The Swagger Coach: On Forgiveness

I like to consider myself to be a relatively strong person. I’ve endured a lot of bullying and name-calling due to my shape or fashion sense, and while growing up wasn’t always easy, I am glad I experienced what I did, and the impact on who its made me today. Yeah, it was a battle I wished I could have been freed from at the time, but its taught me to be tough and sensible, along with teaching me objectivity and the art of not taking life too seriously. Each snide remark, each mean-spirited comment has come from a peer, someone like myself who was at the same stage of life, and was dealing with their own issues and challenges of growing up or discovering who they were. Its shocking how easy it is to become extremely self-centered when handling bullying, and thinking about the impact it has on us, but what about the other side of it? How often do we think to ourselves in empathy, “I wonder what this person is dealing with?”

Over the last two years I’ve had a handful of childhood bullies actually get in touch to apologize for their behaviour, and to share their motivation or story with me. I’ve got to say that while some of these conversations have been uncomfortable or even marginally offensive, I truly do appreciate the sentiment of it once I begin to think about it from an out-of-body perspective. I’ve laughed during these discussions, and cried, but I can say without a doubt that a couple of these individuals have been more open, honest and kind-hearted during these interactions than many people I speak with on a daily basis. Mind you, its a bit difficult to keep an unbiased mind when these folks reach out, and the first thing that runs through my mind is “I’ve totally forgotten about this person, why do they think I still remember them and their crappy actions? Do they think I’ve really spent the last ___ years harping on this?” But then I realize that yes, I have moved on from that point in time, but humans rarely do anything without motivation, and perhaps their motivation for lashing out was something which held them down, or made them feel insecure, scared, or hopeless. Perhaps it still is. I’d like to share some of these experiences with you guys, to encourage you to think twice before condemning or judging someone’s behaviour, and inspire you to reach out and offer honest, unguarded acts of kindness to the people around you.

I was up late and on Facebook one night, when a guy I’d gone through middle and high school with started an IM conversation. Typically, Ryan* (names changed, that’s how I roll) and I didn’t talk much inside or outside of school, but he had been part of a group whom I’d had a couple of friends within, so he wasn’t a total stranger. So, when he popped up online after at least six years of not chatting, I was a bit surprised. We chatted about what we’d been doing after graduation, and the difficulty of finding jobs in Toronto, when the conversation changed direction. Ryan apologized on behalf of himself and his buddies for acting out at me when we were younger, but I wondered what he meant. To be honest, I truly don’t remember him ever being mean to me directly, but knew that his friends definitely made a spectacle out of giving people a hard time. Ironically enough, I did remember those same friends being rather unkind to him, likely because he was a bigger guy, and had adopted the persona of class clown. Funny how much we had in common, creating a larger-than-life alter ego to help us fit in in social circles. Did Ryan know that his buddies had committed the same crime that he was apologizing for, against him? Would he be just as surprised as I was to learn of this? We chatted for a while longer about things going on in his life and some of his more recent challenges, but I assured him that anything he may have said certainly didn’t make a negative impact, since I didn’t remember it happening. I was thankful, however, that he had the honesty and genuine desire to mend what we had of a friendship, and I wished him the very best in the future. I’m still baffled by his confession, and wonder what motivated him to share this with me. Was I the only person he was reaching out to? Why now, all these years later?

Megan* had been someone I’d attended an extracurricular with twice a week. She and I were the same age, and although we didn’t start out as friends, our relationship began pretty neutrally. Well, as neutrally as a relationship between two eleven-year-old girls can be. Megan had been attending these classes for a while prior to my start with the group, so she knew most kids and was friendly with all of them. She was funny, outgoing, boisterous and a little sarcastic, but nevertheless the kind of girl I could see myself being friends with. I realized rather quickly though, that Megan and I just simply didn’t get along, possibly because we were very similar; self righteous and bold at a young age, and totally unable to accept anyone questioning our judgement. It was like two rams bashing horns. She was part of the crew and lived locally along with the others, while I lived far away and had to be driven to and from the class. I rarely socialized with the others, while they were her everyday friends and neighbours. The two nights a week I loved began to be a source of major stress, and I constantly felt like I was crashing their party. Eventually, I decided that I had outgrown the class and left the group feeling dejected and almost displaced. Years later, Megan sent me a brief but jarring message through Facebook. It was simple and short, but her apology made my heart drop when I read that she lashed out due to some very serious abuse she had endured as a child. She saw parallels between myself and her attacker, and thus was guarded if not aggressive when interacting with me. It saddened me that I could be so narrow-minded, she was always such a leader, I never would have seen her as a victim. I sat on my couch reading her message, and it dawned on me that I was really good at villainizing others. Throughout the years I never stopped to think that maybe she had her own demons to battle, or worse, that she was being attacked in a far more serious and humiliating manner than I was. I was floored by the fact that reached out to me, not only to apologize, but to share this huge and troubling part of her life with me, which took tremendous amounts of strength and courage. I can’t express what it meant to me, to have someone I had thought wanted to distance herself from me for years, share something so personal.

Both of these individuals, among others, overcame their own pride to reach out to someone they believe they had wronged to set things right. Both of them had full and likely complicated lives, just as I did (and do) yet I felt as though the weight of their actions weighed heavier upon them than it did on me. I’ve learned to let things roll off, and I’m not very good at holding a grudge, so yes, while their actions have had implications, they were certainly not front-and-center memories in my mind. I’m grateful that these folks have reached out to me, and I know that apologies are the first part of a healing process, most prominently within themselves. Apologies are the result of genuine desire to attain peace and resolve conflict, and to rid yourself of the guilt or negativity that can follow you around when you let these things build up. Friends, if you can learn anything from these people, or the ones who offer you apologies, its that we never know what motivates anyone other than ourselves to do the things they do. Its easy to classify someone as a bully, but can we classify those bullies as victims too? These experiences have been so humbling for me, and while I’ve experienced sadness, guilt, hesitance, and shock as a result of these and other conversations of this type, I feel a million times more connected to the people around me as a result. Each of these exchanges has resulted in a heavy conversation in my own mind, and it makes me more accountable for my actions and realizing their implications on the people around me. I encourage each of you to start a conversation with someone in your life who needs to be apologized to, or forgiven, and liberate yourself of the burden you’ve held. You never know who’s been waiting years to hear it!

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