When I was an English teacher, there were three things I was required to report to other members of the staff at the school where I worked. I was required to report to my superiors if I thought a student was going to harm others, if a student was going to self-harm, or if a student was abused and that abuse had not been confronted. It seemed to me a good standard for the secrets we all carry and sometimes share with those we trust the most. I told my students about how I had to handle these three things. I tried to be a kind and wise teacher, and I often carried the secrets of my students as sacred, knowing that there were some secrets that belonged exclusively to those who owned them. Still, there were times when I had to call for the help of others.
One time was when a girl wrote an essay in which she described how she was planning to stalk me and kill me. Imagine that. I knew she didn’t like me very much, but this essay was enlightening. The thing is, I wasn’t intimidated by this, and I was not amused. That’s what she claimed when it came time to discuss the essay. “It was a joke.” Well, my father, the former US Marine, the former Industrial Arts teacher, the high school principal, had already dealt with a similar experience, and so I had known, violent speech is not protected speech. Students are not allowed to threaten teachers, not even as a “joke.” In fact, threatening violence is not protected speech. Just because it happens, does not mean it’s protected. It is a crime, whether the person carries through with the threat or not. I had to report the threat to my boss, and there had to be a meeting with the girl about it explaining that it was the kind of joke that could get her in real trouble. As we discussed the reasons why she was not allowed to threaten me, I kept wondering where she got the idea that such a thing would seem funny to me. Did she really think it would be funny? Did she really think I would laugh as I read about her imagining my death? Since I can’t read minds, I will never know if the threat was merely a joke or a failed attempt to bully me. I would have understood such a threat more if it was in the heat of the moment, if I had made her furious and she had been so enraged she just exploded. It was the cold-blooded nature of the planning that made me wonder.
Over the years I had a few times when I had to report my concerns to my superiors. There weren’t a great many (thank the Lord). I also had students and friends share things with me that revealed their private suffering. I did (and do) know people who were in therapy for abuses they experienced, at the hands of family or close friends, and (in one case) a stranger.
When I was in college I studied psychology, and within some of my studies I read about abuse and the nature of it. Case studies would show how abused people would stay in close proximity to their abusers for years. Sometimes their abusers used physical restraint to keep them, but (more often) abusers also used the psychology of their victims against them. They played on the love, the loyalty, the fears of those they abused. Even years after the abuse, years of time to try and shake off the suffering, people can still carry the hidden scars, and not be able to shake loose the ties that bind them to their abusers.
When I learned of all this, I felt completely at a loss as to how to help someone in this horrible situation. Eventually I came to know one helpful statement. “You don’t have to stay in a toxic relationship.” If someone has trapped you, has abused you, you can leave, even if that person makes the terrible decision to physically try and keep you, you CAN get away. If someone has lied to you, ensnared you with fear and doubt, if someone has conned you, taken your confidence, eroded your values, lead you down the path of suffering–STOP, turn back, leave that person behind. It’s not your fault they hurt you! It’s not your fault.
Most important of all, you show more love by stopping the flow of poison than by enabling it. When a bully is on the playground, those who enable the bully not only prolong their own suffering, they heap suffering on the bully. A bully cannot heal until that bully has repented of the cruelty of domination. A bully must accept culpability for wrong doing. It is only in that moment that a bully can begin to heal from the wounds that caused the original cruelty to fester. Yes, I believe even a bully can be healed.
I have to admit here that my dear old Daddy would have shaken his head at this. “Some people can’t change,” he would have said. We had differing opinions about miracles.