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Charlie Fish
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Last Logged In: April 11th, 2017
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30 + 239 points

CTRL + Z by Charlie Fish

April 30th, 2009 12:54 PM

INSTRUCTIONS: The law of entropy: a system tends to degenerate over time.

It is easy to shatter glass, but difficult to put it back together.
It is easy to create toast, but almost impossible to turn it back into bread.
It is easy to make mistakes. Destroy relationships. Regret choices.

But we know that time is flexible. Now undo.

What

Regret.

I'm not talking about "I shouldn't have had that tenth beer" kind of regret, I'm talking about real regret. The kind of regret you feel when you've done something irreversible. You never talk about it, because you hope against hope that your loved ones have - at least for a moment - forgotten or forgiven you. The thought of reminding them about it, of bringing it back to the surface, fills you with stomach-swirling terror.

Regret


I am lucky enough to have only two such regrets. This praxis is my attempt to Undo one of them.

Who

I was bullied as a child. From the age of about nine to eighteen I pretty much hated school as a result. But I'm deeply ashamed to admit that in one particular case I was the bully. There was one child even lower in the bullying food-chain than me: we'll call him T.

He was an awkward child. Tall and spindly, red-haired, pale, with meticulous Received Pronunciation. He clicked his tongue as he talked, as if he had a tic. And he always smiled. I think I bullied him to try and get a rise out of him. But he never stopped smiling, even as he told me he hated me.

I called him names. I kicked him, harder and harder when he wouldn't stop smiling. Sometimes I felt guilty and left him alone, but he was such an awkward boy that he made an easy target.

Sounds lame, but it was painful to write that. I feel like including a thousand disclaimers so you won't think I'm a bad person, but no - that was bad.

Why

A while ago, I started volunteering for Childline telephone counselling service. The training involved a lot of soul-searching. They made us dig up all of the darkest secrets of our past so that we could start to face them. After all, we couldn't counsel bullied and abused children properly unless we had faced our own demons first. During this process, I thought about T for the first time in ten years.

Childline


Then, recently, my friend and I were taking a bus home from an evening out in Walthamstow. A group of four kids - age maybe eleven or twelve - started picking a fight with us. We tried to ignore them, tried to tell them to mind their own business, but they wouldn't leave us alone. As the bus pulled up at the next stop, they snatched my friend's laptop and ran off the bus. He ran after them, until one of them produced a knife - so he let them go.

I felt angry, helpless, guilty, deflated, betrayed, ashamed... in short, for the first time since graduating secondary school, I felt bullied.

I made up my mind then, even though the prospect filled me with anguish and self-hatred, that I would face my demons. I would find T and apologize to him.

How

T has a double-barrelled surname, and it turns out that in his adult life he is an avid political blogger, so a Google search was sufficient to track him down. His blog had no contact details, so I messaged him these words:

Hi T,

It's been about 12 and a half years since we last spoke, so I wouldn't be surprised if you don't remember me. My name's Charlie Fish*, and I attended Downsend School with you.

I recently started volunteering for Childline as a telephone counsellor, which involved quite a bit of soul-searching as part of the training process.

One of the types of calls that Childline often fields is from children being bullied at school. I spent a large portion of my school life being bullied to various degrees, but I am ashamed to admit that in at least one case I was the bully myself.

Please accept my sincere apologies for the grief that I caused you.

Charlie


*I used my real name here!

Later that night, he called me.

I hadn't given him my number - he clearly used Google too. I must admit, I was quite thrown. I'm not sure what I had expected to happen, but whatever it was, I had expected it to happen later.

The conversation was terrible. I was clawing my eyeballs at the awkwardness of it all. It was something like this:

"I just wanted to apologise for the way I treated you back then. I mean, I know I bullied you and I feel bad about that. But anyway, you seem to be doing alright for yourself now?"

"What gave you that idea?"

"Well, I mean, on your website it said that you're studying for a doctorate. Your blog is interesting, by the way, I read a bit of it. It sounds like you're doing well for yourself. [long pause] I'd like to buy you a drink sometime, if you'll accept it."

