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Ryan Patrick Halligan was a young man who attended a middle school in Vermont. Because of complications resulting from his birth, he was physically and intellectually challenged. His speech, learning abilities and physical coordination were other abled even as he was mainstreamed in local schools. All was good for him, however, until he reached the fifth grade. And then the bullying began.
He was bullied for three years – during his middle school years. It became so bad that at one point he begged his parents to home school him. While his parents considered this, Ryan came up with another idea – to learn kick boxing so that he could confront his tormenters and perhaps get them to stop. And that is what he did. It seemed to work. Much of the bullying stopped. One of his primary tormenters even became a supposed friend.
But that was only for a time. The friend insinuated himself into Ryan’s life such that Ryan shared some thoughts that were meant to be private. Some of Ryan’s thoughts suggested he had same sex attractions and these were later used against him and told to many others.
Ryan also began an online relationship with a popular girl at his school. The girl routinely expressed romantic interest in him even as he also shared his thoughts with her – many of which implied he was gay. It was clear, however, that Ryan believed the girl liked him and he thought of her as his girlfriend. Ryan was only thirteen, and like many teens, he still did not understand his sexuality.
At the start of the school year, Ryan excitedly met this girl and several of her friends after class. Instead of confirming her interest in him, however, the girl publicly humiliated Ryan. She told him she had pretended to like him, that she really thought he was a gay loser and that she wanted nothing to do with him. Adding even more insult, she posted online many of the internet chat sessions she and Ryan had conducted – ones in which he confessed personal thoughts about his sexuality. Soon, Ryan’s words went viral in the middle school community. Bullying of him by his previous tormenter reached a new intensity. He became depressed. A few weeks later, he committed suicide by hanging himself.
I mentioned the New York Times columnist David Brooks in my message last week and his thoughts about secularism. I do so again today with one of his recent columns about ISIS. He compared their actions with the vitriol directed at him by some folks who comment online. Such Internet commenters, he writes, often use hate language, insult and intimidation to demean and tear him and others down. Pretending to do so in the interest of correction and to assert themselves, the hate and bile many put out for the world to read is no different, Brooks writes, then the hate spewed by Islamic terrorists who behead or burn alive innocent victims.
While my own comparison may seem extreme, I compare the type of bullying Ryan Halligan endured to the horrifying online videos posted by ISIS. Such videos are described as so horrible that I refuse to watch them. The videos are the same as any form of bullying. Individuals with deep seated insecurities, anger and resentments use verbal or physical aggression to project an image of power and superiority all in order to intimidate, humiliate and terrorize.
Our culture has reached a point where advice to others and differences of opinion in politics, morality, life or religion are not expressed in a civil and respectful manner. Instead, people hurl invective, hate and humiliation at those with whom they disagree or who they consider an enemy. Many politicians do this all the time to their opponents. Search any online comment forum, and the same will be found written by everyday people. Watch many college or professional sports games, and the same kind of bullying can be witnessed when some coaches scream at their players. Few of us can be spared the comparison. We too can gossip, argue with partners or disagree with others in mean spirited ways. Assuming the righteousness of our belief, we too can humiliate, tear down and hurt others with the words we use. As Jesus is said to have taught, everybody agrees with the universal ethic: “Thou shall not kill.” But equal to the evil of murder, he said, is the anger, resentment and bitterness we can hold in our hearts and verbalize toward another person. Why has our culture, why have our ways of communicating with others – to our opponents and those we love – reached a level of speech that is often so vicious?
That question is one implicitly asked in one of this year’s Best Picture nominated films “Whiplash”. While the film, directed and written by a 28 year old relative newcomer, Damian Chazelle, is brilliant in its craft – masterfully using music, acting and cinematography to tell its story, the plot itself is disturbing. A nineteen year old drummer attends a highly competitive music school in New York City – one that is intended to resemble the preeminent Juliard School of Music. Andrew is a drummer – a very good one. He is eventually recruited by one of the school instructors, a man named Fletcher, to join his jazz band. Fletcher is an intimidating person – one with a shaved head, who dresses in all black clothing that accentuate his muscular physique. He menacingly stalks the school hallways and he conducts his classes and his band like a boot camp drill sergeant.
At Andrew’s first session with the band, Fletcher builds him up beforehand – telling him to relax, have fun and do his best. It’s clear, though, that band members fear Fletcher. All of them look down at the floor in his presence – too afraid to make eye contact. Once in the studio, Fletcher proceeds to rage at and humiliate one young, overweight player whom he disliked – using vulgarity, put downs and homophobic slurs. Fletcher then turns to Andrew and asks him to set the beat for one particularly difficult jazz piece. He repeatedly corrects Andrew, however, demanding he get the tempo just right. After several unsuccessful tries by Andrew, Fletcher throws a bandstand directly at him – barely missing his head. He confronts Andrew, leering inches from his face, slaps him, spews f-bombs, the word ‘faggot’, insults of his parents, and other invectives that bring Andrew to tears. It is clear that Fletcher is a classic bully who used mind games to build Andrew up, so that he could then rip him apart.
The film proceeds with a psychological look at the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher – a teacher whom Andrew clearly dislikes but whose approval he deeply desires. Fletcher later tells him his tactics of intimidation and humiliation are all in Andrew’s best interest – ones designed to not only make him try harder, but to push him beyond being merely good so that he can become great. That is something the ambitious Andrew dreams of being. As Fletcher confides at one point, the two worst words in the English language are, “good job”.
