Love the Mean People
We talked about “bullying” in one of my recent girls groups (all of them, actually), and I hesitate to even call it bullying, because the definition of that word is debated by education scholars and 6th graders alike. People from my grandparents’ generation probably roll their eyes and say “rub some dirt in it,” and I can tell you from experience, teachers are sick and tired of the word, too.
The truth is, we need to talk about it, but we don’t have to define it. The term “bully” is too often associated with a big punk kid beating people up by their lockers for their lunch money, and with this association, kids don’t know any bullies, so the word already throws them off.
So we called it “mean”—just when people are mean in general. It doesn't have to be repeated, like many definitions of “bullying” include in order to differentiate the act of bullying from isolated incidents, and we don’t even need to say it’s unwanted aggressive behavior or an imbalance of physical or social power, although I agree with those parts wholeheartedly. “Mean” seemed to be perfectly understood by all of the girls I hung out with. They knew exactly when they were mean to someone, and when someone was mean to them, but they often questioned whether or not something could be considered bullying. And, like most of the world, it’s important that things fit nicely into categories for them, so they can easily decide when something is right or wrong, good or bad. The whole “gray area” thing does not sit well with them.
We went through a series of questions and discussions: what are other words for “mean”? How does it make you feel when someone is mean to you? What about when you’re mean to someone? And then I asked a question I knew they would know 100 answers to, but would never venture to guess the most accurate answer of all: Why are people mean?
They said things like “because they don’t like you,” “because they want something you have,” “because maybe you were mean to them,” and “because they don’t know what to say so they just say something mean”. Their answers were beautiful. True. Not a wrong one in the bunch. Even a 6 year old has been curious enough to wonder (and answer herself) why people are mean.
But I posited something deeper than all of that, something that would sweep all of those answers into 2 giant categories, and these 2 things answered two very different questions:
- What do we all want?
- Why are people mean?
I have to share some responses to “What do we all want” because they’re just too much for me to keep to myself. I told the girls I believed there were 2 things every single person on the planet wanted regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, etc. My older girls were pretty confident they knew: “money,” “a house,” “happiness,” and they weren’t far off. My younger girls were a hoot: “a candy store,” “pet house” (?), “a family,” “panda”. Granted, these made perfect sense as their whole world extends to about 2 seats over in math class, so I get it.
After many “no”s and “you’re so close!”s, they were insanely anxious to know these 2 things that apparently everyone wanted and they themselves couldn’t come up with. I told them, “Everyone, everywhere wants to be loved by others and to love themselves.” The word “love” for a 6 year old apparently means you have to kiss someone, so we substituted it with “like” and “accept”. Same things here.
(The older girls were pretty heated about why theiranswers of “money” and “happiness” didn’t count, and I told them because one of those things can contribute to the 2 things and the other is a result.)
Everyone wants to be liked by others and to like themselves.
I believe this to be so true and simply profound that I’m unabashedly impressed with myself for thinking of this. Moreover, the fact that it answers both “What do we all want” and “Why are people mean” is almost too much for me to process.
They were very intrigued by why someone would be mean because they wanted to be liked. My older girls were very understanding of this, they themselves already experiencing the torturous struggle of self-acceptance. They knew self-consciousness personally, and they knew it made them mean.
It took me about 45 minutes to explain this to the younger girls though, so instead of taking you through that process, I’ll SparkNote it for you:
We are mean because we want love: from others and from ourselves. Jealousy was a reason all of my girls listed in response to “Why are people mean?”. Is jealousy not just about a teeny, tiny insecurity? A small, minuscule piece of self-doubt that, hey, maybe if we were more like that or had those friends, or were that successful, we’d like ourselves a little more? And then other people would like us?
We are mean because we want love: from others and from ourselves. The girls also said someone not liking you might cause them to be mean to you, but why do people not like us sometimes? Because they don’t like themselves. (It’s true there are people we just don’t like because we don’t agree with them, or value the same things as them, but those are generally not the people we seek out to be mean to.) We are mean to the people that make us feel less about ourselves, and those usually also happen to be people we don’t like… for that very reason. Do you see what I’m saying? Anytime someone threatens our own self-confidence, meanness is likely to rear it’s ugly head. It’s just human nature.
We are mean because we want love: from others and from ourselves. Any child without a family is going to be mean in someway because of a lack of love. Any adult who feels disrespected in the work place is going to be mean because of a lack of respect (which can be translated into “acceptance” or even “love”). And any person who feels lonely and empty is going to be mean because they are missing the 2 things we all want: love from others and love from ourselves.
“So how do we stop someone from being mean?” I asked. “We don’t,” I answered for them. As long as we live, we will never control another person entirely. We will never be able to make someone do something.
So then what do we do? We give them what they want: love. We help them love themselves, and we give them love. It is not easy, and it is not fun. It’s counterintuitive and makes our skin crawl, but love is the answer. It does not mean condoning or accepting. It does not mean giving up or giving in. It means ending the search for the 2 things everyone is looking for but mean people never seem to find: love from others, and love from the self. So give love, not based on merit or ease or desire, but because you must. That’s all.