On Being A Bully

In the long list of personal moral failures for which I will have to atone, participating in schoolyard and dormitory bullying–even if only briefly, and in attenuated fashion–must rank among the very worst. The only exculpation I can offer in my defense is that I was young, but all bullies in school are; I’m afraid there is little room for forgiveness here. More to the point, I’ve never forgotten the stricken look on the faces of my victims; they will haunt me as few other memories of mine do. I remember both their names; I hope they’ve forgotten mine.

In the fifth grade, my class included a young boy who seemed ‘different’ from us; he dressed a little oddly, spoke in a slightly different voice. He was, in short, a ‘painted bird.’ His minor dissimilarities, his tiny quirks and idiosyncrasies, were enough to produce an avalanche of ridicule directed at him. I watched all of this with a bemused air; I had suffered from some bullying myself earlier, and I knew I didn’t like it. I sympathized with him, but I did not intervene. Neither did I join in. And yet, watching his watching his trials and tribulations did not make me more sympathetic to him, more eager to come to his aid; instead, it seemed to produce a weakening of my moral fiber. One day, in the schoolyard, as we milled around in the break, the hazing grew worse; my classmates seemed to be taking turns in harassing the kid. And then, finally, I snapped; caught up in the madness, I laughed at him, pushed him around, I joined the gang for a little bit of fun. Fortunately, he ran away, off to a distant corner, seeking relief till the bell announcing the end of the break rang. His expression that day jolted me out of my brief exultation; I knew what I had seen, and I knew it was not a feeling I would ever want to be subjected to. I never harassed him again; at year’s end, I changed school and never saw him again either.

In the ninth grade, shortly after I had begun what would turn out to be a two-year stay at a boarding school, I found another ‘victim’; this time, a youngster who had become the target of choice for those in my dorm. He was a ‘freak,’ a ‘weirdo,’ his pinkie finger, thanks to an old injury, standing upright and provoking peals of hilarity; no one spoke to him, and the few interactions he had with others seemed to be dominated by mockery and ridicule. Again, less honorably, trying to fit in, trying to make new friends, trying to show I belonged here, I joined in; it was how I thought I would show I could hang with the rest. My joining the gang of his tormentors only produced a hurt look or two from this youngster; he had, after all, stayed out of the fray when I had been hazed on my arrival at the boarding school. I was a bully and an ingrate, a thought which soon brought an end to any participation in bullying on my part. I retreated, chastened, alarmed by my failure of kindness.

These transgressions were perhaps minor, but they still serve to induce shame; I was often bullied and assaulted in school; the thought that I could ever have done anything to create a similar atmosphere of terror for another youngster filled me with despondence then, and it still does. Now, as a parent, I await the higher grades for my daughter with some trepidation; she will face challenges considerably more onerous than mine. I can only hope she does not encounter too many folks like mine who lost their bearings along the way.

Kids Say The Darndest Things: Every Child A Prophet

Like many other proud parents,  I post my child’s latest ‘wise pronouncements’ as my Facebook statuses, trusting they will evoke favorable reactions–mainly guffaws, and some flattering assessments of her precocity–from my friends. Kids do, after all, say the darndest things; and if we can soak some up the reflected glory for being responsible for bringing such a delightful child to the attention of this ‘ol world, well then, we are all the better for it.

Why do children’s pronouncements strike us ‘the darndest things’?

Incongruity, of course–the heart and soul of all great humor–has a great deal to do with it. We associate some words and pronouncements with the much older among us; to see them deployed by humans-in-training cannot but fail to evoke some surprised reactions; we associate some kinds of claims and statements and judgments with very particular sorts of social states of affairs, mostly serious; to see them wrenched out of those and deployed elsewhere, perhaps in the midst of an episode of lighthearted playing and rumbling is to encounter the drastically out-of-place; we associate the speech of children with tiny voices, fractured verbs and tenses, and attention to the ‘trivial’; to see it deployed for an arsenal of portentous words and statements, speaking of matters cosmic and spiritual, is to be exposed to radical disjunctures with the ordinary. We realize that the child is–among many, many, other things–an adult in training, trying on words and concepts for size, testing them to see how they work in conversations and social settings. Sometimes those trials take place in unexpected venues with unexpected audiences. We cannot but be surprised and amused.

