Arthur Kovacs, a long time mentor in my private practice as a psychologist, once told me that “your problem Bernard is not commission but omission of behavior.” I have fought this particular character weakness of mine all my life. I use the word “character,” in this context, intentionally, because it implies a trait that has been with me since childhood, thereby, occupying a more than transient part of my being.
Dr. Kovacs’ comment brought back a vivid memory that very much substantiated what he had to say. I had just graduated high school and, I had procured a light construction job with Union County in New Jersey the summer before I was to start college. Although this was a summer job, the other summer employees had started earlier because they had returned from college about a month earlier than my high school graduation. I remember being assigned to Snuffy’s crew in which we were to do light repair work on bridges. Some of the bigger guys on the crew actually handled jack hammers, but only for short periods of time due to liability issues. Everyone in the group was cordial and quite helpful to me, the youngest of all of them, treating me almost as if I were their kid brother. However, as luck would have it, after a week of working with that bunch of guys, I was transferred to another unit because I had begun later than the rest and someone, who had started working before me, had requested a transfer to Snuffy’s crew.
I was reassigned to Joe’s crew of three college juniors with myself being the fourth, a group much smaller than Snuffy’s gang of 15. I remember my first day overhearing one of them, Jim, tell his friend Billy that I was a faster and more efficient worker than the fellow I had replaced. It felt good hearing that and, I figured that it would not be so bad working with these guys despite the fact that I had developed a really good rapport with Snuffy’s crew members. The job consisted mostly of sweeping and cleaning the residue left on County bridges in addition to minor chipping and painting. It was toilsome but really not hard work and, I didn’t mind it at all as it paid pretty well for someone, like me, who had just turned 18.
Unfortunately, my honeymoon with those guys ended quickly. Two of them, Jimmy and Billy, were friends and hung out together all of the time. The third, Steve, was a big husky guy who hung out on his own, sort of away from it all, who I made an attempt to befriend. Jimmy and Billy were both inseparable and impenetrable and, it soon became apparent, that in no way were they going to allow me to enter into their very private circle.
Although I went to an all boys’ public high school in Elizabeth, an urban area, I was very popular with all types of guys and rarely, if ever, had been bullied. In fact, I remember befriending a black football player two years older than I, who was said to be the toughest guy in the school. I’m not sure what he saw in me but I sort of idolized him and, when he responded in a positive way, I felt a boyish sense of pride. Needless to say, my experience in high school did not prepare me for what was about to happen with Jimmy and Billy.
Early on they began to tease me with words that soon after escalated to throwing water at me when I would sit in the truck with Joe, the crew leader. Although Joe was there in body, he was oblivious to Jimmy and Billy’s antics. The two of them had an interesting but very predictable relationship in the manner by which they went about taunting me: Jimmy would perform all of the offensive acts whereas Billy would instigate his friend by applauding and reinforcing Jimmy’s obnoxious behaviors. Why didn’t I react? This is where Dr. Kovacs’ observation hit a vital chord inasmuch as I almost felt paralyzed in not being able to answer back to them in some way. Steve, the other college junior, who was not part of their clique, would tell me “why don’t you give them the finger or do something back like I do?” Easy for Steve to say that, I thought, he being much bigger than I was as Jimmy and Billy were bigger than I. Although I did not think so at the time, I later came to understand that size or physical build was not really the issue. Rather, it had more to do with an insatiable desire to be liked by all those around me: Having friends, being the popular one, had always meant an awful lot to me. I believed that if I fought back, neither of them would talk to me nor like me: It was this deep fear of rejection that prevented me from acting. Ah, but the mind plays funny tricks on us, does it not? I was afraid that they would not like me but by not fighting back their behavior toward me, in fact, worsened. And yet, somehow I could only imagine that they would like me if I remained passive.
How wrong I was! Each day the frequency of the bullying behaviors increased, and soon, I came to dread going to work. I found myself trapped in a hostile environment that felt foreign to me and, I hoped, with each night, that the bullying tactics of Jimmy and Billy would go away. But things only got worse until at the end of one day my black lunch pail appeared to have a leak. When I opened it up, it was full of water. I remember seeing a group of co-workers that I did not know well, because they worked on different teams, before spotting Jimmy, standing about 30 or 40 feet away from me, staring at me. I felt a pulsating heat under my collar, an anger I had rarely experienced in my life, taking control of my body. I did not fight to restrain it: My boiling point had been reached. I took the lunch pail and running toward Jimmy hurled the water at him. One of the guys standing there in complete awe asked me why I had done that. I did not reply.
We all cheer for the underdog: One of the guys, who had been friendly with Jimmy and Billy, decided to take my side. He beckoned to me: “You can soak him good with the hose. He’s in the group meeting room where the hose is.” As he said this, he led me over to the room where Jimmy was standing, started uncoiling the hose and quickly gave it to me. As soon as he gave it to me, he turned the water on and I aimed the unfurled hose at Jimmy. He ran at me as I doused him with water. For a moment all eyes were on us and, I felt an eerie sensation tickling my spine because I understood that my current behavior had no antecedents. Hell, if I knew how to fight. No, it was not a skill I had developed as I was too popular for that. As our bodies met, a couple of brawny foremen came out and stood between us stopping the fight and, when I was able to gather my wits some, I was quite thankful that they had intervened. As the rational side of my brain began to take over my being, I breathed a sigh of relief.
The next day Jimmy was transferred to another unit. His friend Billy, perhaps both amused and shocked by my gall, told me to be aware of Jimmy because he had said he would seek revenge when I may not be ready for it. How strange that Billy was suddenly an ally of mine. I do not know if the smile I felt surfaced, but within me, I certainly felt that my actions had caused a chain reaction of people backing me: I was no longer seen as a submissive weakling, but rather now, I was viewed as someone who was willing to risk the consequences of a brave action. No, Jimmy never did seek revenge and yes, I had won the respect of those around me.