I was essentially too sensitive and innocent a thirteen year old kid to be assigned to room with and work under the older G-Men. The two oldest and most dominant of the G-Men that week were 17 and 16 years old, respectively. They were physically and mentally much more mature than I was and they spent our first sit down conversation scaring the crap out of me and the other kid my age. They threatened a severe, week long hazing worthy of fraternity initiation. They took particular relish in threatening me because one of my older brothers had been a G-Man who had broken in one of them several years earlier.

I was terrified out of my mind.

Particularly ominous was the threat that I “not drop the soap in the shower”. These were communal showers with no dividers. Boys showering naked with other boys. Showering like that was already a huge source of anxiety for me at that age as I was mortified about the prospect of being seen and judged negatively in the nude by other kids. Now there was this threat that I don’t think I fully understood but nonetheless feared was horrendous. It was not until 20 years later that it would dawn on me to name this for what it was—a rape threat. It was one of the most terrifying experiences for me. I wound up waking especially early every day so that I could always shower alone before the others even awoke. In retrospect, I don’t think they would have done anything so severe as what they were teasingly threatening, but I was unnerved at the time nonetheless.

As it turned out, they did very little to me. I received just a couple wedgies and once as I straddled the corner box of a box call court, they snuck a large stick between my legs and lifted me off the ground by my crotch—but not so hard or fast as to actually hurt me). I was ultimately too dainty and emotionally fragile, too easy to scare and make paranoid, and too much of a whiner that there was little fun in trying to get to me. It was just too easy. I evoked too much pity and contempt. The cruelest and most lingering blow they inflicted was when one of them, the one formerly broken in by my older brother, responded to all my cowering by disbelievingly and disappointedly remarking, “I can’t believe you’re Rich Fincke’s little brother.” I idolized my brother and, of course, didn’t want to be seen as a cowardly emotional weakling and so was ashamed.

At the end of the week, for enduring so much psychological torment, they and the nice nurse for the week who had been a source of solace throughout the week to me patronizingly created a “G-Man of the Week” award to make it up to me and to congratulate me on surviving. I knew it was a fairly condescending gesture but appreciated the gesture of niceness nonetheless.

I came back as a G-Man again the next year. This time mostly with peers but the previous year’s tormenting 16 year old was back. This time he was arranging games of spin the bottle that made me supremely uncomfortable. All this indiscriminate kissing went against my principles of sexual purity. I begrudgingly would accept kisses and had a few embarrassing moments confused over whether I was supposed to be kissing or being kissed. Most of the dishwashers we were playing with were girls from my church who I grew up with and were essentially some of the closest people I had to sisters. Each time we were sent outside to make out, I would refuse to do any kissing but just tour around the building with them. Only when an older, seventeen year old, girl I hardly knew took me by surprise on one of these trips outside did I get my first open mouth kiss. Later, we were sent outside again and I was a far more willing participant. But afterwards I denied to the others anything happened and they believed me over her, which bugged her.

In high school, the only bullying I received was a lot of mockery of my opposition to abortion. My outspoken evangelical Christianity and opposition to premarital sex did not themselves directly subject me to ridicule that I remember. If it did, I blew it off and forgot it completely because I was so certain I was right and they were simply wrong and their negative opinion was not worth worrying about. I had a strong, generalized sense that as evangelical Christians we were inherently always being persecuted by the culture at large. This was relentlessly inculcated in me by all manner of evangelical media. On a personal level, this strong sense of minority identity and the sense that there was a fundamental divide between my beliefs and values and those of my peers, did create a barrier of alienation between me and them. But it never was expressed in outward hostilities either by me or them.

All in all, I managed, very luckily, to evade bullies and physical fights pretty well growing up. My mom said that even as a small child all she had to do was threaten to hit me and I would cry, so she never actually did so. The only bullies who really terrorized me wound up only pulling a few perfunctory pranks on me before themselves finding it pointless—since I was so pathetic. While I think taking (or giving) a few lumps and surviving them may have taught me a little more about my potential strengths, I think I was far better off not being conditioned by abusers to see the world only in the dialectics of abuse and become an abuser myself.