The child is, always, a new observer of our time and place, and so, it is able to bring a new perspective to bear on what it experiences. These encounters bear the potential to produce poetic responses; we are made to see the world anew by the child. (This claim is an exceedingly common one to be made by parents; non-parents do not have the same response to a child that is not theirs; the binding of the parental relationship with a child seems to make possible the receptivity to this new vision.) The aphorisms that our children produce for us are often original; they often sparkle with the glint of truth that is supposed to be the heart and soul of a great aphoristic claim. We are aware that the resultant poetic claim might be lacking the requisite intention–under some theory of art–to make it a genuinely creative and innovative work of art, but we brush past that pedantic worry and let ourselves succumb to its power in any case.

Most fundamentally, I think, there is hope in our reactions to the child’s nascent wisdom. We are aware of adult follies and wasted potential; we are infected by disillusionment; we sense the possible novelty that lurks in the child, that promises and threatens to make this world over again, to set it, finally, right. We cheer, in welcoming anticipation. Every child a prophet indeed.

Reading Charlie Brown Comics, Contd.

My post yesterday on my relationship with Charlie Brown comics sparked some interesting contestations by Chase Madar and David Auerbach–in the course of a discussion on Facebook. With their permission, I reproduce some of their comments below and follow-up with some brief annotations.

First Madar says:

I’ve had the exact opposite reaction since reading Peanuts from a young age, and still find Schultz’s stuff funny and v consoling in its candid recognition of the cruelties of life and its embrace of a loser as a central, stoic-heroic figure, something all-too-rare in this ultra-Calvinist society that idolizes success, winning and happiness. (Plainly there was a huge appetite for Schultz’s glorification of the noble loser as it was such an enormous hit.)

My initial response–which Madar found ‘terrifying’–was:

Perhaps I was too morose as a child to find consolation in it, too convinced by my own experiences that there was nothing noble about the loser. If I may say so, my darker view of the success of the comic strip is that many of its readers did not identify with Charlie Brown but with his tormentors instead.

And David Auerbach wrote, as he noted his daughter’s liking for Peanuts:

I think there is something to the unfiltered, unironic treatment of childhood angst that really does resonate. She identifies with Linus, as I did: the intellectual spectator who still has a handful of gaping vulnerabilities (emotional dependency on the security blanket, unwarranted cosmic faith in the order provided by the Great Pumpkin).

I think part of what made Charlie Brown bearable was my sense, even then, that the violence done to him by others wasn’t as much the cause of his problems as the mental violence he did to himself. Even his treatment by Lucy seemed to be somewhat unforced: Lucy wasn’t some mastermind architecting his doom, she was just a petty and human bully. On some level Charlie Brown just couldn’t let go of the idea that Lucy could be other than she was. The infamous and brilliant Mr. Sack sequence provided me with some vindication for this view: all it took was the psychological crutch of a paper bag to completely change Charlie Brown’s entire worldview and briefly turn him into an inspirational winner. It’s that sort of tragic character that made Peanuts more cathartic than cruel for me. I still love it.

I found Schulz’s immense sympathy for these characters (even Lucy!) to be tremendously comforting. It was a world where pain happened, where people could be trapped by themselves and by others, but it wasn’t an *evil* world (good things *do* happen, irregularly)…just an unfortunate one. And I think it boosted my determination to break some of my (many) bad cognitive habits and thought-loops…with partial success.

Madar then followed up with:

Snoopy of course is the anti-Charlie Brown, a dynamo of unfrustrated and virtually unrestricted action and becoming: Joe Cool, Sopwith Camel flying ace, man of letters, womanizer (lots of off-panel girlfriends mentioned, even if he does have his heartbreaks, cf the dog with soft paws he fleetingly connected with during a riot at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm), multi-sport athlete. He’s pampered, spoiled, demanding, egocentric, not particularly loyal, almost always nonchalant.

At which point I made note again of my affection for Snoopy, and wrote:

Unsurprisingly, as I noted, Snoopy was my favorite character/aspect in/of Peanuts. I think our relationship to fantasy is underwriting our responses to Peanuts.

