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The Dance of Fear and Anger

January 10, 2012

When I was a kid, I suffered several incidents of bullying, and I can recall each of them like it was yesterday.  Each time, I ended up taking it; I didn’t fight back. And these terrifying humiliations have scarred me for what will probably be for life. But I have found ways to grow around the wounds.  

At the time, I asked both parents what to do about it. In what must have been the world’s most stereotypically gender-influenced responses, my mother said, “Just avoid them.” (Probably the worst advice anyone has ever given me.) But my dad brought home a pair of boxing gloves to teach me how to fight.

Problem was, however, I never learned too well. Looking back, I believe this was due to one part athletic retardation, and six parts Hey-you-raised-me-to-be-a-nice-Jewish-boy-and-now-I’m-supposed-to-try-to-hurt-someone-don’t-you-know-if-I-ever-let-the-lid-off-my-rage-I’ll-fucking-kill-them-and-maybe-you-along-with-them-dad-for-all-you’ve-done-to-me-as-well!

So I never allowed the lid to come off.

Chickening out of those fights were the worst things I ever did, and what really deepened those scars. Yes, if I fought I probably would have gotten my ass thoroughly kicked, but I entered adolescence with the self-esteem of someone who thought himself a coward and that was much worse.

This was when my lifelong dance with fear began. I entered adulthood with something to prove that went way beyond the willingness to fight when provoked: I had to prove I wasn’t going to chicken out of anything. This, as you can imagine, has sometimes been a problem.

Which brings me to my concurrent dance with anger. Anger and rage have been allies for me. Like mad but loyal dogs, they’ve been troublesome at times for sure, but allies nonetheless. I have a somewhat depressive default setting in my head, and when I find myself there, it’s more often than not suppressed anger about something. Allowing it to emerge has often been like unleashing a thunderstorm of the kind that clears the air on a muggy day.

One problem with this anger dance, however, is it often is at loggerheads with another lifelong inclination, which is my desire to maintain a connection with those who matter to me.  I’ve always admired people who are of the “I got something to say and I’ll let the chips fall where they may ’cause I don’t give a fuck” variety. But I often find myself hesitant to completely lay it on the line, for fear of losing the relationship. (Though one can also lose it by letting the anger build, of course). How the hell can I be angry at someone I  like or love, and fully let them have it so I can get it off my chest, while also ensuring I won’t blow them, and the friendship, right out of the water? That’s been my conundrum.

Recently I encountered this very problem during our apartment search. An old friend of mine offered to rent us his place – a great apartment in a fabulous neighborhood —  at a reduced price. This was very exciting to Shelley and I, as you can imagine. But in the middle of negotiations, it all broke down because he decided to rent it to someone else for   more money. I was PISSED! For two days the energy of my rage (and self-righteous anger) was bouncing around my body like it was a pinball machine.  But when I finally called him, I began with, “The purpose of this conversation is to get something off my chest so that I can let it go.” I then gave him the words, but not the music, of my anger. At first he was defensive, but I persisted until he got it, and we cleaned it up. Which was great, but the unexpressed pinball of rage kept knocking around in me for another day or two (at least until a man on my men’s team, who knows me well, said, “forgive yourself for not expressing it perfectly.” That helped.)  But the point is I preserved the friendship.

Getting back to what I was saying earlier, however, I still have an inner bully to contend with. This is where my critical voice will bully and humiliate me when I’ve chickened out of something. And believe me, that voice is far worse than anything anyone else could ever throw at me. But it has, oddly enough, served me well at times, by refusing to let me wimp out at certain moments. 

One of these moments occurred over half my life ago, when I was in the middle of a sexuality crisis. I was going through a period where I was so starved, and yearning, for male affection, I was beginning to wonder what it all really meant. So I decided it would be a useful experiment to go to where gay men hung out, to see how I would respond.  I went to a bar and had some conversations, but soon realized the men there were just not the type I could relate to.  Then someone suggested I check out the Gay Synagogue in the Village.

Going there for Shabbat one Friday night back in 1979 was one of the scariest things I have ever done. What if someone I know sees me walk in? Or sees me in there?  What if I meet a guy I like and go to bed with him? And like it? But I decided I was sick and tired of living in fear about this, so I went. And I was never the same. Not so much because I learned something about my gay side, which is that it’s there but not predominant. But because I learned I wasn’t that one thing that bullies would always torture me and others with, that word that at the time meant not that you were gay, but a coward and chickenshit.

That night, I went to the Gay Synagogue and learned that I was no faggot.   


8 Comments leave one →
  1. dave abramowitz permalink
    January 10, 2012 2:40 pm

    ‘Faggots,’ of course, are exactly what was once used to burn so-called gays. as well as that black cat-lovin’ woman next door who ,because she wouldn’t , perhaps, marry someone, or was too damned sexy and real,was “settled with’ and branded a witch. A very powerful, thought-provoking, insighful piece – and courageous, too, this one, Charley. The American male fear-ridden obsession on whether one is or is not ‘a faggot’ and ‘deserves to be bullied’ that you indirectly point out opens a whole other discussion here, and it could also have something to do with why America so needs its wars as proof and ‘release ‘of its manhood, it goes on so frequently creating them with males out there often even crazier and more fear-ridden in “other, strange, bogus” cultures that need and ‘deserve’ to be fucked with. The time and energy we, growing up, invested in needing to ‘prove ourselves’ to ourselves, first, so we could finally just forgive, accept, and love ourselves, and often continue to do so our whole lives you daringly share with us, too. Reading your comments reminds me of a few lines, “O, for a country where children can first be children . and can, clear-eyed, tell us in their ways of laughter and looking at us what real freedom and kindness and caring and true playfilness, coming from a place that’s safe, can mean..

