Anyone who knows me well can tell you that, when properly motivated, I can be a buttinsky to a shockingly inappropriate degree. Sometimes it gets me into trouble. Sometimes it causes unintended damage and/or hurt feelings. Sometimes I get it all wrong.
It’s just that I can’t stand to see someone bullied. I can’t sit still when I think I’m witnessing some form of injustice. And false accusations make me want to scream.
I think the reason I am so adamant about standing up for people is that, all too often, no one stood up for me during my weakest, most vulnerable moments. If I can prevent even one person from experiencing that kind of pain, it’s worth it. One second of averting future psychological damage makes up for all the times I’ve stuck my neck out for someone, only to have my head figuratively handed back to me for my trouble.
There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re being attacked, and looking around at all the witnesses, only to find that they are suddenly engrossed in inspecting their shoes. I don’t know how people do that. It’s not in me.
Don’t get me wrong: Standing up for someone does not mean reinforcing their false accusations or beliefs because you usually like that person. It also doesn’t mean propping up someone’s inaccurate conclusions, even if they are dear friends. And that’s where I often get into trouble.
Standing up for others means taking a personal stand about what you feel is right and just and morally and literally true. It’s about having personal integrity everywhere you go. It’s about saying the emperor has no clothes when that’s what you see. Even if someone you love dearly insists that the clothes are indeed there, you stand your ground unless you are provided with evidence that contradicts what you know in the very marrow of your bones.
A friend once accused another friend of mine of being hostile and rude and irrationally cruel to him. It was a he said/she said situation. I wasn’t there. But I’ve known both of these people for well over a decade, and the accusation sounded nothing like the woman I had been talking to on a daily basis for all that time. I doubt this woman even squashes spiders. She has consistently shown herself to be polite, kind, and considerate of others. I have never seen her lose her temper. Not once. Calling her hostile is as improbable as calling Trump intelligent. That, and she had zero motive for being hostile to him, as he was only passing on a message that I wouldn’t be there that evening as planned.
In contrast, my accusing friend, as much as I love him, has demonstrated that he often draws irrational conclusions, especially when under the influence of something. And he’s also stubborn. So even when you confront him with the information once a cooler head should prevail, and even when he is unable to provide a shred of evidence, he tends to double down on his belief, and gets downright hostile about it himself. I’ve seen him lose his temper on multiple occasions.
In fact, he got hostile to the point of saying really cruel things to me, and insisting that I had to choose between the two of them. So who would you choose? It seems rather obvious to me, even though it made me sad. I chose the friend who has always been kind. And she remains kind to this day. On the other hand, the accusing friend occasionally pops up and leaves a nasty message on my blog, to remind me, I suppose, that he’s still feeling hostile. As if that will make him more palatable as a friend. As if his hostility will somehow convince me to see it his way and agree my other friend is hostile. It makes me sad.
Maturity has not tempered my need to take these stands. It has, though, taught me to be a little more subtle about it, when possible. Sometimes people don’t realize that they’re making an a$$ of themselves, and it doesn’t pay to broadcast that, unless doing so will prevent others from acting in kind.
For example, the other day I witnessed something, and I had to speak up. It was at the local YMCA where I swim 4 days a week. After a while, once you’ve established a routine like that, you tend to start recognizing those whose routines intersect with yours. I’m cordial with these people. Some I get to know better, and some are only passing acquaintances that might exchange comments about the weather with me.
I have made several friends at the Y, but I tend to give people their space unless they indicate a desire to go beyond surface pleasantries. After all, they’re not there for me. And that’s fine.
On the day in question, in the swim lane beside mine, there was a man in his early 40’s and a boy who was about 10. I’ve chatted with them before, so I know this is a father and son, and they come to the pool in an effort to lose weight. Good for them. Clearly this is a father who cares about his son’s health.
We exchanged smiles and nothing more. But as I was exercising, I overheard the father calling his son a loser. He was using a teasing tone of voice. (I think they had been racing, and the kid, of course, lost.) But the father kept saying, loudly, and with a smile on his face, “Loser. Looooooser!”
I understand that this is the teasing dynamic that many guys use with one another, but that doesn’t make it right. It got to me. Not that I was ever called a loser by a family member. But there were other names and criticisms which stuck. Sometimes people don’t realize how much words can hurt. They don’t realize how labels stick to you. They think that as long as their intentions are good, and their love is there, unspoken, then they can say anything they want to say and that will be okay.
But it’s not. It’s not. Why are we so willing to say cruel things to the people we love when we’d never say those things to a stranger? It makes me sad.
I swam a few laps, trying to figure out what to do or say, because I knew I was going to say something. I didn’t want to say anything in front of the kid. Hadn’t he been humiliated enough for one day? What to do. What to do…
And that’s when another guy came along who looked identical to the father, and he jumped in their swim lane. The three of them sort of played in the pool for a while, and I could tell that there was affection all around. That’s good.
At one point, the father and son were down in the deep end, and the other guy was in the shallow, so I quietly said to him, “Is that your nephew? He’s an awesome kid.”
He smiled and said, “Yes he is. And yes, he is.”
I said, “I heard his dad call him a loser earlier. I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it, but words can hurt. I hope he’ll rethink that, because, speaking from experience, the therapy later in life can get pretty darned expensive.”
He said that he found that concerning, and thanked me.
I went about my day, knowing the situation could play out in several ways. 1) The uncle might decide that it’s too awkward to say anything, but perhaps he’ll be even kinder to the nephew to make up for his brother’s name calling. 2) The uncle might speak up to his brother and he’ll either take it well and maybe try to stop with the name calling, or he’ll get defensive and think less of his brother or of me, but will at least have heightened awareness of what he’s doing. Or, finally , and most likely, 3)The second I turned away the uncle shook his head and blew me off.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, people are, if anything, too good at minding their own business. I knew if I didn’t speak up, no one else would. But at the same time, it’s truly not my business, and I don’t know how this family behaves under any other circumstances. Maybe I made too much of it, and caused an awkward situation for no good reason. Or maybe it was something that needed to be said.
Did I do harm or good? I’ll never know. But I had to try.