The Lion Who Thought He Was a Sheep

My children go to a school that they love. Both are well-liked by their peers and the school staff. Both enjoy the learning and social aspects of school and thus far, both have avoided the darker side of that environment: Bullying.

I wish I could say that I had the same experiences growing up.

Bullying for me wasn’t a daily threat, but I have numerous instances that stick out in my mind:

  • Eight or nine years old. Sleepover at my best friend’s house. Another kid and I got trapped on the bottom bunk by the other boys and were spit on and pummeled. This was all just “screwing around.”
  • When I was about the same age, the group of boys I hung out with unceremoniously bestowed the nickname “Queef” on me (it sounds like my given name.)
  • Eighth grade, bus ride home. Somehow, a wad of spit ends up in Justin’s shoe. Justin is two years ahead of me and is a known bully. Now, I sure as hell didn’t spit in Justin’s shoe, but the kids around us blamed me enough that he believed I did. Despite my feeble protests, he tells me he’s kicking my ass once we get off at our stop. His younger sister looks at me and in a serious tone says, “Once this bus stops, you better run home as fast as you can.” The rest of the ride is spent avoiding Justin’s constant glare and trying not to shake in fear. The bus pulls up to our stop, and I tear off the bus for home like Usain Bolt exploding out of the starting blocks. It’s only when I’m in the safety of our garage that I turn around; Justin, his sister, and the other kids are all but rolling around on the ground laughing.
  • Eighth grade…again. Geography class. The details are mostly lost to memory, but I remember the teacher had to leave the room for an extended period of time. Brad, the freshman class bully who just happened to sit directly behind me, starts calling me names. When I didn’t respond, Brad steps up his game by moving on from words to punches, hitting me in the back of my head and upper back. I sit there and take it. Apparently, my lack of response and the comments from our classmates got to him, as he eventually gets bored and stops.
  • Ninth grade, post football practice. I’m rocking out to AC/DC’s live album on my Sony Discman waiting to catch a ride home. A fellow player named Adam comes over and demands I let him have a listen. I tell him no and he rips the Discman out of my hands, plugs his headphones in, and walks off. Adam was a fighter, so I didn’t dare trying to mix it up with him. A friend of mine (who was a girl, nonetheless) went over to him and sweet talked him into giving it back to me.

Now, these weren’t the only situations I encountered bullies growing up, but there are the ones that seem to stick out when I think about my childhood and adolescent years. If I’m being honest with myself, I think those experiences affected me more than I probably realize. It brings to mind a conversation I once had with a close family member who also had a rough childhood. In recalling the beatings he used to receive, he said that in comparison to the words hurled at him, the physical violence was the “easy” part to deal with. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something to the effect of,“my physical marks usually faded over a short period of time. The emotional scars took much longer to heal.” 

I think those encounters with bullies laid the groundwork for a lot my struggles today. The anger, self-doubt, anxiety, inadequacy, and feelings of disrespect that I’ve dealt with during my adult life. When I was young, my dad gave me the nickname “Tiger.” In those situations, I didn’t feel like much of a tiger. If anything, I felt like a declawed kitten, furiously mewing objections, but never demanding from myself and others the respect I rightfully deserved.

I am not a fan of Tony Robbins, but I recently caught this clip from one of his events. As a disclaimer, if you’re offended by the word “fuck”, you might want to pass on this one. Long story short, a couple attending the event are selected to speak. The woman discusses her vision for their relationship and shares her desire for him to be more of a “man.” The man nervously starts to speak, but ends up fumbling through his words. Tony then gets off the stage, comes to the man, and tells him a story:

A lion cub’s future turns bleak after his parents are killed. Alone in the world, the lion cub is adopted by a flock of gentle sheep. The cub quickly adopts sheep behavior, eating grass and bleating like a sheep. He grows up into young adulthood. One day, a pack of lions show up and massacre the sheep. The young lion recoils, bleating in horror at the violence being inflicted around him. An older lion notices and drags the young lion over to a lake and forces him to see his reflection. “You’re a lion!” The young lion still doesn’t believe, so the older lion forces him to eat the remains of a sheep. The lion spits it out, “I can’t eat my family!” The older lion force feeds him to chew and swallow. Through this process, something happens to the young lion. He feels powerful. He feels pride. He lets out a majestic and mighty roar. He is a lion and he knows it.

The story ends with Tony imploring the man to roar. The man responds with a primal ferocity. It’s like the light bulb went off for him. He continues roaring into the microphone and then goes over and swoops his girlfriend up in his arms. The crowd goes wild. Tony goes wild. End scene.

I’ll be honest, the first time I watched the video, I cried. I watched it again this morning and found myself tearing up. I relate to that man. The lion who grew up thinking he was a sheep. The insecure, “pissed off at the world but can’t figure out why”, fearful man who half the time isn’t confident in who he is or knows where exactly he came from.

I don’t want to be that guy. I want to have my “roar” moment where it all finally clicks.

Does that mean I’ll be signing up for the next Tony Robbins event near me? Probably not. But it does mean that I’ll need to be more cognizant in my moments of self-doubt to remind myself that my past doesn’t define me. That I am loved, accepted, and capable as a husband, father, and a man. Old habits die hard, scars do heal, but its a process that takes both time and grace to complete.


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