Forthright Clarity

I’m thinking this week about bullies, and dealing with bullies, and how we speak the truth in love, as I prepare for this Sunday’s sermon, which will deal with these matters. (Any ideas? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.)

I am remembering fondly an experience from last summer that didn’t relate to bullying, but did exemplify assertiveness at its best:

We had taken the kids and Mom to a “family show” with our perennial favorite, Billy Jonas. I found out about the concert completely by accident—was planning to send a CD to one of our relatives and discovered that he was going to be in town.

Our family adores Billy Jonas. His music is imaginative, smart, funny, and very catchy. He uses a series of found items as instruments, including a bass drum made from a big blue plastic trash can, a Little Tikes chair, and a skateboard. He has drumsticks attached to his Vans which he uses to hit salad bowls, bells and horns. His CD “What Kind of Cat Are You?” was the only thing that quieted baby Margaret on a road trip to Maine several summers ago, and the effect was instantaneous and almost spooky.

And Billy’s concerts are wondrous. He is like the Pied Piper up there, able to teach words and motions in a way that is not at all tedious. Family concerts are a tough gig—you can tell immediately when you’re losing the audience. Yet he got the crowd back when attention spans waned.

For his final song he brings people up on stage and has them “Bang and Sang” along with him on various instruments. We were sitting on the front row and somehow Caroline got invited up on stage.

She is a reserved child in all but the most comfortable settings, and while she had just finished drama camp the day before and had declared her stage fright “cured,” this was a whole ‘nother deal. So I decided to give her one and only one verbal push: “Go on, sweetie!”

Then I stopped to see what she’d do.

caro_billy.jpgShe went up on stage and Billy gave her the Nimbus 2000—a broom stick with a tambourine on top. He showed her the rhythm, a slightly complicated combination of shaking and tapping, which she did perfectly.

Billy then proceeded to fiddle with some of the other stuff on stage to get ready for the song to begin. Meanwhile I readied the camera. I looked up to see Caroline conferring with this idol of her childhood.

I heard her say, quietly but clearly, “I don’t want to do this after all.”

He offered her another instrument which she declined.

What was he going to do? I wondered.

He turned to the audience and said, “Wow, folks… such forthright clarity. Well, it’s always good to know what you don’t want to do. Everybody give her a round of applause!”

She came and sat back down and nestled into me, her eyes rimmed with that red that I remember so well from childhood, when I felt that I had pushed myself too far and felt embarrassed. Another girl was called forward and completed the task, looking at her parents the whole time with an expression of combined terror and shyness.

It is so tough to know how hard to push a child. We don’t grow unless we stretch ourselves. On the other hand, being able to tell someone—especially an authority figure—”I don’t want to do this” is an incredible thing. I hope she will remember how to do this her whole life.

We greeted Billy after the show and he thanked Caroline for coming on stage and also for saying what she was comfortable with. “That’s a very brave thing to do,” he said.

One of our friends who was at the concert was impressed with Billy’s ability to handle the moment so graciously. And then he said thoughtfully, “Forthright clarity. Yes, that’s Caroline in a nutshell.”

…Have you had a moment of forthright clarity? What images come to mind when you consider what it means to “speak the truth in love”?


9 thoughts on “Forthright Clarity

  1. What a marvelous story. Caroline sounds like a very well centered young lady.

    As far as bullying, I’m not sure what sort of comments you are looking for, but everything I’ve seen regarding how to most effectively combat bullying deals not with either the bully or the victim, but with confronting the bystanders with their own complicity of inaction.

    Teaching children (as are the group I deal most often with in this sort of situation) that they have a responsibility to stand up for what is right, to step in and tell the bully that those actions are NOT acceptable, is an incredibly powerful tool.

    Again, I’m not exactly clear on the correlation you are seeking between bullying and speaking the truth with love, but by focusing on the actions, not the supposed or attributed character of the perpetrator, one allows the bully to save face, increasing the likelihood of positive change.

    • mamdblueroom says:

      Thanks Rachel. Any thoughts on how to encourage bystanders to get involved would be welcome.