"Ok."

"Well, I've got your number now, so I'll give you a call."

"Ok."

"Goodbye, then."


I hung up, bit down hard on my finger at the thought of all the things I should have said, then immediately wrote another comment on his blog.

Apologies for posting the previous message on this blog - it's not the most appropriate forum, but I couldn't find up-to-date contact details for you. I presume you have the ability to delete these comments if you see fit?

You sounded like you had more to say when we spoke earlier. If, like me, you just hate phones, feel free to email me (it sounds like you found my website already so I'm sure you found the email address!).

I would genuinely like to buy you a drink sometime next month when things have quietened down here, if you'd be gracious enough to accept it.


When and where

I had stayed my execution for a month (cowardice!), and I ended up putting it off even longer. But eventually, I sent him a text message (more cowardice!), he sent a terse reply, and we arranged to meet at a pub in central London. Not one of my regular haunts; somewhere I barely knew (cowardice strike three!).

The Pub


I arrived five minutes late, but I couldn't see him among the people in the bar, so I ordered a beer and waited.

Every time the door opened to let another person in, my heart skipped.

I got to thinking, is this attempt to Undo - this quest for redemption - the right thing to do, or ridiculously pretentious? How would I feel if an ex-bully contacted me one day out of the blue? I wouldn't want to meet him. Why was I here? Why couldn't I have let sleeping dogs lie?

What happened

Just then, T walked in. I didn't recognise him with enough confidence to call his name, but he walked straight over to me. He looked me up and down and said, "You used to wear glasses." (True. See pic.)

Me age 12


What a terrible anticlimax. If he'd punched me and left I could go home feeling hard done-by, having paid my moral debt and being secretly smug that he reacted so immaturely.

But worse - he remembered me. That means I wasn't totally insignificant to him - I had made some lasting, unwelcome impact. Perversely, I wanted him to like me, or at least believe that I was a good person.

What followed was possibly the most uncomfortable conversation I've ever had. I tried to engage him by asking about his doctorate, about his interest in politics, about anything - but he mostly gave me one-word answers. How can I counsel suicidal children, and yet not engage with this man?

I got so frustrated with him (with myself) that at one point I had to suppress an evil urge to tease him about his tongue-clicking tic (which he still had). OMG, I am truly evil. I did not know this about myself.

I still hadn't gathered up the courage to apologize to his face, so some masochistic impulse in me suggested that we go somewhere to eat together. We walked there in silence.

How could I put it tactfully? What did I want to hear? Did I want to hear that he had suffered? Did I want him to forgive me?

We ordered our food, and I said it. "I'm sorry that I bullied you."

And he completely ignored me. As if he hadn't heard me. I felt so small and stupid I couldn't bring myself to say anything else. We passed the next half an hour barely exchanging a word.

I realised that I could not take back what I had done.

So yeah, right now I feel like I should be fired from humanity.

Epic fail.

Can't undo.

- smaller

Regret

Regret


Childline

Childline


T's blog

T's blog


The Pub

The Pub


Me age 12

Me age 12



49 vote(s)


Favorite of:


Terms

fight, votelater, school, playerorigins, memory, child

25 comment(s)

(no subject) +1
posted by Sombrero Guy on April 30th, 2009 2:49 PM

Blimey, that must have taken a bit of courage to do!
In that situation, I'd probably never get over the initial cowardice.

Even if you didn't actually manage to Undo, I think you tried a lot harder than most other people would have. And the fact that you tried so hard shows that you're not a bad person, so don't fire yourself from humanity just yet...

(no subject) +1
posted by teucer on April 30th, 2009 5:52 PM

Damn.

I don't think I'd have had the guts to try that.

(no subject)
posted by Jellybean of Thark on April 30th, 2009 6:14 PM

What he said.

And thank you, Mr. Fish.

