It was my eighth grade year. The teachers had a fantastic idea. In order to teach us young punks about racism, they were going to try the “brown eye/blue eye” experiment. Essentially, this meant that in the morning, everyone who had brown eyes would be treated really well. In the afternoon, people with blue eyes would be the “preferred class.” Being a brown-eyed girl, the morning went by rather smoothly for me. I thought the experiment was a mixture of cheesy and interesting. Then, at lunch, as we segued into blue-eyed supremacy, a person stuck a sign to my back that said, “I’m too sexy for my height” (a play off a song that was popular at the time). My face got hot. I felt like I was sinking to the floor. People thought it was pretty funny.
Eventually, one of my teachers, without comment, came over and took the sign off my shirt. I remember that small act of kindness as clearly as I recollect the humiliation of the treatment I received that day.
There are many such stories in my past. While almost everyone has some sort of hard time during elementary and high school, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that my time was pretty darned yucky. If I unrolled all of my stories, you might find it weird that today, decades later, I am still trying to help people. As a friend asked me once, why would I want to help people when all I ever got was a kick in the teeth?
Three Ways To React To Cruelty
I have come to the belief that when we face any kind of cruelty, whether it’s just life throwing curveballs at us or other people doing so, there are three ways to react.
1. You can become angry, bitter, hard, and cruel yourself
2. You can try to drown your sorrows with drugs or alcohol or other escape mechanisms
3. You can try to make sure other people don’t have to suffer the same fate
There are plenty of reasons people choose any three of these things, but I’d like to make a case for number three, especially for here in the online world.
See, here’s how I look at it. As we come into the online world, we’re sort of taking off a layer of protective shield. We’re tossing our face out there, we’re tossing the way we write out there, and we’re tossing our thoughts out there. Regularly. Like, several times a day. While this is very brave on everyone’s part, it also means that we’re particularly vulnerable to cruelty and meanness in the online world. Our usual protective layer we carry offline has the slightest chink in its armor. It’s just slightly easier for arrows to get through.
In addition, a lot of people are using the online world to reach out for help regarding issues that they would never have discussed with anyone but a few years ago. Why is this happening? I think that people are feeling more isolated. Even though we have more ability to network with people than we have ever had before, quantity is overtaking quality when it comes to relationships. We no longer have that Norman Rockwell sense that our peeps are right there in our neighborhood, ready to listen to our woes and laugh at our jokes.
With all of this mixed together, the online world, just like our reactions to pain and cruelty, can become a terrible weapon or a great salvation.
Ways to transform cruelty into kindness
If you have a dark cloud that looms over your head, how can you possibly weave that darkness into something that ends up helping other people?
Mark Horvath was without hope and was ready to take his own life because he felt there was no way his life could get better. He now pulls on that sense of desperation, his familiarity with that hopelessness, to show others that they too can find their way to a better life.
Estrella Rosenberg lost her infant sister to congenital heart disease. Instead of merely lamenting or becoming bitter, Estrella started Big Love Little Hearts to help other families avoid that pain.
People like Danny Brown and Steve Woodruff have shared extremely personal stories about their own struggles so that people can see these struggles can be defeated, and so people can feel safe in expressing their own pains and sorrows.
Corinne Edwards used her devastating experience of losing her husband to help other men and women who have lost spouses get through those horrible first few months alone.
Nancy Davis uses her experiences of abuse to give hope to other men and women experiencing the same horror.
As for me, I know what it is to be perceived as the underdog. I know what it is to have that movie-like experience of having a whole bus of kids laugh just at you. I know what it is, in fact, to be thrown into a trash can. But because I know those things, I know that the feelings of humiliation and low self-confidence can be defeated. I know that you can triumph. I know that because I have. And so, I do my best to reach out to people who may feel hopeless and say, “Hey…if I can overcome a lot of stuff, you can do it too. I don’t know how yet, but you can do it.”
It’s not easy
The temptation to give in to the hurt and anger can be overwhelming, especially when the wound is fresh. You want to lash out. Why does this stuff have to happen to you? The same thing happens when it’s someone you love who gets hurt. Why them? It’s not fair. But there are people here in the online world who are waiting to hear that someone else experienced the same stuff they did. They haven’t found their way out of the tunnel yet, and they’re thinking there’s probably not a way to get there.
How can you reach your hand out and bring ’em on into the clearing? How can you turn the dark shades of your life into something neon and effervescent?
How can you turn cruelty into kindness?
First Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nobullshit/2336248538/ via Creative Commons
Second Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sweetonveg/5026716018/ via Creative Commons