Bullies fear those who show the tenderness that also lives in the bully, but in secret. The vulnerable, sensitive child scares the bully and makes him or her uncomfortable, because being around that child reminds the bully of what he hates within himself. He learned to hate any sign of tenderness, of need or hunger for dignity and love. When the bully sees it in another person, she wants to banish that person to prevent being reminded. This is the psychological defense mechanism of projection, and it is unconscious.
Bullies also, paradoxically, fear what they don’t understand, and shut off what ought to be natural curiosity about differences in people and cultures. This is xenophobia, the fear of the stranger. What makes a bully so fearful and insecure? And can they be healed?
I never knew the answer until I attended my 25th high school reunion some years ago. There, one of my childhood bullies came up to me to apologize for his behavior of more than a decade earlier. In fact, he had come specifically to find as many of his victims as he could, to make amends. What had changed him?
As we sat at a table talking, I learned he had been the victim of bullying at home, where he was humiliated for his own tenderness, his natural need to be cherished and protected. Hearing his story, I found it easy to forgive him. I recognized his gift: his tenderness, now redeemed from banishment and welcomed back after a heart attack made him reconsider how he had lived his life so coldly. In his heart attack he found his healing. In his call to action, he healed the teenage girl who’d been me. And we redeemed and reclaimed our tendernesses, which God had placed in each of us as gift.
Bullies can heal. And we who get hurt can heal, whether or not the bully heals or comes to us to ask forgiveness. We only need to trust that God places value and dignity inside each of us, at the level of our very soul:
I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul know it very well. (Psalm 139, English Standard version)