When I was in first grade, an obnoxious boy wouldn’t leave me alone. I had a penchant for twirling in circles until my dress spun over my head like Pippy Longstocking, and he had a desire to touch what he saw. He’d been a bit handsy in the past, but in 6-year-old speak I told him to piss off. Then one day he touched my “private parts” while standing in line to go outside. Immediately I turned around and punched him in the face and screamed, “YOU CAN’T TOUCH ME THERE!”
I was the one who got in trouble for violence and the principal of the school said I had to have compassion for a boy with attention deficit disorder who didn’t know better. My father told her she could take her political correctness and shove it where the sun didn’t shine, and he pulled me from the school.
My perception of that story growing up was never that I had been a victim, that I was discriminated against because of my gender, or that I had been sexually harassed—though those are the terms we would couch it in today. I never felt dirty or traumatized over it. I’d been taught that my body is my own and to stand up for myself. And I did. Problem solved. Even 6-year-old me said, “Don’t fuck with me, buddy.” Looking back I still feel proud of it, and when my sister was in a similar situation, she did the same thing. Was violence the answer? No, but that instantaneous response let us both move forward knowing that when we faced adversity we could handle it. We were not and would never be victims.
It’s easy to trace how that mindset was instilled in me. Before I started school, my parents took me to the beach, and my dad decided to toughen me up. He said school was going to be hard, life is tough, and you have to be able to take it. And most importantly when you get knocked down, you have to stand right back up. For the next two weeks he spent our walks on the beach pushing me over, tripping me, and tossing me in the waves (lightly, I was 5). At first I was upset, then I was mad, and then I got even. It became a challenge to stand back up, to dodge when I could anticipate a trip coming, and ultimately, to push my 6-foot-2-inch father over and stand over him saying, “Gotta tuffin’ you up, Daddy.”
It might have been the most valuable lesson I’ve ever learned, and it sure as hell made me the girl who didn’t even blink before standing up for myself a year later. When I switched schools again in fifth grade in a desperate attempt to be “normal” and was met with much the same as before, I learned what being different meant and that it didn’t diminish who I am in the slightest. In middle school (which just sucks for everyone), I had a teacher who would never give me as high a grade as his favorite boy in the class no matter how hard I worked; I was routinely ostracized for being the wrong denomination; they even thought me slutty for being closer friends with the boys than the girls.
Oh, how I raged and threw fits to my mother. I wanted to go in swinging and have heads on spikes—how dare they treat me that way? I tried actively fighting against them and all it did was make it worse. Maybe I should have kept trying, made myself miserable, and screwed myself over in the process. Instead I learned to smile, nod, and subvert them to get what I wanted—namely the grades to get into the high school of my choice. I realized getting back up doesn’t always mean doing so swinging, and sometimes curbing your tongue—even when you’re right—is the smartest choice. After all, even the wisest general picks their battles. Sometimes you can be just as powerful by playing their game better than they do and turning it against them. It served me well in high school, college, and my early forays into the corporate world and kept me from actively shooting myself in the foot more often than I could say.
But why does it matter if you’re tough enough to keep standing back up and facing whatever comes your way? Because reality is never what it should be, and we have to make do and live in the world we are given. We can rage against it and affect change where we can, but we can never lose sight that this life we live does not exist in Plato’s realm of forms—we are not shadows on the wall to be manipulated into pleasing shapes to hide the harsh light of day. Parents, teachers, politicians, and activists can spend their time telling us that life should not include inferiority, discrepancy or hardships, and that everyone’s feelings should always be respected and adhered to, but they’re just peddling a pretty lie that is hurting us more than it helps. Instead of teaching values that will change the world, we’re teaching the next generation that if life isn’t fair, it’s not their fault and the world shouldn’t be this way. And they’re right, the bad shit that happens to us is rarely our fault. It wasn’t my fault that boy who groped me wasn’t taught to keep his hands to himself or that the label slapped upon him gave him a get-out-of-jail-free pass for bad behavior. It wasn’t his fault that he wasn’t taught personal responsibility, and in many ways he was a victim to the people “helping” him. I highly doubt it has served him well since then.
As I look at society, I fear that even as we are screaming loudly to make the world a better place, we are not learning how to live in it during that transformation. Perhaps I am distrustful and skeptical, but I doubt we’ll ever have a world without adversity, bad people, injustice, and daily struggles just to get through. The universe is not designed to coddle us, and I don’t believe humanity is capable of evolving to the point that we can make it so through our sheer force of will. And as we continue to focus more on what should be instead of what is, I truly fear that we will produce people incapable of surviving the struggle. That maybe instead of knowing how to keep calm and carry on, the next few generations might just sit down and yell at it being unfair.
To not only survive but thrive in this world, we must be able to know and believe in ourselves. Even when the most horrible of things occur we must not allow anyone to make us victims, nor should we ever embrace that mentality. We must realize that the world is not a pretty and beautiful place, that bad shit happens, people are often terrible excuses for humanity, and while righteous indignation and idealism should never leave you, neither should it be all that you are. I wish we could grow up in a world where our feelings, beliefs, rights, and desires are never tread upon. But without that, what would we be? In each moment of adversity, every moment we are called upon to get back up in our life we are carving out who we truly are by exposing another layer of the core of what defines us. Without the struggle, the sacrifice, and outright horrors of living we are nothing but unmolded forms—flickering shadows in a pretend world. We would not have the fortitude or strength to affect the change that can right the wrongs without it. All of the greatest leaps in humanity have been achieved by conquering the darkness. And if we allow ourselves to succumb to a life of victimization, that world we so desperately think should exist, never will, because no one will stand up and make it a reality.