      I think the connection between bullying and speaking the truth in love might be a little indirect—I guess I’m thinking of times when people, in the name of ‘niceness’ or conflict aversion or fear, will refuse to acknowledge or confront bullying behavior. I would argue that those non-responses are in fact NOT loving—certainly not for the victim and really, not for the bully either.

      • Regarding bullying and speaking from love: I recently had an incident on my FBook page in which a friend of mine went off on a another friend, spewing a vulgar rant all over my wall. I disemvowelled the post (copied it and reposted it after having removed all the vowels, leaving it readable if you really wanted to go through the effort but defusing the impact) and explained that, for all that I could empathize with his being upset, his *behavior* was unacceptable.

        In school, I regret having missed an opportunity to read a child who announced that only two classmates could see her Secret Show And Tell and no one else. I did tell her that no, it was supposed to be a secret from the entire class. But I regret not going farther to tell her that her announcement was mean and hurtful to the other classmates, and it was not acceptable behavior.

        I can certainly identify with a desire to avoid confrontation. Something that I find defuses most situations is the word, “Please.” Rather than telling a bully, “Hey! You’re being mean! Stop that!” one can approach them with love and *ask*, “Please don’t do this.” This gives the bully an out: rather than feeling a need to stand his/her ground against an intrusion, it allows the bully to reframe standing down as a favor or a generosity.

        Does it work in every situation? Probably not. Will it work in more situations than most people realize? Yes, it will.

        Some resources:

      • Oh, and in addition to allowing the bully to save face, asking rather than demanding shows respect for *their* humanity as well.

      • mamdblueroom says:

        Thank you so much for these comments and links, Rachel.

        I also wanted to include something a friend wrote on Facebook because I think it’s worth sharing more widely:

        I have found it hugely helpful in times of bullying and tension to speak only to the effect of the angry person’s anger rather than making assumptions regarding their reasoning. (ie “What I see happening right now is…is that what you want to happen?”) When folks publicly say they want to cause harm and pain, the gathered community will no longer let them. When folks say they wish to cause no harm, but are deeply frustrated, then a conversation about what is really going on can begin.

        Here I think of Jesus speaking to the Pharisees…paraphrasing by me…”Do you want to keep people from being healed?”, “Do you believe you have to stand at the gate and make the judgments for God?”, “What if God gets to choose and you get to help? ‘Which is harder to say your sins are forgiven, or stand up and walk?'”

        And from another friend—this comment relates to your thought about saying “please”:

        As far as bullying, a friend of mine tells his daughter that she needs to think about doing something surprising. The bully has a script that they want to see, and if you break that script, you might be able to change the outcome. (I’m not sure how effective that is, but it might be a start.) In addition, I’m thinking about Victor Frankl, who pointed out that one may not have any choice about what’s happening to them, but they do have the choice of whether they’re going to let it make them upset and angry. (And Frankl figured this out while he was in a concentration camp!) Even if you can’t change the outside, you can change the script in your own head. And that’s a powerful thought.

  2. mary beth says:

    Wish I had been able to do what Caroline did when I was that age. It’s still hard for me. 🙂

  3. Lisa Rzepka says:


    That’s the ‘leadership training’ I’ve been working on with my session. As I mentioned last week, we have a couple of older ‘mean girl’ members who are bullying (the pastor). Folks recognize it and recognize that it is being directed at the pastor for a session decision. I’ve had three special session meetings about their responsibility to speak up and quell the venom these old girls are trying to spread.

    At JCPC we are getting on the job training in speaking the truth in love.

  4. Grace says:

    HOORAY for Billy, for handling that moment with tact and grace. So many performers would have pushed and cajoled. Shy kids (and former-kids) around the world thank him.

  5. Kelly says:

    This is possibly my favorite kid story ever. Of course, Caroline is one of my favorite kids ever, so that might help! But, honestly, to know yourself so well and be able to articulate your needs/wants at *any* age is such a gift. And Billy is a model of how adults should interact with children.

    I’ve been playing songs from “What Kind of Cat Are You” with my class, and they are IN LOVE with Billy Jonas. One of my little girls asks me, “When are we gonna listen to the saunnngs?” It’s my dream to have Billy do a concert at school. My kids would think they’d died and gone to heaven!

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