For all my lack of physical courage and aversion to physical pain, I was, on the other hand, unabashed about expressing myself. I was always inordinately willing to speak my mind and make my emotions clear. I was resilient in persevering emotionally through all sorts of betrayals and rejections and losses in my life. I was capable of a great deal of introspection and self-criticism, was good at laughing at myself, and was ultimately able to treat the most core parts of my identity as matters for severe philosophical honesty, no matter how painful the result of that would be.

Your Thoughts?

More posts reflecting on my childhood and teenage years:

Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood

Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models

My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me (And “What To Do About One’s Religiously Raised Nieces and Nephews”)

Before I Deconverted: I Was A Teenage Christian Contrarian

Before I Deconverted, I Already Believed in Equality Between the Sexes

Love Virginity

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • smrnda

    Kind of bad reading that the time you got bullied was at some ostensibly Christian event. I’m not sure if I’d read that as a blatant indictment of Christians, but just that you really ought to have people who are really qualified to work with kids instead of just any adult or teenager who happens to volunteer. It always seems to me that religious organizations don’t do much to properly police who works with kids.

  • timidatheist

    I always wondered why it was that christian camps didn’t require counselor training for anyone. Only recently did it dawn on me that as long as these high school kids and adults show proper christianity then they would be allowed to attend. The problem with that is, of course, that so many of them could simply be showing a false front and be horribly vicious behind closed doors.

    My experience with camp was not exactly bullying, but definitely full of indoctrination. They made sure you knew that anything you did that wasn’t part of gods plan made you a terrible, terrible sinner.

  • heisenbug

    I could never really understand people, who were victims of bullying and all those events at the camp does not really look like a big deal to me. Those older “G-men” definitely were definitely behaving themselves like jerks, but all teenagers go through that phase at some point of their life and mean camp initiations look like an old tradition from one generation to another.

    Fraternity initiations do seem like a bad and degrading practise. Sure, it does the job well by bonding the group and by preparing children to deal with stress in adulthood, but it does not look like it is worth it to me. On the other hand, I have always been more of a loner and not really qualified to say how people should bound with each other. Though, I still think there should be better ways to shape a group together even if they are more complicated. It is the job of the adults to help the kids to figure this out and take care to minimize stupid behavior.

    The reason why I am unable to understand the victim mentallity is that for me it is much scarier to look like a whimp than to suffer a few wedgies or even end up being beaten up. I was more of a dare-devil in my childhood. Eat that bug? Ok, I am no chiken. Jump from the second floor? Just watch me. Something like that is also quite a problem 8)

  • baal

    I was bullied for being the new kid due to moving frequently. Looking back, I’m glad that I was (am) excessively fearless and had the wherewithall to be physically violent (speed and intent, i wasn’t particularly big or strong) to my bullies (who then more or less left me alone). Oddly, I never ever had to explain myself to school admins nor anyone else. My sympathy goes out to those who didn’t have that as an option.

    OTOH – adults really do have duty to stop bullying and despite having strong programs on paper, most still don’t get it (in my limited experience).

    • baal

      TLDR; jedi mind trick (nice side effect of a masculinist culture?) “I’m not the victim you thought I was.”

  • smrnda

    Bullying behaviors are always wrong. They’re wrong, because they would be inappropriate if not illegal if adults were doing them. The idea that they ‘toughen kids up’ is just nonsense – they teach people that aggressive behavior built on dominating others is normal and appropriate. Adult bullies just find more socially acceptable means of doing so.

    Adults don’t have to *prove* they’re tough, and if someone gave an adult a wedgie in a bathroom they’d likely get arrested. I don’t think kids should be arrested for this conduct, but just that it shouldn’t be accepted. If we accept that ‘you can be a jerk to people sometimes’ to kids, that’s what they learn is okay as adults.