  2. January 10, 2012 3:08 pm

    I’m still dealing with my brother’s friend who used to disdainfully, with a grotesque sneer of contempt, call me a “fairy” every time he saw me, and I wondered if he knew something about me I didn’t know. I later learned he died tragically young, in his early 20s, in a climbing accident, and my first reaction was “Good!” Now I realize that I AM a fairy–the kind that has wings and flies invisibly in magic forests. I don’t always see this clearly without the psilocycbin, though.

    And in my only published novel, the entire story revolves around an upcoming challenge to a fight with a bully, from which the main character, Norbert Wilner, ultimately avoids by running home from school a different way, and that defining moment in the plot ends with the words, “On his tombstone it would say, ‘Norbert Wilner chickened out.'”

    How come we never talked about this? I feel like beating the shit out of you.

  3. January 10, 2012 3:47 pm

    You are gutsy, Charley, for revealing all of this!

  4. Leung permalink
    January 10, 2012 6:47 pm

    This was a well-written and very gutsy piece. I honor you for writing it. It takes more courage than facing any bully.

  5. January 10, 2012 8:53 pm

    Girls can also be horribly cruel.

    As a child in the ’50s, I was constantly harassed, picked on, snubbed and verbally abused by my classmates. I never fought back, just wanting them to be my “friends”. I often wonder why I didn’t, or couldn’t put a stop to it. My self-esteem lowered and i was not aware of any tools to help change the situation.

    I made up for it later in life, “not taking any shit” from some people. However I still fell into abusive situations until I did a LOT of work on myself- especially in the area of people pleasing.

    The pain that a child feels when rejected by peers is excruciating, often leading later to teen suicide. Thankfully, awareness is rising on these issues, and conscious people in this culture are more pro-active with their children and students about bullying.

    Nevertheless, children (like adults) can be vicious and we adults are responsible now to help guide the next generations through the inevitable pitfalls of growing up in a world dominated by warlords.

    Children mirror what is going on around them. If we can be the change, we are the hope. We are the ones who must demonstrate the alternative.

    Thanks for your post, Charlie!

  6. dcline permalink
    January 10, 2012 9:38 pm

    Interesting you went to a synagog to find you aren’t a faggot. Faggot is a derivation of the yiddish word “fagela” which means “little bird”.

  7. Laurie Yankowitz permalink
    January 11, 2012 1:31 am

    I, too, have a story about bullying. I was in 2nd grade, and my family had just moved from Brooklyn to Babylon, Long Island. Every day after school, when walking home (I only had to cross one street and there was a crossing guard) the daughter of our landlord and her 2 friends would stalk me, taunt me, and sometimes punch me, trip me, and/or pull my hair. I don’t remember feeling angry about this at all, certainly not in the beginning. I was confused – I really didn’t understand why they would do this to me. And I was embarrassed at not knowing what the problem was and I felt bad that they obviously didn’t like me and I was scared about being beaten up. My mother talked to the girl’s parents who were unwilling to do anything about the situation. My mother told me the only way it would stop would be if I stood up to the girl (who was older and bigger than me) – and that she wasn’t always going to be able to fight my battles for me. The girl had a swollen vaccine mark on her arm that I had heard her talk about to her friends, telling them how sensitive it was and that she had to be careful when she dressed because it hurt for clothing to come in contact with it. So, yeah – I screwed up all the courage I could muster and by the time I did this I really was sick and tired of being scared of walking home every day and I punched her as hard as I could right on the ugly thing. She shrieked in pain and I continued on my walk, never to be bothered by her or her friends again.

    Charley, I’m a little surprised that you write that “Just avoid them” is probably the worst advice anyone has given you. Confrontation in certain circumstances can easily get a person killed or maimed – I’d rather work through the emotional issues of shame and humiliation than be dead or crippled, and I’m guessing so would you. And I take exception to your characterization of that advice being “the world’s most stereotypically gender-based response…” – certainly you must know of male pacifists and female hawks, and I betcha if you put your mind to it you could come up with far more stereotypically gender-based responses than “Just avoid them.” But bravo on the way you went about confronting your fear – THAT’s impressive.

  8. January 11, 2012 4:11 am

    There’s been a few editorials lately in the New York Times — written by Nicolas Kristoff, the Times columnist, and Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist — claiming that we now live in the least violent society in history. I’m not sure that’s completely true. I think our culture is still intensely violent in the sense that we are individualistic, socially divided, competitive, and conservative in the sense that we believe only force and authority rather than reason can resolve our differences. If we have less crime than we used to, it’s mostly because we have better policing and less crack. But it is true that a smaller percentage of the global population than ever is a victim of physical violence. American society in the 1950s and 1960s was particularly violent and defined manhood in terms of violence. Male children played violent games, cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, GI Joe, dangerous contact sports like football, and physically fought with one another. Nor were adult men above fighting with one another; organized criminals controlled the streets of New York; a significant fraction of the male population served in the military, including most of the baby boomer’s fathers who served in WW II; and casualties in war were much higher than they are now. I think it’s helpful to recognize that whether you were a victim of violence or its perpretrator, it wasn’t because of anything peculiar about you, but because of the nature of the culture that you happened to be born into, a culture that we can now clearly see was at fault. Today adults would be more inclined to protect victims of violence, as they should.

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