Teenage years can be filled with fun and excitement. It’s also a very awkward time. The bodies of teenagers are constantly changing as hormones produce growth spurts that make them feel like they suddenly inhabited someone else’s body.
Along with the physical changes, these young people have to learn to deal with the fast changes in their social worlds. Not all teenagers mature at the same rate physically, socially, or emotionally. Some teenagers can look like adults, but still use the emotions of children.
The boundaries of a teenager’s world used to be very simple to negotiate, at least compared to today’s world. Social media and the Internet have created new boundaries that teens and pre-teens have to learn long before they have to learn to drive a car or be home by curfew. If they don’t learn these boundaries quickly, they can find themselves in compromising situations with another adult or older teenagers who are looking to take advantage of their lack of knowledge.
One thing teenagers have in common with adults is that they want to be accepted and loved by family and friends. Whether we are going to a tenth year high school reunion or going to our tenth grade social studies class, we want to be accepted and included. At the same time, most of us want to find some individuality.
While we all are unique as individuals, created with different gifts, have different dreams, likes and dislikes, some people will simply conform to a group fearing that any display of individuality will result in exclusion from the group. The pressure to conform to be accepted is a powerful temptation.
The risk of not conforming is to be ridiculed by others. That is one of the greatest fears for teenagers. Of course, some teens do not conform as a statement. Their nonconformity becomes their identity. But deep down, even these kids want friends. Quite often, nonconforming teens will group with other non-conformers. Everyone wants to be accepted by someone.
Bullies use ridicule the way a pride of lionesses takes down an antelope. Bullies will look for someone with a weakness to exploit and with each cutting, biting, and stinging comment or action, they look to see if their subject has weakened. Then they move in for the takedown.
We usually think of a bully as one person, but usually a bully has a following, a group who is secretly happy that the bully has chosen someone else to single out. Even though many in the group may feel that what is being done to the other person is wrong, no one has the courage to stand up to the bully, afraid that the same barrage of attacks will come his/her way. To protest would jeopardize his/her status as one of the “accepted” members of the group. So the bullying often ends up having a mob effect.
It takes courage for someone to break free of the mob and take a stand against the flow of ridicule. Courage can be as rare as a four-leaf clover. But unless someone stands up to bullying, it doesn’t stop. So where does such courage come from?
The Latin root for courage is “cor,” meaning heart. Courage takes heart. Therefore, you have to believe in something to be courageous. Something important must move you to take a stand.
Earlier this month, a Michigan teenager was elected to her high school’s homecoming court by her classmates as a joke. The homely girl with orange hair had been picked on and bullied by her classmates. This terrible “joke” caused her to contemplate suicide. She said her classmates made her feel like trash.
But her sister gave her the courage she needed by encouraging her not to drop out of the court. She convinced her to face those who ridiculed her by standing up them. Instead of cowering under the pressure, this sixteen-year-old found some inner strength because one person, her sister, gave her encouragement.
When she rose up to face those who ridiculed her, to her great surprise, she found support from unlikely places. A salon gave her a makeover. Her Facebook page had over 100,000 posts from supporters, many who shared stories like hers.
Whitney told The Detroit NewsÂ that she thought no one cared about her. She thought that not even her brother and sister cared about her. But they are proving they do care. The world is proving, well, not that they really care about me, but that they care about the situation, she said.
Once, Jesus had a woman brought to him and thrown at his feet. The men were known as Pharisees, religious guys, known to pray and fast and follow the Law very strictly. The woman, they said, was caught in the act of adultery, and they told Jesus she should be stoned to death according to the Law. However, they wanted to know what Jesus had to say.
These men were religious bullies. They remind us that bullies are not confined to the playgrounds of elementary schools, to the classrooms of middle schools or the hallways of high school. Bullies are around long after high school graduation and some of them can even be found in churches among the most religious of people. If you don’t conform to their way of doing church, they will bully you out of church– all in the name of Jesus. It takes courage to stand up to people like this.
Jesus was squatting down, writing something in the dirt as the Pharisees continued to ask him what to do with the woman they had brought to him. He stood up to them, literally, and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there” John 8:7,9.
When everyone else is standing around ready to cast a stone, it takes courage to point out that we all have our issues. It takes courage to say, “I will not participate. This is wrong.” It takes courage to stand with the accused and defend the defenseless. It takes courage to challenge others to drop their stones.
Whether we are 63, 33, or 13, we should all ponder the courage it takes to say, “I will not participate in this stoning of words, with this assassination of character, or with this group of ridiculers.”
When we stand where Jesus stood, we are truly being individuals. When we seek to empathize with the position of another, we demonstrate that we know the meaning of the Golden Rule.
When we do that, will others ridicule us? Won’t the bully turn on us? Might the crowd toss us in with those being bullied? Possibly. In some situations, I even say it’s likely. But it’s also possible that because one person has the courage to stand up to the bully or to the crowd, one by one others will begin to drop their stones until the bully no longer has a following. Without a following, a bully is just another lonely person who needs a friend.
Perhaps today, you will have the courage to take such a stand or perhaps you will be the one to give this kind of courage to someone else who otherwise would not find the moral or emotional strength to believe in something greater than themselves.
(October is National Anti-Bullying Awareness Month)