I hate bullies! I was bullied in my home as the younger brother and I was bullied at my school as the new kid. To this day those memories are unnerving and can still call back to life repressed feelings of shame and weakness. The bullying stopped a long time ago. But the effects live on.
Over time, I was given the opportunity to create bully-free zones in the congregations I served. I knew this was personal, even as it was at the same time in service to others. I could not possibly function as a pastor, preacher, and priest if bullies ran amok in my parish, like cattle barons in a lawless cowboy town. I needed to feel safe myself, and therefore created safe environments for others.
But it was hard work to get there. It meant standing up to those who presumed to criticize me, belittle me, and make me feel small. I recount one such encounter in my memoir, when I took on a self-crowned, "chancel guild directress" who ran the church from behind her sweet disarming smile. I accepted the resignation of a treasurer who threw his church keys on my desk on his way out, but who then, a few years later, wanted to come back, to offer his "help." I wrote a letter of warning to a disgruntled parishioner who chose to ream me out one Sunday morning in front of the departing congregation, as they filed out the church doors.
Each time, I was exhausted by the confrontation. But each time, I got something of myself back, giving me the courage and the strength to stop it the next time bullying raised its head, and preemptively too. I grew to sense the presence of a bully a mile away, even through their placating niceness or their affected helpfulness. No way, I'd say to myself. Not so much as a toehold, buster. Not here.
Resilience is something we must acquire through experience. There is no book learning that will help us, even if there are good books on the subject (and there are). At some point you have to stand up tall to the people who make you small and reassert your God-given place of dignity in the Universe. And when you do, the bullies will lose their power, just as you will recover your own.
Louise Gallagher would have seemed an unlikely candidate for losing her confidence, and almost her life, to a psychotic bully. She was a single mom, successful in her career and generous in her community. But he played her, step by step, drawing her in, promising her the world while demanding only one thing in return: her unquestioning loyalty. Oh, the life he could give her! The things she could have! The protection he could offer her!
In reality, the protection Louise needed was from him. But when she realized it, it was too late, as he dangled before her veiled threats about the safety of her teenaged daughters. Down the dark well he pulled her, until she didn't know who she was anymore. She lost her life savings, she lost her house and, worst of all, in the end she lost contact with her daughters. Eventually it was the law that saved her, by carting her abuser away. But the healing would take years.
In this week's episode we hear Louise's story. But it's not the story of abuse; it's the story of resilience. That's the point of it. Louise might have taken her life, as abuse victims sometimes do, a desperate last stand against whatever threatens to obliterate them. But she didn't. Instead, she stoked the fires of love that her abuser had been unable to quench--love for her daughters, love for her dog and, most of all, love for herself. And it was that love that saved her.
Resilience is a gift of the Unknown Path, where we must learn to trust our instincts and summon our courage and manifest our strength. It's all there, already, in all of us, regardless of what the bullies will tell us. This is the first of four inspiring stories you'll be hearing in The Mystic Cave. May it help you to find--and claim--your own resilience.
This episode of The Mystic Cave: "She Persisted: A Story of Resilience." [Click on the Play button to listen to the episode ...]