  • heisenbug

    You may claim that ” bullying” is always wrong, but you cannot also deny the positive effects. It is not exactly “bullying” that is described in the article, it is more about fraternity initiations. Close, but not exactly the same. For example, no one was openly forcing the author do go along with all that. However, he had to follow the tradition if he wanted to blend in with the others, who had to go through the same ordeal some time before. The American army is built around bullying, it is considered special traning. Indeed, if you can withstand the bootcamp, chances are high you will not imideately break on the battlefield and you can also count on your neighbor who went through the same hell as you. Creating artificially stressful situation does toughen up by bringing out the better and the worse in people. The price for fraternity initiation is a load of neuroses and there is the chance of a complete breakdown. In case of the army it is definitely better to breakdown before the battlefield or else there will be additional casualties in a time of a real crisis.

    Fraternity initaitions is the most easy and quick way to bond strangers together. Though, not the best.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      I agree with you that hazing in general is a distinguishable practice from simple bullying and that it is employed to serve various functions which may or may not be defensible. But when you assert, “For example, no one was openly forcing the author do go along with all that” that’s completely false. I had no say in the issue. I didn’t join up knowing I was in for ritualized hazing. And I was not 18, like a service member, but 13. And the hazers were twice my size and far more physically and mentally mature than I was. 16-17 year olds threatening to rape and otherwise physically hurt completely innocent 13 year olds is bullying, regardless of whether it was done out of a tradition of hazing. Do you know any 17 year olds and any 13 year olds? Do you grasp the maturity gap there? Would you really approve of the psychology of 16-17 year olds who exploit that difference to haze the 13 year olds?

  • heisenbug

    You had a say on the issue. You might not have known what you were getting yourself into, but there were still ways out.

    1. You could have fought back and refused to take part in the ritual. The price would have been complete alienation, though.

    2. You could have told the grown ups, call your parents and demand protection or to be send home.

    Of course, those are extremely difficult choices for a teenager and they would have completely destroyed your social reputation. You may say that the idea did not occure to you and that the price was too high to resist the torture, but you cannot say that you had no way out. Heck, killing yourself is also “a way out”. A terrible, sad and pathetic way out, but still a way out.

    I also do not find your argument that your assailants were older than you compeling. Age in these things does not matter. The victim could be younger or older, but it still is a disgusting practice. After all, there are adults who are helpless against bullying. If you want to blame someone, you should blame your familly, who knew about all those thing, but still agreed to let you attend camp without any warnings.

    Your bullies were just the same victims of the system, who went through the same things they did to you if not worse. And a 17 year old is not that much more mature than a 13 year old. Stronger physically? Yes. More mature? That is arguable.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      My options were available to all bullying victims. They’re still bullying victims and not willing participants. To expect a 13 year old to feel free to go to authority figures against social pressure and to say that unless he does so he is not bullied but is a “willing participant” is appalling.

  • kalim

    What is death?

    I want to share this sentence from a book: from Risalei-Nur Collection by Said Nursi

    Death is either eternal annihilation, a gallows on which will be hanged both man and all his friends and relations; or it comprises the release papers to depart for another, eternal, realm, and to enter, with the document of belief, the palace of bliss. The grave is either a bottomless pit and dark place of solitary confinement, or it is a door opening from the prison of this world onto an eternal, light-filled garden and place of feasting.

    • heisenbug

      There is also the possibility of reincarnation 8)

      Logically speaking, the number of combinations of particles would be finite. Hence, sooner or later the combination of particles that reflect one person would repeat itself. If we are patient enough even the same particles could reproduce us and the people we know with even the same patterns of interaction. Death to me is more like being forced to go sleep early by your parents. Annoying, but not much to freat about.

      We can even go further if we apply the meme hypothesis to particles.

    • DSimon

      It’s a beautiful passage, but I’m not sure what point it’s driving at, if any. If I’m being charitable, I think it’s a statement about the horror of death contextualized it in terms of yearning for an afterlife. If I’m not, I think it’s pulling a Pascal’s Wager, arguing that we should assume that there’s an afterlife because it’s the more pleasant option.