Painful, Yes
posted by Waldo Cheerio on April 30th, 2009 8:21 PM

The extent that you tried is impressive, and more than I could expect from someone completing this task. But I think that there may yet be good that can come of this.

As a political blogger I doubt that he is willing to go along with you simply because it is a path of least resistance; there is something in it for him as well. As painful as it was, and to the extent you may have doubts whether you are just doing this out of pretension or selfish tasking, he doesn't have to be there, but he came along. That he ignored you about what likely actually mattered (the bullying) makes it much harder to understand why he also feels there is something worth talking about... but if you can bear it there still seems to be an animating motive behind all the terrible awkwardness.

I think you already know what he means to you... but I guess the question is what you mean to *him*. He may not know. It is likely easier, in some sense, to admit to feeling remorse for bullying, than to admit to being a victim. So long as he is willing to see you on some terms, I think you should keep talking to him. Maybe try to find a common ground in comedy to get past the awkwardness?

I can't blame you either way, you've already seen and understood much more about the impact of bullying on a child for having done this, and I have no doubt you are a better counselor for it. I just don't want to see a Charlie Fish saga end on such a sad note.

(no subject)
posted by teucer on April 30th, 2009 9:45 PM

Even if you are ready to admit to being a victim, I can imagine it's hard to want to talk about it with the person responsible.

My school was small enough that I didn't get bullied much; everyone knew everyone, which is a bit of a safety net, since anyone who picked on me more than was "acceptable" would have lost the respect of the ultra-popular guy I carpooled to school with every day. But one day in high school, somebody did attack me in a way that was serious enough that in hindsight I regret not reporting it to the police.

And I can tell you this: I have no problem with acknowledging that it happened, but I sure as fuck don't want to see that guy ever again.

Thank you for your comments
posted by Charlie Fish on May 1st, 2009 1:21 AM

I felt very nervous about posting this proof. The exercise certainly ended up being deeper than a mere task*.

But it's kind of a relief to have it out there. I feel like I'm not alone, even though nothing's been fixed.

However, Waldo Cheerio's suggestion that I try to continue the dialogue just does not compute. I can imagine the theory of getting in touch with him again, but no part of my brain actually believes that I will ever attempt that in practice.


* In SF0 and in life, there are mere tasks and there are tasks. This was definitely the latter.

(no subject)
posted by Charlie Fish on May 1st, 2009 1:33 AM

PS, teucer, I totally agree. I wouldn't want to meet the people that used to bully me, much less discuss the bullying with them.

If I did stumble across them on the Internet or something, I know I would feel an irresistible schadenfreude if they were in prison or something - and vice-versa, I'd feel slightly bitter if they were happy multimillionaire entrepreneurs.

Which is why it's so perverse that I wanted him to like me.

It may sound "brave" for me to contact him and apologize (although brave was the last thing I felt), but I think it's far braver that he responded. He showed up - that took guts.

Compounded mistakes
posted by Charlie Fish on May 1st, 2009 1:43 AM

The more I think about this, the more I realise that me trying to apologize to him verbally was probably a mistake. I think he probably took the first apology at face value, and he came to meet me as an act of moving on.

Dwelling on an apology is not moving on.

(no subject)
posted by Mr Everyday on May 1st, 2009 2:18 AM

I dunno what to say exactly... I too was bullied (and in a couple of cases the bully) but in my case ended up pretty good mates with all my bullies later in life (it's an odd fact that 4 of my 5 best friends in life have literally made me piss blood), and am on nodding and say hello terms with those I bullied in turn.

I wonder if what made this EXTRA difficult was the extent to which your lives have gone separate ways. I live in a small enough thrown that avoiding people is a practical impossibility, and the web of friendships mean that all you "enemies" at whatever stage share mutual friends with you. Even then, meeting people I haven't seen for 15 years can be difficult, and awkward, for the simple reason that you no longer have any points of commonality

Anyway, as I said above, while this struck too close a chord with me not to say something, I don't know what exactly it is I want to say. Except that I agree it's probably easier being the one doing the apologizing, and that you have my full respect..