Madar and Auerbach’s alternative readings of, and takeaways from, Peanuts reveal a great deal. We bring expectations and frameworks of expectation and readerly backgrounds to our encounters with books; mine generated my interpretation of Charlie Brown. As a child, I read for escape, and occasionally, for enlightenment; I read for diversion. I read Greek and Nordic and Indian mythology in text and animated form; I read war stories; I read tales of adventure and exploration and mystery. These took me away, they transported me from the here and now. I do not doubt that Madar and Auerbach also read for escapist reasons; but clearly that orientation toward reading did not prevent them from generating their own idiosyncratic perspectives on Peanuts; these backgrounds of ours are not totally determinative of our reading experiences; we find what we might be looking for, or are attuned to look for.

Snoopy worked for me; he flew, he soared, he was oblivious to the humans around him, as I often wished I could be to those around me. He could make things happen just by dreaming about them. (As Auerbach noted, “He’s just the most skilled at using fantasy to escape the harsh patterns around him. Of course this would make him clinically insane by real-world standards.”) Snoopy’s behavior seemed ‘childish’ in some normative sense–where the norms are drawn from our imagining what children are like in our fantasies. The descriptive was very different; there, children are very often monsters. To others, and to themselves.

So I wanted nothing to do with children’s encounters in my reading; I had had enough of them every day in my waking hours. (Had Charlie Brown been presented to me in text or non-cartoon form, I would not have read more than a few pages.) They were zones of bullying, of mockery, of ridicule, of schoolyard rumbles and squabbles; sure, there was playtime and escape from parental discipline as well, but all too soon, I found pecking orders and force here too. When I read what would now be called ‘young adult’ literature, I only enjoyed them when reading tales of derring-do; their delving into interpersonal interactions and the petty jealousies and insecurities that sometimes animated their characters left me cold. I had enough of that around me. When I read Charlie Brown and saw the mockery and teasing of the other children, it merely seemed to confirm to me that my worldview was correct;  even then, as I read the comics, I suspected the reason this mockery had found its way into comic books–a source of amusement supposedly–was that people found it funny, a fact I found ample confirmation in the glee children found in others’ misfortunes all the time. Painted birds weren’t brave losers; they were outcasts, shunned, and mocked. Perhaps this was an excessively gloomy view of the world, perhaps I was committing the ‘mental violence’ on myself that Auerbach saw Charlie Brown performing. Perhaps that’s what made Charlie Brown so frightening for me; I saw myself in him.

On Being Traumatized By Charlie Brown Comics

I read many, many Charlie Brown comic books as a child; reading them was a sustained exercise in masochism. I hated them, each and every single page, but I kept on reading, from cover to cover. I would finish one, convinced of the utter, vicious, gratuitous cruelty of the world and its residents, and then, I would go get another one. Sometimes I would take one out on loan from a local library; sometimes I would borrow one from a friend. (Our family’s budget did not permit too many book purchases, but we were enthusiastic patrons of libraries, public and private.) I suspect this was because I could not shake off the dominant notion that comic books were supposed to be entertaining fun, even as my reading experience was providing numerous indicators that these comic books and their characters were anything but. That many of the cartoon strips I read and watched–like the Tom and Jerry series–were often such exercises in violent cruelty was only slowly becoming apparent to me.

The problem, of course, was that the Charlie Brown comics were not remotely escapist; they provided no bulwark of comfort against the outside world. They merely served to provide reminders of the schoolyard and its denizens, of which and whom I had had enough of during my awkwardly spent days. Witnessing the trials and travails of Charlie Brown provided no comfort, no solidarity; instead, I was merely reminded that indeed, the world was just as cruel as I imagined it to be, that even comic books had to bow down, tone down their silly frivolousness, and acknowledge this incontrovertible fact about it. So relentlessly downbeat were the Charlie Brown comics, so relentlessly downcast its central character, that I could not even bring myself to experience any solidarity or empathy with him.  I had had the wind knocked out of me; I was Charlie Brown, lying flat on his back, staring up at the sky, wondering how he could have let himself fall for Lucy’s football trick all over again.

