Yesterday a good friend of mine was in a car accident (no one was injured), and the driver of the other vehicle leaped out of his car and called her a horrible string of names that can’t be repeated here.
Being in a car accident is a scary thing, for everyone involved. For a moment, you know that you are not in control. Human vulnerability is heightened. You could be injured. You could die. Things around you break. It’s scary.
But how do we respond? How do we respond to our human vulnerability? By attacking others? By flying into a rage? By becoming a bully? Will our bullying protect us from vulnerability?
And how then, do we respond to people who turn against us like bullies? This man became a bully. He attempted to prove his Powerful Nature by dominating my friend, by insulting and demeaning her. It was an act of violence, an act of hostility. It hurt her. It would hurt any of us.
Mahatma Gandhi said that when you feel humiliated by a bully, it’s a natural thing to want to slap them to “vindicate your self-respect.”* But instead of doing that, he suggested that we try to address the feeling of humiliation inside ourselves. He said that we could become “proof” against a bully’s insults. It’s a beautiful British use of the word “proof”–like a rain coat is rain proof, or a brick is fire proof.
I love the idea that we can become bully proof. But I know that it’s a life-long task! Gandhi talked about internalizing a non-violent spirit in order to become “proof” to violence.
I believe that bully-proofing begins with self-awareness of the shame and humiliation that is already inside us, learning to love and forgive ourselves again and again. For me, it has to do with accepting my imperfection and failings, and knowing that I am human and beautiful and beloved, even when I make terrible mistakes.
Usually, my mistakes are not as terrible as I fear, my imperfection is not as horrible as I dread. But that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is extending generous hospitality to myself, even (especially) in the face of hostility directed against me.
Self-awareness and self-acceptance allow me to experience the goodness that is at the core of my being, underneath and before every bad judgement, every mistake, every oversight.
I make mistakes, but mistakes are not who I am. This awareness is the basis for feeling that I am completely capable of growing and changing–that I am valuable and deserve to be treated with respect at ALL times. All of us deserve to be recognized as having inherent worth and dignity.
Let a bully’s insults remain “in the bully’s mouth and not touch you at all,” Gandhi said.*
*You can find these quotes and more discussion of these ideas and related spiritual practices on page 139 in my book, in the chapter on “Hospitality to Enemies: Extending Generosity through Non-Retaliation.” The Gandhi quotes came originally from The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas, page 174. My book is Hospitality-The Sacred Art, published by Skylight Paths Publishing.