Here’s another life lesson I had as a kid that has left a significant mark on who I am today. In my early teens and at various other periods growing up, I was the victim of a lot of “persecution” by my peers…teasing. The persecution came in a lot of forms, some physical with bullies, but I guess most of it was verbal–name-calling, etc.
Middle school is a really tough age. If I thought I’d get anywhere, I’d go door-to-door with a petition to send kids straight from grade school to high school, but I guess that won’t happen.
The teasing led to what has so far been the most stressful time in my life, and I was eventually ready to just quit school altogether and hide in my bedroom till I was eighteen. So, at one point, my parents sent me to see a counselor. The lesson that stuck with me was when the counselor was addressing my responsibility in the situation, in other words, how I reacted to the teasing.
He brings out this bath-towel and asks me to grab onto one end. He takes the other end, and starts to pull, and asks me to start pulling back. So we enter into this tug-of-war, and he tells me that on his side, he’ll play the part of my peers, and so he starts calling me names “stupid, idiot, geek,” etc. He then asks me to respond the best way I can–to defend myself: “I’m not an idiot!, I’m smart!, I’m not a geek!”
The tension rises, we’re both struggling in this battle over this bath-towel…I’m pulling with all my might, but he’s much bigger than me, and its all I can do to hold on. Then, in the midst of the struggle, he throws me for a loop with this odd request:
Now, here am I, doing what he asked me to, pulling with all my might, and he wants me to let go! And boy, did that strike some fear into my heart. The emotions surged inside me: ‘I can’t let go, I’ll lose! I’ll be giving in!. If I let go, I’ll become what they say I am!’
“Let go,” he says again. Something in me just wouldn’t let me do it. It was like my very survival was at stake. Letting go meant falling backward into… who knows what? Maybe I thought it would kill me, I don’t know.
Then finally he yells it at the top of his lungs: “Let go!!!!!”
So, I let go. And, as I remember, stumbled back nearly falling onto the floor. I was startled, to say the least. I can imagine we were both breathing heavily and sweating from this struggle. Now, I don’t remember exactly what he said next. But, the gist was something like this:
“Where is the problem now? By letting go of the struggle, not defending yourself so stridently, you’ve left no fuel for their fire. But, by continuing to hold on, it is you who contributes to your own demise.”
Once I entered high school, I eventually became a pretty self-confident person, realizing my gifts, building my self-esteem. Yet, I’ve never become completely free of the effects of that teasing. One time just a few years back, I was sitting in a minivan with my 11 year-old nephew in the back seat right behind me. He starts messing with me, kicking the seat, pulling at my hair, laughing at me. I did my best to behave like the “adult uncle” in asking him nicely to stop. But, you know what came up in me? All these emotions of helplessness that I hadn’t felt in years…I felt like I was in the 7th grade all over again.
And, I still struggle with defensiveness today. I can fall into this pattern of spending way too much time concerned with how others perceive me. And oh, how I hate being accused of something I didn’t do! Just ask my wife. A lot of our marital arguments are sourced in that little insecurity.
But, I realize that while I’m most definitely responsible to respond to the needs of others in following the great commandment, “love God, and love your neighbor as yourself,” I don’t always have to defend my honor so aggressively when someone offends me or when I think I’m being labeled unjustly. The most important source for my self-esteem and worth is God–what others think of me really doesn’t mean a whole lot in the greater scheme of things.
Can you identify? When someone opposes us, we pull and pull on our towel, stressed out by the struggle, but fearing that to let go would perhaps be the end of us somehow. But, you know what? I think God wants our relationships to be proactive rather than reactive. In hindsight, perhaps if I was more mature back when I was a kid, I would have focused less on what my peers were doing to me, than what I could do for them.
Whether it’s during an argument in our marriage, whether we’re secretly hurt by a friend’s comments, or whether we’re weighed down by the burden of unrealistic expectations–when we give up our need be to always be right, when we “turn the other cheek” and “lay down our lives” for the person we’re in conflict with, we can actually become a little bit more like Jesus, who suffered way more persecution than most of us can fathom. When we let it all go, we can benefit from the unity and peace God wants for our relationships. We actually end up getting the peace we wanted all along, but just didn’t know how to find.
There’s a line I remember from the movie What Dreams May Come where it’s said, “sometimes when you lose….you win.” I guess another way to say that is, ‘Sometimes, you need to throw in the towel…but that’s how you’ll win the fight.’
About John Michalak
An author, speaker, musician, and minister, John Michalak has spent more than 20 years equipping others in the areas of life-change and personal relationship. John’s inspirational new book, 365 Devotions To Embrace What Matters Most is now available from Zondervan publishing.
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