As the reader might have surmised, I have returned to this excavation of my childhood experiences because my daughter has just encountered Peanuts for the first time. Truth be told, I was not sold on the idea of her watching the DVD of A Boy Named Charlie Brown and only agreed with some reluctance to let her do so. Clearly, childhood scars run deep. My only reassurance was that this being a Hollywood production, it would not dare entertain a truly unhappy ending. This intuition was confirmed:

The film was partly based on a series of Peanuts comic strips originally published in newspapers in 1966. That story had a much different ending: Charlie Brown was eliminated in his class spelling bee right away for misspelling the word maze (“M–A–Y–S” while thinking of baseball legend Willie Mays), thus confirming Violet’s prediction that he would make a fool of himself. Charlie Brown then screams at his teacher in frustration, causing him to be sent to the principal’s office.

I am writing this post as my daughter watches the DVD; thus far, she has expressed some dismay at the meanness of Charlie’s friends but also commented on how much she likes Snoopy; I look forward to a full debrief when the movie is over.


My First Nightmares

There are times when my almost-three-year-old daughter will wake up in the middle of the night, crying inconsolably. Calming her down and putting her back to sleep is a trying business at best. We have been reliably informed that this age sees the child experience her first nightmares; perhaps those nocturnal visitors are responsible for these startled and frightened reactions. I wonder what she makes of them: these strange phenomenal experiences that occur during a period of ostensible unconsciousness.

My daughter’s experiences remind me of my first nightmares (the ones I can remember.) I was then a little over five years, used to sleeping in a bedroom with my elder brother. The nightmares followed two templates; one was of being buried alive. The other is a little harder to describe–and yet, its bare details are still clearly visible to me after all these years.

As the dream began, I would find myself in a boat, moving slowly through a large expanse of, not water, but some other mysterious substance. Sometimes it looked liked pebbles, on other occasions, it might well have been little metallic spheres. I do not remember how I was propelled through this ‘sea’ but there were no oars to be seen. Some mysterious force moved me onwards; as it did so, I could see the furrows our path made, trailing out behind my mysterious vehicle. This by itself, would not have been overly frightening but the setting made it so. I was surrounded on all sides by an encroaching darkness; only the boat, and its immediate surroundings were lit up. Not from on high; there did not seem to be a spotlight shining down on me. There was just a mobile island of light that moved through this otherwise Stygian night. I could sense terrors lay in the darkness around me; I could feel them press in on me, but I could not discern their shape or form.

I found this recurring nightmare terrifying; so much so that I confessed to my parents I did not want to go to sleep for fear of traveling to that god-forsaken body of water. I sensed that one night whatever lay behind that surrounding veil of darkness would reach out and draw me in, never to return to the light.

My mother did what she could; she sat by me as she tucked me in for the night, whispering reassurances in my ear about the unreality of my visions. She assured me I could always wake myself up from a dream, that I could remind myself it was only a dream, that I could always call her if I needed. I do not remember if these words of comfort helped during the actual experience of the dreams that followed. They did make it easier to fall asleep. The nightmares, as might have been expected, ceased after a little while, and my still-developing mind found new preoccupations.

I have never attempted an analysis of this still-vivid experience; someday, perhaps on a couch with an attentive listener nearby, I will. (Or perhaps I’ll just take a crack at it here.) In the meantime, I can only hope that I will be as much of a comfort to my daughter as my mother was to me.

‘Don’t Be Like Me’: A Parent’s Plea

Parents want their children to be like them; parents want their children to be better than them; and parents do not want their children to be like them.

Despite Hobbes‘ shrewd remark that most humans are content with their congenital endowments of intelligence and talent, we are often quite aware of our shortcomings, intellectual and psychological alike. (Our physical falling-short is quite brutally drilled into us from an early age onwards.) These infirmities afflict many ventures of ours and often leave us feeling ill-equipped to take on the particular vagaries and challenges of this world: “I am too diffident; I am not assertive enough; I do not speak up enough; I am too shy; I am too rude; I am not a good listener; I am too quick to back down.” And on and on. Some of these self-assessments are too flagellatory; some represent a hard-earned insight gained after long bouts of introspection, sometimes guided, sometimes independent.