    • DSimon

      @Heisenburg, that will only work if you happen to get lucky enough to hit the right combination again before universal entropy maximizes and the only available particle configurations are mathematically ultra-boring. Also, if you’re counting on random reformation, consider all the other formations that are at least as possible, including a number that involve truly horrifying errors in the random reconfiguration of your brain (e.g. pain circuits always firing, emotional affect reversed, or a Gage-like personality reversal).

    • heisenbug

      We still have very limited knowledge of our universe. Even if we hit the maximum entropy level that does not mean that things will stay the same forever. I am more inclined to think that our universe is just a part of an eternal cycle of reborn and decline of classical matter.

      Theists are at least right about one thing. Our Universe is either caused by some external force or it is self-caused. We have no evidence of an external force tempering with our existance. Hence, it would be logical to assume that our universe is self-caused, i.e. caused by everpresent natural laws of physics. It would be strange to think that our universe is completely unique and never anything similar has occured or will occur in the framework of eternity. After all, if even the rarest physical phenomena does happen (like the appearance of our universe, from our perspective), it would be foolish to assume that the right condition for it will never repeat themselves.

      I do agree that some horrifying errors in the combination of particles might happen in my hypothesis of a reincarnation. However, most of those mutation would make you unfit for life. Others would completely transform one s personality and make you a different person. Still, if you add eternity to the equation, every possible combination should play out. It is like throwing a dozen of dice. Sooner or later you will repeat the same combination you first got.

  • heisenbug

    I agree that the same options are available to all bullying victims. And that is why it is difficult for me to understand the victim mentallity, since those are obvious actions to me.

    But the biggest difference between bullying victims and you would be the reason why those g-men were after you. It was not because they wanted to torment you just for the fun of it or because they hated you (classical reasons for bullying). It was a long established tradition and you were just another a victim of the system. You had the choice to either follow the group or break out of it. The fact that you could not go through the consequences of standing up for yourself does not change much. Not every 13 year old is the same. And it is not like victims of hazing are always willing participants aware of every possible humiliation and torment that would befall them.

    In the end, be it hazing or bullying, you are still a victim.

  • smrnda

    Just since it’s worth mentioning, I don’t think one can equate military training to ‘bullying’ or even ‘hazing’ since the objectives (psychologically conditioning people to survive in combat where people will die and where people will have to kill) is something that is going to require special training. (Of course, there are disputes in terms of what goes too far – the main problem being higher-ups who won’t step in until something too extreme to be ignored goes on.)

    Overall, adults have a responsibility to monitor children and adolescents. I worked with kids age 0 through 6 and it was my job to police aggressive behavior. It seems like once kids hit maybe 8, the adults can just sit on their asses and do nothing.

  • baal

    @heisenbug – you don’t remember being a child (early teen years)?! Also, are you a native English speaker? I get the feeling your not using words consistent with general usage. For example, your use of “victim mentality” I the 5:37 post seems to refer to the mindset of a person being subjected to bullying but those words are usually applied to people making an argument that they are being victimized when in fact they are not. Your use is the normal meaning for the words but not there usual use for the words together. The net impact of small grammatical things gives me the impression that you’re short on empathy and tend towards binary thinking – or ESL. One or the other.

    Also, even if it is traditional, bullying is bullying. It’s frequently true that people who bully learned the behaviour from being bullied themselves. This doesn’t make it any more acceptable or excusable.

    • heisenbug

      No, I am not a native speaker and I do make blunders in English. But I think you understood more or less the meaning of my words. A person who is subjugated to bullying without trying to break free from it has a different mentality from others, I call it “victim mentality” for lack of a better term. It is the same mentality that make some people end up in an unhealthy relationship, unable to break up with their abusive partner. To me those situation are similar and equally puzzling. Is it a lack of empathy? Maybe.

      Yes, I know that a mind can be completely broken and rendered completely unable to stand up against its oppressor. But to give up from the start without even trying the smallest thing? That I cannot comprehend.

      Finally, it is not really bullying that is described here. It ilooks more like hazing. I am against such practice, but I also admit that there are some positive effects be it for adults or kids. Still the price is not worth it.


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