Forgiveness -- Part II of "Why Kill Them With Kindness Doesn't Always Work"

Something unbelievable happened just weeks after I posted a blog about my experiences with kindness and bullying (a story that you can read here). Unbelievable is such an overused term, but it really is the best one I could think of to describe a plot that seems straight from an unrealistic young adult fiction book. To understand if fully, we have to rewind the story back to where it all started, in the eighth grade.

That year I started the school year like every other year I’ve cycled through: with a lot of hope, balanced by an equal amount of fear. A month in, and hope seemed to be winning. I had joined a class that I didn’t have any friends in because I loved the subject, and it seemed to be working out alright. I liked everyone, or at least I tried to, and there was one person whom I started talking to outside of class at lunch. I really liked him. He was funny. I thought we could be great friends, and I love new friends.

Then, of course, it all went wrong. I was struck with an ailment that sent me to the hospital for a week, and out of school for two. To this day, I don’t know why, but for whatever reason when I came back to that class it seemed like everyone either disliked or hated me. Maybe they decided they liked it better when I was gone. To a wildly self-centered middle-schooler who was expecting nothing but relief and welcoming when I returned, this change came as a great shock. Not many were outright mean to my face, but they were mean in ways that they knew would reach me, which was far worse because then it was clouded in uncertainty and I didn’t know if I could confront them. I didn’t confront them so you know, not other than to say that I was sorry (for what, I didn’t know, but what they were doing was making me feel really sorry). That kid, the one that I said I really liked earlier, was different. He didn’t have a problem saying things to my face. 

Something in our relationship had changed. He said mean things to me, and followed them up with “just kidding.” Maybe it was the way he laughed or the pauses that he would take or just the look in his eyes, but it didn’t seem like he was really just kidding anymore. I’ve found that it’s easy to base those stupid derogatory “just kidding” jokes on some kernel of truth that you really believe. It’s true that you say stuff like that to your friends to actually joke with them. It’s funny, but I’ve come to think that when two friends finally say “I hate you” to each other as a joke, then they’re really close. They can joke like that because they both know that they’re such good friends it could never be taken seriously. By the end of that year though, I sincerely doubt that anyone could make the argument that he and I were friends. He only ever said little things, but those little things lost their “just kidding” tags and they just piled onto each other until in the week before summer finally came I would smile in person and then cry later. Never let them see you cry. It’s a shoddy philosophy, but I’ve always tried to follow it.

Summer came and I was free. I was terrified of the prospect of high school but I was happy knowing that two especially mean kids, the ones who organized a list of all the reasons why they hated me, were off to private school. Over the summer, my hate for some of those people really intensified, especially the joking kid I used to like. I made excuses for him before in the school year, and I tried to think that his insults were really just jokes because it seemed plausible, and plus, I liked him. With distance, those other uncertain and half-hearted emotions faded, and I was left with nothing but pure, unadulterated hate for him. I have never hated anyone I knew so vehemently.

Freshman year came and went, and I only saw him like twice in the hall. I was so relieved. That’s why I love the size of my school. Big enough to avoid the people you don’t like and just find the people that make you happy. With a school that big, the odds were good that I might never really have to face him. Yet sophomore year proved me wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many classes with one other kid in the same year. 4/7. What are the odds?

It was hard to avoid him then. He became friends with some of my friends, all of whom I thought had downright horrible judgment. I was never openly hostile. That’s not my style. I just sat there hoping terrible things would befall him with a placid expression. The only time I think I ever faltered was when we were placed in the same group project and I had to exchange cell numbers with him. Someone joked that it looked like I seriously did not want to hand over my number. He told that person that we were best friends and he laughed. It wasn’t a mean laugh though. In fact, nothing he had done or said that whole year to me was mean. Regardless, I was still astounded that he could make that joke. I came to the full realization then, that he really, genuinely had no idea how I felt about him, not at that point in time and probably not in eighth grade. It was a safe bet, too, that he didn’t know how his actions affected me. That killed me. Don’t get me wrong, ignorance was better than him being purposefully antagonistic, but I couldn’t understand how something that affected me so monumentally left not even a little mark on him. It sucked to know that I spent so much time hating him when I saw him in class and that he probably didn’t even think about me.

I don’t know. I guess my opinions are strong, but they change. Time went on, we chatted every so often, and I liked him again. He was nice. I still held a terrible grudge, though. An opportunity to confront this change in feelings came later that year on a religious retreat when I decided to ask a priest what I should do. I didn’t really want to forgive him, and even if I did it’s not like I could talk to the kid about it because he didn’t even know what happened. At the time I didn’t fully subscribe to the faith, but even I knew that the forgiveness they talk about, what the priest talked to me about, sounded like a really nice way to live. I decided I would forgive the kid without telling him, and move on. So I did.

Out of the blue, I got a text message. He had read my blog online. I knew that was a possibility when I shared the story publically on the internet, but I decided that the potential cost was worth the benefit that I might help someone else with the lesson I learned. He still didn’t know the story was about him, at least partially. I think he did have some sort of inkling, enough that he felt compelled to ask me who it was about. All I said was that he must know already because I felt like I had given enough details away that it was obvious. No one is that oblivious. He asked me in person the next day, but again I told him to think about it harder. Days passed. I pushed the incident out of mind. Another text. He had been thinking about the post and still could not figure it out. It would bug him if he didn’t know, he said, which surprised me. I thought the episode was over, and that he wouldn’t care enough to follow up. I then made a decision that I never anticipated I would make, and I told him everything.

Despite his persistent and abnormal interest, he seemed genuinely shocked when I finally sent my initial response “You.” The more I elaborated, the more appalled he was that he could have that effect on someone, even more scared by the fact that he hadn’t the foggiest idea it happened. In hindsight, he admitted to “bandwagoning”, going along with the general group’s attitude. We talked for well over an hour. He told me how much he always respected me, and that he hoped that he wasn’t even close to being the same person, among other things. For the first time in a long time, he made me cry again. I was so very happy.

I accepted that I would never get an apology when I made up my mind to forgive him, and I was okay with that. But after I actually got that unexpected closure, it felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. I don’t know exactly how to describe it. It’s not like I constantly thought about being bullied in middle school. I was fine that it happened, and friends with one of the guys that did it, but it always hung in the back of my mind with a sour twinge to it. Then, because of this one conversation, that pain that I always carried just vanished. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Forgiveness is a funny thing, and I haven’t always been very good at it. The world is a pretty dark place and I mentioned in my other post how I believe we all have the ability to take or bring light to that world. What I didn’t know when I wrote that post was that world was a little lighter than I had thought. We have this enormous ability to change our minds, to choose what we want to focus on in life. Sometimes it is best to take Elsa’s advice and just let it go. That’s hard to do, and it definitely isn’t always the right decision. But if you think there’s even the slightest chance that forgiving someone could make you happier, you should give it an honest effort. Wonderful things can happen.

Jilian Reed