Be that as it may, these self-assessments may afflict us with some alarm when we consider our offspring’s prospects in his or her life. We are happy and grateful that our genetic endowment of reasonably good health has been conveyed to our child, but we fret about whether her psychological inheritance might not be too much of a burden. How much, really, do we want our child to be like us when we consider our particular characters and dispositions to have burdened us considerably on our journeys? Don’t we, after all, wish we were constituted differently so that we could be stronger, more resilient, more temperamentally capable? What a terrible misfortune it would be for our child were it to be similarly afflicted.

I often accompany my little daughter to local playgrounds and neighborhood playdates. I watch her interact with other children her age; I watch her enter into bouts of contestation, partnership, sharing, dispute, argument, and reconciliation; I see her assert herself, back down, flee, hold her ground, get shoved aside. Sometimes she is hesitant, sometimes shy; sometimes she makes clear she prefers the company of her parents; sometimes she is bewildered by the little people with whom she is supposed to interact and make ‘friends.’

And as I watch her, I often catch myself wishing that she will ‘not be like me.’ I did not consider my ride through the gauntlet of childhood a smooth one; I often wished I had been equipped differently for, had responded differently to, its many challenges and reckonings. (And as I have noted, I have no desire to ‘do it over.’) I wish my child no part of the anxiety, uncertainty, and fear, which so often colored my interactions with other children and which surely played a substantial role in the construction of the world view with which I am equipped today. I want my child to experience a world different and ‘better’ from the one I did; I sense the first step in the construction of that contrast is for her to not be like me. I know she won’t, but I want those differences to be the ‘right’ ones.

Bertrand Russell On Toddlers, The ‘Little Devils’

In ‘The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed’ (Unpopular Essays, 1960; Routledge Classics 2009, pp. 60-61), Bertrand Russell writes,

Children, after being limbs of Satan in traditional theology and mystically illuminated angels in the minds of education reformers, have reverted to being little devils–not theological demons inspired by the Evil One, but scientific Freudian abominations inspired by the Unconscious. They are, it must be said, far more wicked than they were in the diatribes of the monks; they display, in modern textbooks, an ingenuity and persistence in sinful imaginings to which in the past there was nothing comparable except St. Anthony.  [link added]

Lord Russell is here inclined to be skeptical of the notion of the ‘innocent monster’ that is suggested to us by the Freudian notion of the child being all Id and nothing but the Id–with no regulation by the Ego or the Super Ego–but I wonder if that was because he had little experience with toddlers, especially two-year olds. (Russell had four children–two sons and two daughters–but I cannot recall if he spent much time rearing them.)

The ‘terrible twos‘ is a modern child-rearing cliché; prospective parents are warned about it–with bloodcurdling tales–by those that have passed through its terrible gauntlet. My wife and I are almost there, for our daughter is almost two, but I’m inclined to think the Terror began a little earlier, around the eighteen-month mark. By then, our daughter had grown, and her increasing physical maturity brought in its wake many interesting embellishments of important behavioral patterns.

Her crying, for instance, became louder and lustier, reaching impressive decibel levels capable of alarming neighbors; she could now strike and scratch out with greater vigor; she could buck and convulse her body with greater force (one such bucking escapade, prompted by her reluctance to be changed out of her night-clothes–or perhaps it was a diaper change–resulted in her headbutting my wife and cutting her lip), and of course, she had learned to say ‘no’ loudly and emphatically (and endlessly) for just about everything (including, of course, that perennially popular target of rejection, life-sustaining and growth-producing food.)

My wife is far more patient and understanding, far more possessed of forbearance, than I. So it is with some wonder and considerable respect that I observe her interactions with my daughter, as she skilfully and gracefully negotiates the temperamental meltdowns that often occur these days. In contrast, all too often, I have to walk away from an encounter with my child, alarmed and apprehensive at the thought that I might be approaching an explosive outer expression of my inner feelings.

I should not overstate the monstrous aspects of my daughter, of course. She continues to amaze and astonish us everyday; she is learning new words all the time; she has learned some habits that I hope will persist into her adult life (like sitting in her play space by herself, ‘reading’ her many books); and in her dealings with other toddlers,  she is, by and large, not an aggressor or ‘snatcher.’

As I noted here a while ago, she will continue to change and acquire new identities; there will be a point in the not-so-distant future when we will look back, with the usual selective nostalgia, at even this often-trying stage of her continuing development.