This week he did fight back. He and another boy had the kind of trivial misunderstanding that 10-year-old boys are prone to have. They got emotional. The boy punched him. Isaac punched him back. The other boy continued, and Isaac pushed him down.
They both had to go to the principal’s office and they both lost all their recesses for the following day. Isaac later admitted to feeling upset at the principal’s office and said the hallways were very big and long on the way there. But by the time school was out, he was unemotional about it. He didn't even mention the incident when we had our normal “how was school today” talk right after school. It wasn't until hours later that he nonchalantly told Wendy about it.
When I pressed him for details, he was unfazed and matter-of-fact. A boy hit him. He hit the boy back. He got in trouble. But, just like Dad always says, it’s better to get in trouble than to let someone hit you. So that was that.
Even though he was fine with it, the event left me nauseated.
When I was Isaac’s age, I was a bully magnet. In fact, I was a bully magnet until I was a junior in high school. I had a magical ability to encounter bullies and bring out their worst. I activated in them a mysterious sixth sense so that they could tell right when I would be walking up that one staircase where it’s easy to spit on people.
I've wondered a lot about what it was that made me so attractive to bullies. I was certainly skinny and shy. I was a Mormon. We moved a lot. Any one of those could easily have been a factor.
But the core of it was that I somehow lost confidence in myself. I’m not clear about when that started or why. But for some reason I started thinking of myself negatively. I started believing I was worthless. And that’s an open invitation to bullies and all other kinds of predators. As Tina Fey wrote in The Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter: “May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it’s the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the Beauty.”
I don’t know where this would have come from. I had a wonderful, kind family. And I’d been a happy, confident kid. But I still somehow ended up there, and it was ugly. A decade ago, Glenn Pace wrote about self-confidence in the Ensign and perfectly described the problem with it. It makes you self-obsessed: “Ironically, both pride and a lack of self-confidence cause us to focus excessively on ourselves and to deny the power of God in our lives.”
This was true for me. Years of feeling worthless lead me to grow ever worse in my behavior and performance. I failed miserably at school, I was horrid to family, and I lost scores of friends through unnecessary nastiness and self-obsession.
There were some breaks in the clouds. Wrestling in high school was a big help. My two-year mission in Boston helped me grow up. And marriage to Wendy was a wonderful boost. But it really wasn't until 9 years ago this month, when I published my first-ever magazine article, that I realized I could actually be good at things and maybe even contribute something of worth to the world.
This wasn't an arrogance, which I had also felt plenty of times. It was instead a very joyful feeling of being worthwhile. That feeling was invigorating and rumbled all through me, pushing me from that small success to a series of wonderful victories in hobbies, school, work, church, and family. At every step along this journey, I’m a little happier, a little more kind, and a little more likely to serve and uplift others.
I don’t think this is egotism. It’s as opposite to that as it is to self-abasement. And I know plenty about each of those to know the difference! I think it’s in line with what the Prophet Gordon Hinckley explained: “I believe in myself. I do not mean to say this with egotism. But I believe in my capacity and in your capacity to do good, to make some contribution to the society of which we are a part, [and] to grow and develop…I believe in the principle that I can make a difference in this world.”
Every parent wants their kids to feel self-worth and to know that they are valuable and can make a difference in the world. This is tremendously challenging to ensure, and it’s agonizing for me now to have a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old because they face all the challenges that pushed me down when I was their ages.
I’m glad that Isaac has learned how to fight back and has finally learned that sometimes he should. I’m glad he works hard and builds confidence in classes like this one:
On Friday night, I asked Isaac how it went sitting in the principal’s office during recess. As I had anticipated, the two boys were now friends. They actually got in trouble during the detention for talking and laughing with each other. Other than that, the time was just boring.
But there was one highlight. Isaac said the best part of detention was that he discovered a new quote by Mark Twain that was hanging on his principal’s wall: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”