(no subject) +2
posted by rongo rongo on May 1st, 2009 1:09 PM

Once when I was about 10, I made an unkind joke about a kid who was even less popular than me, in order to entertain some of the other kids. He looked me right in the eye and said "You're a nice person, why are you being mean to me now?" I felt terrible about teasing him that day, but in hindsight, I am really grateful he was able to cut to the heart of the matter in a way that prevented me from being tempted to do it again. It was an astonishingly insightful thing for a kid to say.

I remember that moment...
posted by Waldo Cheerio on May 2nd, 2009 4:03 AM

I remember something similar to rongo's story in my own life. It is hard to reflect on when I realized that things I said and did affected other people. The norms and principles I have adopted since then were tools I needed to be sane and happy in a world filled with other people. It is not pleasant having to reconsider the pain I caused other people in my life, by social slights and hasty words, or by blind venom and selfishness; but that is what underlies many of my habits and adopted mannerisms. There were positive discoveries of things that worked well among certain company, but childhood for me was a great deal of trial and error, and the errors are by definition things I changed to avoid re-experiencing. So I understand that your experience with T, by its nature, has no place in the life of present-day Charlie Fish. That just isn't who you are anymore.

So I don't know what, if anything, I would venture to recommend. But I do think there is something more here, about how you see yourself and your identity as a social being. To risk going completely off the deep-end of syllogism and life-advice cliche, our whole life is just a series of rooms with other people in them. Some people we have a lot of common context with; we play the same game, speak the same language, and can delve deeply into topics that are particularly interesting or relevant to us. Some people we have very little in common with... and I think that is the rarer, and perhaps more valuable exchange.

I like to spend time with people under the age of 10, or over the age of 80. There is an honesty to the way they look at the world, and more importantly, at people, that is easy to forget when you only ever see other upstanding citizens in your community. A lot of artifice, that we normally hide our actual thoughts and emotions behind. Not that these are a bad thing, I try to remember they are social fictions.

I can't work out a good place to fit this in, but on the other side of the coin, I remembered this slam poetry piece that went around the internet like wildfire a few years ago, which includes a line about something a child said at school. There is something very powerful about the words of a child, and at 4am I doubt I can grapple any closer to a good conclusion than that.

(no subject) +2
posted by Peter Garnett on April 30th, 2009 11:48 PM

I...

I don't know what to say about this.

It's like, I dunno, Ben's Keep Marching On... I want to say something, but I don't have the context, I don't have the words.

Maybe this is what votes are for.

(no subject) +1
posted by Ben Yamiin on May 1st, 2009 11:35 AM

Thanks, Mr. Fish.

Thank you very much.

(no subject)
posted by rongo rongo on May 1st, 2009 1:00 PM

What I thought when I read this is that sometimes, when there is someone that you completely didn't understand as a kid, it turns out you can't understand them as an adult either. It was really great that you made contact and apologized, and the outcome not being happy ending may just be the result of the two of you having some core mutual incomprehensibility, not that somehow you 'did it wrong'.

And yeah, there will probably be people who call you who seem just as incomprehensible, and you may even find the conversations so awkward or infuriating that you are tempted to say mean things to them. But of course, you won't---you'll do your best to listen and understand, and hopefully that will mean something to the callers even if you are unable to end up feeling a close connection.

(no subject)
posted by Charlie Fish on May 1st, 2009 5:25 PM

To rongo rongo and Mr Everyday, yes - I believe I genuinely have very little in common with him as an adult, which didn't help matters one bit.

I believe that even if I had met him as a total stranger I would have struggled to have a decent conversation with him. Which can only have compounded the awkwardness.

(no subject) +4
posted by susy derkins on May 1st, 2009 9:55 PM

Gulp about your face at 12 and the way you say how T wouldn´t stop smiling. Dark things inside humans, Charlie, that jump and leave scars and have no way to get neatly packaged afterwards. But there are the good ones that come from nowhere too. Hell is other people, and so is heaven, right? Sometimes we are only context.

