Rosh Hashanah teaches us to forgive. But how could I ever forgive the kid who bullied me?
Posted in , Sep 29, 2016
I’ve written before about how on the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God commands us to let go of our grudges and forgive those who have wronged us. But for many years, there was one person I couldn’t forgive.
The pain this individual caused me ran so deep, it left a permanent scar on my psyche. The ringleader of my middle-school tormentors, a bully in my grade who seemed to single me out for extra suffering. I’ll call him Biff.
I was a shy, chubby, sensitive kid, often caught up in daydreams and unfortunately encouraged by my mother to “not care what other people think.” Of course, this made me an easy target. In class, I’d get wads of paper thrown at my head; at lunch, I’d be subjected to a litany of insults and jokes, and ultimately be exiled to sit by myself.
Art projects of mine were “mysteriously” ruined, I’d get “accidentally” tripped in gym class, and even my friends didn’t want to share a seat on the bus home for fear they’d be caught in Biff’s line of fire. I couldn’t even escape him at birthday parties—back then, the whole class was invited, whether we kids liked it or not.
Today I have the gift of perspective. But back then, Biff’s bullying made me afraid to go to school—and I actually liked school, otherwise. It made me feel like a freak. Someone who didn’t belong, who would never belong.
People told me “it gets better,” but I didn’t believe them. I considered suicide. If I killed myself, Biff would be sorry, they’d all be sorry. I don’t know if my parents knew how dark my thoughts became, but in 8th grade, they sent me to private school. I never went back to public school in my town, attending at a private co-ed boarding high school an hour from home.
Being away from home forced me to become independent, grow up faster. I realized that life is long and the world is big, and what I thought was so terrible in middle school was just a grain of sand in the hourglass of my existence.
But I’d be lying if I said that grain wasn’t still there, holding me back from showing my true self to strangers. I’d still get anxiety when I heard people laughing, thinking, for a moment, they might be laughing about me.
Then came the summer after my junior year in college. I’d earned an internship at a national magazine in New York City, had a girlfriend and was going to live in a four-person suite with a college buddy and two randomly assigned roommates in the New York University dorms. On move-in day, I met our roommates, one of them, coincidentally, my friend’s classmate from his music business program. And the other…
Biff the Bully.
Somehow, I kept my composure. So much had changed over the years. I was no longer that chubby, shy kid. And Biff had changed a lot too. He knew who I was, but he didn’t give me a hard time. He was curious what I had been doing all these years. He had been through some rough patches himself, bad experiences with drugs, trouble with the law, but he’d straightened himself out.
“I know I wasn’t that friendly to you in middle school,” he said.
It was as close to an apology as I’d ever get. But that summer, while we lived together in that suite, I found myself forgiving him. I realized that I needed to. The pain that I was feeling was pain I was causing myself, unwilling to let the memories fade, unwilling to let my anger go.
Living with Biff helped me see behind “the bully” and understand that he’d been dealing with bullies of his own. When I dropped my grudge, a huge weight lifted from my shoulders.
I often wonder—would I have forgiven Biff if not for that encounter? If I hadn’t been forced to live with him, would I still carry around that anger, that sadness? Perhaps there was nothing random to our housing assignment. Maybe we were brought together for a purpose: forgiveness.
Who do you hold a grudge against? Who do you refuse to forgive? Maybe it’s time to let go. Whether you observe Rosh Hashanah or not, the opportunity may just come find you.