A few months back I was contacted out of the blue by a girl I had gone to school with. Not so uncommon, you might think. Thing is, she had waited for 23 years to tell me how I had made her life a misery, how my sarcasm and barbed comments had caused her to self harm and contemplate suicide. She also told me that she had five children, and that at the first hint of bullying she would be up the school fighting their corner.
Needless to say I was horrified that my idiotic teenage conduct had caused another person, an innocent person, to feel such angst and trauma. Believe me, If I could go back in time and give teenage Rob a few words of wisdom I would. I take no pride in the boy that I was, and I applaud this girls bravery for finding the courage to confront me. My reply to her acknowledged everything she said, and I confessed to every offence with which I was charged. I also thanked her for sharing such a painful emotional wound with me and made clear that she was not to blame or deserving of my verbal abuse.
Words can be lethal, can't they. They should really come with a health warning. I left school at 16 with no qualifications and an ego built on nothing, which was precisely what I deserved. Whilst I was a capable communicator, I abused this horribly during my school years. I could belittle and undermine, wound and abuse, all for the sake of cheap kicks. I expect there are others who hold equally negative views of that silly young man, and whenever I have encountered such a person I have felt it important to apologise. What else can I do? It's not as though I could ever justify my conduct.
A part of me wants to spend the next few paragraphs explaining how I matured, and how life taught me the value of kindness and decency and control, only that would be to cheapen the pain I have caused not only to that girl but to others. I used words as weapons, and they wounded terribly, and at no point did I question why I acted as I did. I was a fool. I was a weak minded fool. There's no other explanation for it.
To be sure, physical abuse is a terrible thing, but words can cause such terrible trauma, especially when we set out with the intent to cause harm. I bet every single person who reads this can remember an instance when somebody was critical of them. You're fat, you're ugly, your breath stinks, what is that you're wearing? There's a million and one ways to bring a person down, and it's a cheap shot under all circumstances. Better instead to climb the foothills of affirmation, and use words with wisdom and gentleness.
I continue to fail this test most days. I'm a clumsy oaf and I'm never far from the next gaff. The cruel streak may be gone but I can still be a menace, and the challenge for me is how to speak my mind in a way that at least conveys respect.