Sorry this is not so reassuring. +4
posted by Ink Tea on May 3rd, 2009 11:30 PM

Dear Charlie,

There is no way to know what he took from the situation, and what, if anything he wants from it- you wanted closure of some ilk, forgiveness or a reason for forgiveness to be unnecessary. It doesn't always work that way, and ultimately, you have to find your own peace.

It is hard to accept an apology for abuse- the abuser gets off the hook like the snap of fingers, where the torment (whether it be physical or otherwise) the abused suffered lasted longer, and the amount of time they were haunted or impeded by the memories of the abuse varies greatly. It is hard to imagine someone coming up to you and saying, "Hey sorry about robbing you at gunpoint," and just forgiving them for the terror of the moment, the things lost, and the fear of it happening again. The abused find peace within themselves- it helps to know there is remorse, but ultimately, it is their own strength that heals them.

So you've faced some dark part of yourself, you've owned your actions, voiced your regret, and are working on helping other victims of similar (and different) dark parts of humanity. You get to decide your own penance for this- anything else is out of your hands, and you must accept that: your own helplessness.

Love,
Inky

(no subject)
posted by Charlie Fish on May 4th, 2009 2:47 AM

Inky,

You've hit the nail on the head.

C

(no subject) +3
posted by Lincøln on May 5th, 2009 2:07 AM

Good work.
Well, the effort and the thought that is.

I had a similar experience. And since I don't plan on posting mine as a proof, and mine ends on a much less fulfilling note than yours, I have decided to share it here.

I never really bullied people as a kid. Well, that's not entirely true. I used to bully bullies. I was never afraid of anything really. And I took a lot of martial arts from a young age and felt a cocky amount of hubris. So I used to find the bullies and I would bully them. In my young mind I felt that I was doing some kind of good, I was helping the bullied. But I didn't really make the connection that I was being a bully as well. I saw myself as the protector of the weak. And the weak would flock to me, and I had a large group of friends that were the outcasts and the geeks and losers, the kids that would get bullied, but around me, they felt safe, and in numbers we were safe. I suppose I was also an outcast, a geek and a loser as well, which is why I found the need to protect them.

I also got into a lot of fights, but getting into fights and being a bully are different. I would wander around East L.A. (where my school was) and look for the bad side of town and find gang members and pick fights with them. I found it invigorating, and didn't see that as bullying either, but now with the gift of hindsight I suppose that was bullying as well.

But where my story and yours are similar is that of all of the kids that hung out in my little circle of outcasts there was one girl, who I'll call Christine Wilkie (because that was her name), who me and a few friends would tease every day. We called her names, we laughed at her, she was often the butt of our jokes. We called her fat (she was maybe a tiny bit overweight, but no means was she fat), we called her smelly (she smelled good as I recall, like a girl), we called her dumb (she was probably smarter than all of us), but the thing about it was that she took it. She kept coming back and hanging out with us day after day knowing what she was going to get. Now, we weren't constantly making fun of her, it wasn't endless, and she never broke into tears asking us to please stop and be nice, she would just take it. And having been in many social circles in my life I've come to realize that there is always one Donnie (sorry; Big Lebowski reference) in the group. Somebody who is there to be picked on. It's true of every social group (that I've been in), my theater friends call it the woman. That needs explaining. When we stay late after shows hanging out and enjoying each other's company there comes a point in every night when the last woman leaves for the night, it's at that point where we nominate somebody to be the woman. The reason we nominate somebody to be the woman, is in case of robot or zombie (or natural) apocalypse, and there are no women left, we need somebody to play the part of the woman to satisfy the rest of us. And inevitably the same guy gets chosen to be the woman. He's our Donnie. Or our Christine Wilkie. Now the guy in our theater who is always the woman knows we're joking and we love him, but when we were young, I'm not sure Christine knew that (or maybe she did, she was pretty smart).

