Penn State Athletes Take Action recently completed their fifth year of programming in State College Area middle schools.
During the final event of the year, I was struck by a very real and honest question asked by a young man at the closing assembly. After most of his classmates dismissed into the hallways, he quietly approached the towering group of athletes and asked:
“What would school be like without bullying? What would the world actually be like without bullying? Doesn’t bullying help to build character and help us stand up for ourselves? …”
He was processing so many good and important thoughts in this question:
- the realities of a culture of violence;
- the reality that many young people do experience bullying, and as a silver-lining result, can learn to persevere, make changes and build courage;
- the reality that young men, maybe even the boy asking the question, are directly and indirectly taught that the only way to really be courageous and to stand up for yourself is to match violence with violence, ultimately learning “character” and “strength” with the help of power-over displays of physical, intellectual and systemic force; and
- there was one other reality in all of this: he was dreaming — dreaming about what it would actually be like if bullying and the behaviors that lead to bullying weren’t so prevalent or real.
I am proud of the athletes who stuck in with this student as they all processed the underlying norms behind his query. Citing many other ways to build character, and encouraging the young man to keep challenging unhealthy patterns and beliefs, the athletes ultimately helped to empower and embody a different way to redefine character and strength. The athletes and the young man who asked his question learned a great deal in that moment:
We do not need violence to build character or to be courageous, strong and honorable.
And we do not need violence to teach us how to live together as a community that thrives.
In our culture, we have not yet been willing to name and normalize that the opposite of violence is actually far more courageous and strong. The opposite of violence is healthy relationships.
Healthy relationships, rooted in respect and mutuality, realistically riddled with conflict, difficulty and authenticity, require extreme courage and character; extreme strength and dignity; and extreme perseverance and honor.
Healthy relationships are some of the bravest things we can all be a part of. And not only do healthy relationships build strong individuals, communities and societies, but they also create the possibility for all to thrive.
When we have healthy relationships and instill those values in our children, amazing things can happen. That’s how healthy patterns can snuff out power imbalances and injustice. That’s how young people, like the young man who bravely asked his question, can continue to change the world as allies. And that’s how character is built-in, with, among and through communities where healthy relationships are supported and expected.