Spirituality for Today – August 2014 – Volume 19, Issue 1

Bully Good – Bully Bad

Rev. Raymond K. Petrucci

A photo of a bulldog

What a difference a century makes. Today, the term "bully" is a pejorative. We think of a person who is mean, aggressive, and want's to push his weight around. For amusement, the bully victimizes the smaller, weaker, and more passive person. A century ago, President Teddy Roosevelt used the term to mean something very positive. The phrase, "Bully (good) for you!" were words of praise. Even today, the White House sometimes is called a "Bully Pulpit."

For Ismael Fernandez, there was no equivocation about the word's meaning— it meant "bad." He was the stereotypical victim: sensitive, shy, and insecure. From the middle grades of elementary school onward, Ismael had to endure continuous bullying; harassment was like the daily weather forecast. Eventually, he was letting his studies deteriorate, became sullen, and even ill. He was being raised by his grandmother. She would listen to his tales of being bullied and she decided to do something about it. When the school administration failed to discipline the troublemakers, she took Ismael out of that school and enrolled him in a better school environment and got Ismael a counselor. The teenager had much more support, but he felt that he failed as a person. His strong Catholic faith was affected by his negative experiences and he began to drift into depression and disbelief. One night, Ismael had his epiphany. He had a dream in which St. Clare came to him and assured him that God's plans for him were special. This became the very force that he needed. Ismael become a strong, confident young man with the zeal of a missionary. This good assertiveness was transfused into all aspects of his life and has turned his life around. In Ismael's own words, "I know I was passive, and it made me a target for bullies. I have worked very hard to become aggressive, and that has made all the difference. I went through a very bad bullying situation and made it out the other side. I want to help as many people as I can become educated and assertive so they can avoid harassment."

[Source: Jennie Withers, Beyond Sticks and Stones, St. Anthony Messenger, August 2013]

One might ask, "Isn't unwarranted assertiveness the very ill-formed attribute of the bully?" Are we saying that the answer to being bullied is to become a bully yourself? Remember Roosevelt. He overcame his own physical weaknesses by working hard to become strong and unafraid of physical challenges. He also strengthened his moral character, his adherence to his principles, and an unflagging determination to do the right as he understood it. He was the example of bully as a word that described righteous perseverance, standing for the good against all the corruption and evil around him. He was not a superhero, but only a man. He, however, was a man with a superhero's confidence and sense of right. Roosevelt also understood the mission of his life involved doing all he could to rectify all that he found to be wrong. From fighting against the corruption in New York City politics and law enforcement as the Commissioner of Police to fighting against the country's corporate monopolies as President of the United States. His strength came from a spiritual conviction that he was serving his God and his nation. Ismael Fernandez, I am sure, will grow up to address the social and physical ills of his age with that same determination and from his strong and guiding Catholic faith.

There is something about the nature of the bully as a mask for deep fear and perhaps abuse. I cannot satisfy my search for answers there, but I am certain of the positive nature of assertiveness for God. It begins with an understanding of the source of true worth and well-being. If we believe that we are loved by God first, we are imbued with a sense of worthiness that owes nothing to other human beings or the world's criteria of worth and accomplishment. Therefore, the world is powerless to destroy it. This divine resource, from which our being loved and feeling worthy derives, imparts a moral viewpoint and the expectations born of love and worthiness. St. Clare might not appear to us with the words of mission and confidence that we need, but prayer and a consciousness to listen to inspiration and to explore the possibilities and opportunities that open before us will offer the assertiveness in truth and grace that will lead to success.

Unless we allow the "bullies" of modern culture to push us around, we will discover that in youth we possessed a unity with our God, our loved ones, and the natural world that created an environment planted thick with moral statutes and calm assurances that gave us strength. Someone once said, "I think that the ideals of youth are fine, clear and unencumbered; and that the real art of living consists in keeping alive the conscience and set of values we had when we were young." As we search for those bully pulpits in our particular lives where we can shine in those very values and truths that make our lives a gift to the people and to the times that we call our own, let us get back to the fundamentals of mind, body, and soul that remind us, where we came from, who we are, and where we are going. It is from those realities that we gather faith and in confidence – and no one can bully us.