At a gig in Wembley, my teenage daughter disappears into the heaving crowd with her friend. I hang towards the back of the arena half fan half protector, constantly balancing the two, aware of the point at which my influence and control over her begins and ends while that over myself is quietly constant.
As a father, I see and listen to everything through those eyes and ears. Constantly putting my own children in the place of someone talking about their own struggles and experiencing the emotion I would feel it really was my child in their place.
Earlier in the week, I was binging on the podcast “Heavyweight”, a series which attempts to return people to the point their lives went wrong and tries to put it all right again. I reach the episode entitled “Julia”.
I was bullied at school for years. Overweight and pretty bad at sports (I discovered later that these two things were related) I was an easy target. What took me much longer to realise was something about the nature of repressed memory.
Save one of two notable examples, such as being punched in the head leaving school one day for no apparent reason, my specific recall in terms of detailed bullying events is more than vague. I can remember being terrified to walk to and from school. I can remember the sense of absolute dread if I came across my tormentors in my neighbourhood, and I can remember the feeling of helplessness when it dawned on me that nobody could really do anything much to help.
I learned later too that the impact of even a low-level uncertainty about what was, literally, around the next corner can have a significant impact on how easy it becomes to see the world as a dark and dangerous place.
But perhaps above everything else I learned that to be so arbitrarily rejected by one’s peers brings with it a pain and self loathing that infiltrates deep into the fabric of the soul, and in my case at least, brought with it a sense of bitterness and resentment towards myself which nobody could have saved me from, not even a doting and devoted father.
Years later I was in the pub with my friends on a sunny bank holiday. As I held a full pint of beer and chatted one of the bullies from my school days walked in and, as he strode past me, grabbed the glass and said “I’ll have most of that” taking a large gulp in the process. Although the fear was gone, something familiar rose up, still as present as if I were fourteen again.
Bullying creates in us an image of ourselves. The chronic bitterness and resentment I felt towards myself at my own cowardice and unwillingness to stand up to it did, for years, prevent me from unlocking and examining other unrelated aspects of my life that needed to be addressed.
Only through forgiving myself for my own lack of courage, accepting that the indiscriminate nature of such emotional torment proves only that it had nothing to do with my own insufficiencies but instead, theirs, was I able to find the courage that I had demanded so fervently in vain.
If you are a bully or ever were you should listen to the podcast. You need to understand how deep the roots of your behaviour dig down into the earth of your victims’ lives.
If you are a father realise that in order to be the very best dad you are able to be does not mean protecting your children from all sadness and pain, because you will not be able to. Instead, it requires that you deal with your own emotional difficulty as effectively and honestly as possible so that you can at least offer a model of what it is to be vulnerable and fallible but care deeply for yourself anyway.