I had a bully in middle school.
His name was John B. (I’m withholding his last name because I am sure he matured into a nice man with great kids and has started a charity to feed homeless cats.)
But he was a jerk back then.
He looked like a swollen eggplant with hair. A year older than me, John B. never punched me or beat me up. He never separated me from my lunch money. No, John was an orator, preferring to use his words to belittle and humiliate me.
It all began when we had to draw our shoes in art class and the teacher hung our work in the hallway. Now my brothers and I weren’t lacking anything we needed, but our family didn’t have the money for name-brand shoes. Nikes were a pipe dream so I had to settle for Nucleus high tops instead. (In case you’re wondering, that company no longer exists, so bullies now have to focus their attention elsewhere.) Ironically, I thought they were pretty rad, discount store origins aside.
John B. didn’t.
Every day between classes, he’d point me out and belittle me for my off-brand shoes. I wanted to punch him in his smug, fat face. Considering he was much larger than me, that wouldn’t have ended well. So I was left to endure the stomach-churning mockery and shame until a new art project made its way to the wall.
It could have been worse. It’s small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. But whoever said “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is a dolt with oatmeal for brains. Of course words hurt! And sometimes they have longer-lasting effects, with the emotional scars remaining long after any broken bones have healed.
One day in my more recent past, I was watching the deer in my backyard and I thought about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, another victim of bullying. I wondered what he might look like in real life, if his nose really did light up and wasn’t just some silly illuminated cartoon clown nose. My brain is a weird place, but it’s the question that inspired this painting.
It also led to a very powerful experience.
As the piece progressed, it took on a life of its own. The deer’s piercing eyes grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. They were vulnerable, revealing someone who was sad, hurt, and alone. Someone who maybe wondered why he was made broken. And someone totally unaware that the source of ridicule, the very thing he wished he could be rid of, was actually a gift.
I thought back to my run-in with John B. I remembered the anxiety I felt each day, hoping to not cross paths with him in the hall, resentful that my parents weren’t well-to-do enough to afford Nikes.
Looking back now, find it notable that John B.’s criticism was about the brand of shoes, and not the effectiveness of the drawing. The drawing was really good. His taunting certainly didn’t cause me to feel pride in my talent, but perhaps he was jealous. After all, a poorly drawn nondescript shoe hardly would have garnered as much attention.
I get that now.
But not then. Back then, I wanted to blend into the shadows and disappear.
Sometimes the darkness is inviting because it promises to keep you hidden from the scorn, the sticks, the stones, and the fists. But embracing the darkness isn’t the answer.
It turns out that the one thing you can’t escape in the shadows is yourself.
And can I be honest with you?
John B. was a jerk. But he’s not the biggest, meanest, most terrible bully I’ve ever faced. Not by a long shot.
That title goes to me.
I’ve said worse things about myself than John B. ever did. I’ve been told that I am the worst husband, son, father, and friend…by myself. I’ve been reliably informed that I’m not smart enough, brave enough, or talented enough by someone who should probably know: me.
Why are we so willing to treat ourselves more horribly than we’d ever treat another person? Our inner bully criticizes our every move, never giving the benefit of doubt. It showers us with the most vile, hurtful, poisonous self-talk. It accompanies our days with a drumbeat of doom, a never-ending echo that we have nothing to offer and we’ll never be enough. It counters every morsel of virtue with a mountain of evidence proving that we suck.
Then someone like John B. comes along and merely confirms what you already believed about yourself all along.
As I was working on this painting, I could almost feel my heart breaking for little Rudolph, as if I wanted to assure him that he is awesome. I wanted to beg him to pay those bullies no mind. I wanted to remind him that the thing that makes him stand out – the very thing others mock him for – is his gift to share with the world.
Eventually, I realized Rudolph in this painting was me.
And he is you.
Like Rudolph, there is a light within you. It might be hidden in your pain, your brokenness, or the thing that makes you weird. It pulses when you share it for the good of another and brighten someone’s day.
Like Rudolph, you are different. That’s exactly what makes you a wonderfully made, extraordinary work of art.
You see, darkness doesn’t hide the truth. It uses just enough of it to get you to believe the lies.
Yes, it IS true that you aren’t enough.
The lie is that you need to be.
Like Rudolph, we just need you to share your light with the rest of us.