The reason this is similar is that I have for years and years before I knew SFØ existed, I was trying to complete this task the way you have done. I have been looking for Christine for about twenty years, trying to undo what I did, or at least apologize for my rude insensitive behavior. Every new city I go to I open their phone book and look for Wilkies. I have called so many Wilkies in my life; "Excuse me, this is going to sound strange, but do you happen to have a relative named Christine? Probably born in 1974 or there abouts? No? Are you sure? No long lost family members that may have lived in California? No? OK, well thank you for your time. Bye." When friendster was invented I scoured that site. Same with m'space and now Facebook. I hired a company that looks people up, I have tracked down old schoolmates we had in common, and have not found her. Obviously she must have gotten married and changed her name (or become an actor and did the same) so the one piece of information I had about her was lost in that change.

But I still look in phone books in every new city I go to out of habit.

Maybe someday I'll find her.

And when I do, I hope our exchange isn't as unfulfilling as yours was.

(no subject)
posted by rongo rongo on May 6th, 2009 10:28 AM

Lincoln, thanks for sharing your story. Good luck with the quest.

I would have to disagree on the Donnie theory, though. I know the phenomena that you are talking about from TV or movies or whatever, but I have never observed it in my live social groups. I wonder what factors contribute to the manifestation.

(no subject) +1
posted by Rather Dashing on July 24th, 2009 6:09 AM

This is a beautiful Praxis. I think we're all either both been the victim and the aggressor in some cases, and especially so when we were children, and the pecking order ruled over all.

I wish I could give you SO many points.

wowies!!!
posted by Mistress MeiMei on September 3rd, 2009 10:40 AM

that is sooooo neat that you did that! i have some serious respect for you... T sounds like a really neat guy too.

(no subject)
posted by dth 2 goby on December 13th, 2009 6:59 PM

i don't know if Mr. Fish is the only person who is going to see this(if at all) or if everyone else who has commented before me, but you are going to be the only people who i tell the next two things. the only two things in my entire life to date that i regret, and they were both instances when i was the bully.

i had been bullied ever since kindergarten by the same group of boys all the way through the fourth grade. when i was in third grade(i am in tenth now), on the way in from recess, a black boy that bullied me told me to walk faster or he would hit me. i dont know what it was in me still to this day, it might have been that i had just read a book about the first african american baseball player in the major league, but with out missing a beat, i turned around, looked him in the eye, and said, "shut up, negro." he asked me to repeat what i said, and i did, turned around and went inside. immedeately i realised what i had done, but i couldnt do anything about it. i have felt guilty about that everyday of my life.

the other incident happened in either fourth or fifth grad, i cant remember which. a boy that i got along with was carrying something out on the playground. it was cold dark, and looked like it could rain any minute, and had been raining on and off all day. a girl that i didnt know at all come up to me and asked me if i could help her, i said sure, and she told me that she wanted me to hold him down while she took whatever it was that he had, and ran off and hid it. again i dont know why i did, but i did exactly as she had asked of me. eventually he got his item back, but i feel terrible for harassing him like that.

i'm not the same person i was back then. i try to be kind to everyone regardless of who they are, or what the do, unless they have done something to not deserve kindness. but i wasnt like that when i was younger, i didnt try to be nice, i didnt talk to anyone except yell at the people who were bullieing me. i realise now that for the most part people are good things that turn evil, and struggle to return to being good. i am struggling, but Mr. Fish wether he is still struggling, is much closer to returning to good than i am. thank you, Mr. Fish, and anyone else who reads this

(no subject)
posted by KristinawithaK on February 2nd, 2010 10:04 PM

Whether I'm number one, number two or number thirty, you have been heard. Now just keep on trying to be the best person you can be, cause chances are, you're probably getting close :)

Doing and undoing
posted by River Rock on June 12th, 2010 7:56 PM

As if we needed any more proof, entropy is the rule, and fighting it requires energy. I think everything fine and worthwhile that is done in the world is part of the struggle against entropy, and just putting that energy into the world is all we can do.

When you see someone, a person or a group, succeed in accomplishing something good against the odds, consider the work you have done to be part of that success.