Growing up, like most Witches I know, I was bullied.
It didn’t matter where I went: school, church, camp, after-school sports, a slumber party, the grocery store, the movie theater, the mall. Kids (whether they knew me or not) had something to say about my curly hair, glasses, braces, acne, weight, or clothes. I was tall with mature features and looked like a little adult. Kids didn’t know if I was ten or twenty. Because they didn’t know what to do with me, they made fun of me.
Every well-meaning grown-up had the same advice: Just ignore them.
I did. Most of my childhood memories are threaded with taunts in the background; me facing forward like a pointer, blood roaring in my ears and cheeks hot, using every part of me to be good and just ignore them…instead of punching them in the nose, like I wished I could.
If adults said just ignore them, then that was the right thing to do. I ignored, ignored, and ignored. It never worked. The bullies bullied for their own sake, making themselves and each other laugh and building on their taunts. One day in the seventh grade, exhausted with ignoring a particularly mean group of girls, I exaggerated everything they mocked me for, making a joke of their insults. Suddenly, other kids were laughing–not at me, but at my humor. The more I could control the laughter, the more the girls’ bullying deflated. Making people laugh was my best defense…even at my own expense.
Happy ending, right?
Just ignore them and Make them laugh became my coping mechanisms through my adult life, me grasping them like I would the guardrail at the roller-skating rink, too scared to fall to even try being without them. A teacher screams in my face that I’m a terrible actress and ruining the show? Ignore her. Joke about it, later. A boyfriend says my degree is inferior and I’ll never succeed, and also I’m annoying and no one will want to marry me? Ignore him. Laugh. A boss, furious that I asked for regular lunch breaks, barks over the phone that he has “no time for my shit” and slams down the receiver. Ignore it. Go back to work.
My childhood may have had the backdrop of children’s taunts. My early adult years were flanked by concerned friends, watching me ignore the teacher, the boyfriend, the boss, and others. Why do you put up with that? they would ask. I’d ignore them, too.
There wasn’t a single moment when things changed, but walking the path of the Witch allows us to look at things differently.
Through doing my Shadow work, I first noticed when I hurt others and seeing how much of that was tied to having been hurt, myself. One of the cruelest things I ever did to myself was Just ignore them.
Breaking the habit hasn’t been easy, but I’ve succeeded through tiny little actions. Just the action of saying, “I see what you’re doing,” is sometimes enough to stop it.
Last year, someone absolutely destroyed one of my books on Goodreads. Fellow authors: hold the “don’t read reviews” comments. There’s a point, here. This wasn’t a typical bad review. This one had simmered, and then boiled, on the reviewer’s mind. Eloquently, but angrily, they laid all the terrible things they wanted to say about my work. It began with, “I see so many good reviews here, that I really need to say how terrible it was,” and continued with a bullet-point list of everything she hated about my book.
I was gutted. I was scheduled to give a talk on that same book within a few hours of reading the “Courtney’s Work Sucks Here’s Why” list. I wondered if I should cancel my talk and quit writing. I leaned onto my old coping rail, closing the laptop and ignoring her.
But as I got ready for the talk, the words wouldn’t leave me.
Although I was running late, I opened up the laptop again. I read her comment one more time, and then clicked on her profile. I saw that she had recently ripped apart a colleague’s book of the same nature. I clicked on her blog and realized she was a struggling writer, who loved the material that I write about, but seemed to have challenges both finishing her work and getting published. Maybe she was bullying me and my colleague because she felt discouraged?
I returned to her review of my book and wrote a response, thanking her for taking the time to read my book and agreeing that some of her criticisms were fair (“We all make mistakes when we write!”). I also pointed out that some were unfounded. Because she said she herself was a Pagan, I suggested we sit down over a glass of mead at a festival sometime as I’d happily discuss it further. I ended my response with one more word of thanks for holding Pagan authors to a high standard. I then sent her a friend request on Facebook, and went off to nail my talk. Later, I peeked at Goodreads to see if she’d responded.
She’d removed her review. She also removed her review of my colleague’s book.
To my knowledge, she never accepted my friend request, but also to my knowledge, she hasn’t reviewed anything else I’ve written.
This is a strange age of bullying.
We’re now talking about how bullied and bullying children struggle as adults, and we’re addressing bullying in schools. At the same time, we’re bullying one another online and the current resident of the White House is the schoolyard bully on steroids. This weekend, I chatted with an employee at a bookstore who said he was coping with the current world by hiding in sci-fi and fantasy novels. I nodded. It seemed fair. We all need our safe spaces and for many of us, those places are books and movies. For others, conventions and costumes. It’s a hard time and we all need our place to take a breath.
But let us not cling to them, like scared kids on roller-skates on the safety rail. One of the cruelest things we can do to ourselves is ignore the harm others do to us. The cruelest thing we can do to others right now is ignore the circumstances we’re in.
We must keep speaking up. Ignoring bullies doesn’t defeat them. But speaking up can.