Imagine deciding at age 15, you wanted to go to college. Imagine what a big deal that was because only one other person in your entire close-knit clan of 30+ had graduated from college; he was a bit of an outlier, and no one ever spoke about it as a possibility for you or anyone else in the family. Imagine that in your clan, graduating from high school was considered a terminal educational exercise, a norm, and even that was a recent development.
Now imagine that as this 15-year-old, with the dream of going to college, you go to school and tell your English teacher that you wanted to go to college. Imagine then, that this teacher, your favorite one, burst into laughter, and announced mockingly to the rest of the class “Guess who says they want to go to college!” Imagine now that the entire class erupts in laughter.
Imagine now that for the next three years you are mocked daily by someone, somewhere for your dream. Imagine this is just one of the things you were made fun of. You are also mocked for your size. Your clothes. Your ears. Your looks. Your teeth.
Imagine that some your own family members took advantage of every opportunity to exploit what they knew you dreamed of. What was important to you. What you were sensitive to. What you were afraid of.
This is my story. I think to some degree, for most of us, though the details may have been different, it is a bit of a universal story. One word for describing those behaviors, is that they were tormenting. The people who did it were tormentors.
By being on the receiving end of their survival strategies, one of which was to torment others; family, friends, teachers, coaches all taught me how I didn’t want to be. They taught me how I didn’t want to treat other people. In an odd way, they were my mentors. They turned out to be my teachers.
I wish I could say that I never tormented anyone else. However, what is on the inside, tends to manifest itself on the outside, at least to some degree. For at least the first half of my life my sarcasm (“tearing of the flesh”, -Greek) was legendary. For the last half of my life, I know I have tried not to torment others. I know that I haven’t been and still am not totally successful in that quest.
I don’t have any tormentors now in my life. External tormentors, anyway. Internal ones? Oh, yes!!.
Voices in my head that make fun of, mock, ridicule, negatively judge me: “Emotionally, you’re too cold”, “too shy”,” too lazy”, “too busy” “not loving enough”, “too self-centered”, “not a good enough father/friend/husband/partner/neighbor/in-law/sibling/uncle/nephew/professional/listener/person”. Voices that ridicule me for the mistakes I’ve made. Reminding me of the people I’ve hurt. The opportunities I’ve missed. The misstatements I’ve made. The ways I continue to fail myself and the people I know and love. You see, I’ve internalized what the outside world gave me.
Sounds brutal, eh? It can be. What I’ve learned is that instead of trying to extinguish, muffle, stifle, deny, dismiss, avoid, paint-over, minimize or judge these voices; if I stop and deeply listen to them, they gradually become my mentors rather than my tormentors. I have learned that there is wisdom in all of them, sometimes buried deep, but wisdom, nonetheless. I’ve also learned that the sooner and more deeply I listen, the gentler the messages are. The less tormenting my mentors are. They are more like Tour- Mentors, or guides.
That 9th grade English teacher had an important message for me buried beneath his mocking and ridicule. The message? “If you think you are going to college, you’ll have to put a lot more work into your studies than you have been.” He was right, and I did.
I always wanted to go back to him and tell him that I had gone to college and graduated and became, and still am, a teacher. I didn’t have the chance. Somehow I know he would have said, “I’m not surprised.” Remember, he was my favorite teacher.
And as Fred Rogers might have me recognize, my other historical tormentors have helped make me who I am, shaped what and how I do life. And, for the most part, I like that.
If you can relate, I’d like to hear your story.