The director wants us to ponder that statement. Is the path to being not just “good enough”, but great, one that is achieved through verbal violence, put downs, and physical intimidation? Or is it to condescendingly tell someone “good job” – even if that means the performance was just OK? Is bullying an effective motivator – much like some people once believed it helped shape boys into men – or as some believe today, as a way to express opinion, give advice or get the world’s attention? Ultimately, I ask the question that is implied in the title of my message: how do we communicate “truth in love” to another?
One of the things I admire about the Jesus I interpret from the Bible is that he was often not god-like. The night before his crucifixion, he tearfully prayed to be spared pain. He was afraid. He also got bitterly angry at his opponents – calling them a “brood of vipers”. He later stormed into the Temple where he physically intimidated and confronted the religious hypocrites. Gandhi, too, was very human. He was a misogynist who sometimes belittled the abilities of women, he expressed some racist attitudes toward blacks when he lived in South Africa and he could be highly demanding. Martin Luther King, Jr. got depressed, borrowed without attribution the words and phrases of others for some of his writings and speeches, had multiple affairs and was often not a devout minister. What these prophets of history were – was human beings – great figures who helped inspire change but who were not perfect. They too had feet of clay. Their imperfections, their humanity – combined with their ability to motivate millions are what made them great.
What makes any leader or teacher of others great, therefore, is not just the iconic speeches and words they deliver. While the ideals of Jesus, Gandhi and King were great, while their words inspired millions, they impacted others not just with those talents. They did far more.
It’s usually not words that truly speak of love. It’s actions. As the Biblical book of James indicates, words are not enough. If you say you love God but are not doing loving acts of kindness, you are a hypocrite, the book says. If you profess a spirituality that is sincere, prove it with your works. Try to speak to others and act in ways that are loving, compassionate, decent and just to your family, your partner, your friends and complete strangers. That is also a test for any church congregation. Don’t just talk the talk. WALK the talk.
And that, interestingly, is the single most often cited way leaders and teachers are encouraged to lead and inspire others. Words, either in praise or criticism, can be effective in motivating others. What works even better is to inspire others with ones’ actions. As Gandhi famously said, WE must BE, we must personally act out, the change we want to see in another person or in the world.
That truth was presented by the Harvard Business Review in an article entitled, “Which Coach is the Most Effective: the Drill Sergeant or the Strong, Silent Type?” The article revealed results from a study of 1000 business leaders over a period of months and how they improved the performance of their employees. Half of them corrected, admonished or criticized employees. They verbally suggested ways to be better. The other half rarely used correction or criticism to admonish those they managed. After a year, the work performance of the two sets of employees was measured and compared with that of a year before. For those employees who had been verbally admonished, 22% significantly improved their performance. For those who had not been verbally advised, 33% significantly improved. Their managers had not managed with words but with deeds and actions. They silently managed by performing many of the tasks they asked of their employees – often showing skill and dedication in meeting them. They led by example. They inspired by what they did, and not by what they said.
The Harvard Business Review concludes by asserting that both methods of inspiring others work. But the non-verbal method clearly works best. And that points to something they discovered about how and why people are inspired to be better. People want to be LIKE those whom they admire and perceive to be good and competent. Indeed, attacking people verbally is often counter-productive. Persons who employ that method are perceived to themselves be flawed, insecure and petty. Who wants to emulate them? Who wants to try and live up to a nasty critic’s standards when that person is so clearly flawed in the vicious way they speak?
I look at Jesus as a great figure in history precisely because his primary method of teaching others was to inspire them by his actions, by his ability to forgive, by his loving acts toward outcasts, women, the sick, the thieves, the sinners, the poor. While he exhibited a few lapses of anger, his primary method to lead was not to tell others how to be good. He showed them. A great leader, a great teacher, a great friend, a great spouse or partner is not someone who only tells another how to act, how to perform, how to be better. He or she quietly lives that kind of life – he or she constantly strives to themselves improve, to themselves be gentle, humble and kind. He or she lives out the illustration Jesus used to teach this ethic: don’t point out the small speck in someone else’s eye. Work on extracting the log in your own eye! Don’t pride yourself on being so aware of how others act or perform. Pride yourself on working on how you act and perform. If you want someone else to be great, try to be great yourself!
Our world is so full of pain that comes from natural causes – ones that humans cannot control. Why, then, do humans so often add to those hurts with their own hurtful actions? Why do humans demean, attack and humiliate others – especially people closest to them? There are myriad reasons why – to compete, to puff ourselves up, to hide our own inadequacies by focusing on those of others. Mostly, we give in to our baser instincts – to grovel and fight so that we individually can get ahead and feel better about ourselves. But is that who we want to be?
With every word spoken in anger, with every hate filled comment we make, with every taunt, every mean spirited criticism, every piece of gossip, every sentence that is spoken without gentleness – we wound another person. And we wound ourselves in failing the universal test of goodness – to follow the Golden Rule.
I hate that which is in me that harbors malicious thoughts about another. Instead, I yearn to be my better self – the good self that respects and decently treats political opponents, those who are my enemies, those with whom I disagree, those who have deeply hurt me. Let me, let all of us inspire others by our example, by the way we live, by our efforts to correct our own imperfections and flaws. To paraphrase Saint Francis, let us speak the truth in love, and…only when necessary…use words.
I wish you all much peace and joy.