Dr. Kyler Shumway’s TEDx talk is live! See the video below, read about the intention, and even follow along with the written script if desired. If you resonate with the message, please share with others.
This TEDx Talk Isn’t Just About Bullying
Society has taught us that there are “good” people and “bad” people in this world, and survival dictates that we recognize the difference. We’ve encouraged responding to badness with anger and aggression – just fight back! But what we fail to recognize is that “bad” people act from a place of deep hurt. Much like a drowning victim pulling down a lifeguard to get a breath of air, desperate people do desperate things. If we can learn to respond to those who are hard to love with radical compassion, we can make the world a better place.
Watch What it Takes to Love a Bully – Dr. Kyler Shumway, CEO
I learned to hate myself when I was only nine years old.
And it was only a matter of time. I was an overweight, shy, awkward farm boy living in the country in Idaho. I loved video games and Lord of the Rings and Pokémon. I wore the same outfits, I refused to brush my teeth. And because of all this and more, I was an easy target for this older kid on the school bus.
No matter where I sat, he’d find me. He’d plop down in the seat right next to me, trapping me against the cold metal wall. He’d lower his voice just enough so that the driver couldn’t quite hear him, and that is where my education in self-hatred began.
He gave me the nickname “Chubs.” He taught me to hate how I looked, with my fat cheeks, my long curly eyelashes, and my ugly second-hand farm boy clothes. He pointed out every stupid mistake I made, every time I acted awkward or weird. He made sure I knew that I was pathetic and worthless.
I tried my best to escape my bully. First, I tried to play sick so that my parents – whom I never told what was going on – would let me stay home. But that only worked for a while before my parents figured out my tricks and sent me to school anyway.
Then I tried prayer. When the bus pulled up to his house, I would whisper, “Please God, please, just send him to another school. Please just have him stay home, just today, I promise I’ll be good, I promise I’ll be good.”
As my prayers went unanswered, I tried to just be tough and just ignore him. But that only made things worse. My backpack was ripped, my notebook stolen. I was slapped, and shoved to the floor. And just when I thought I had seen the worst he had to offer, he held me down against the seat and hurt me until I wet myself.
My prayers began to change. “God… can you please just let me die?”
Do you feel empathy for me in this moment? Can you sense your compassion for that young Kyler?
I can see your care, even from here. But what I don’t see is surprise. Because my story isn’t surprising – it’s an everyday catastrophe.
I don’t need to show you the statistics on the prevalence rates of bullying, because the numbers tell us what we already know. I don’t need to share the research on how the wounds of bullying linger throughout our lives, because many of you still carry those wounds today. And I don’t need to remind you that bullying is just one facet of a problem that affects us all, whether adults or kids.
The problem is cruelty. If it happens in the schoolroom we call it bullying. If it happens in the office, we call it harassment. But whatever label we put it on, if one person is deliberately and maliciously causing suffering to another, cruelty is the cause.
But while we all recognize cruelty, we don’t understand it. Why would we treat each other this way? Why would anyone choose to be cruel?
At nine years old, that’s the question I was asking myself. I wondered why my bully was so cruel to me. I decided that maybe he was just a bad person, and if I could just get away from him, I’d be okay. So, I convinced my Dad to start driving me to school. And for a while, I was free.
But it didn’t last.
When I left elementary school and began middle school, I traded one bully for an entire school full of them.
Everywhere I went, I was still “Chubs”, the awkward weirdo. The popular girls greeted me by puffing out her cheeks, so they looked like mine, and then laughing in my face. Even worse, my only true friend from elementary school decided that spending time with me was a liability. I was alone.
I realized my earlier theory was wrong. The bully on the bus wasn’t the messed up one, because everyone at school was just like him. The problem must be me.
If young Kyler had asked you why his classmates were so cruel, what would you have said? It’s a hard question.
Maybe you would have told me that it was their parents’ fault, and the bullies were raised wrong. Maybe you would have told me it’s impossible to figure out, and I should focus on something else. Maybe you would have blamed violent video games – who knows?
Well, I knew. After years of being bullied, I figured it out. I discovered why people choose cruelty.
It started with my sister. She made it really easy for me, because she was just like me – overweight, shy, awkward, friendless. Just like my bullies did to me, I made sure she knew it. I made fun of her weight and teased her till she cried – I even called her “Chubs.” I taught her to hate herself … and it made me feel so much better.
Cruelty offered me a way out of my suffering. I felt better when I made others miserable, which is why it didn’t stop with my sister. I felt tough when I made fun of the gay kid for being gay. I felt included when I made fun of the exchange student and the other kids laughed. And when I hit a teammate during football practice so hard that I busted his collarbone? When he was lying on the field, broken and sobbing? … I felt alive.
For the first time in my life, I had power. I was someone. And I was never going back, no matter what it cost the people around me.
Do you have empathy for Kyler the Bully? Do you feel compassionate right now?
Cruel behavior evokes strong emotions. Rage. Disgust. Terror. These emotions keep us safe. They prepare us to defend ourselves against cruelty. They prepare us to go to war. And in war, there is no room for empathy. We can’t afford to feel the pain we inflict on our enemies if we want to survive.
An ancient Cherokee legend tells the story of a boy who finds a rattlesnake, cold and dying, on a mountain top. The snake begs the boy to carry him down where it is warm, to which the boy says, “No, you are a snake, surely you will bite me.” The snake promises not to do so, and so the boy carries him down. As they reach the bottom, the snake strikes. As the boy dies, the snake tells him “You knew what I was when you picked me up.”
This is how we see the world. We tell ourselves that some people are good and kind, while others are snakes, and it is in their nature to harm. But actually, we all share the same nature – human nature. It is because they are human that desperate people choose cruelty.
I was drowning in suffering, and I made others suffer because of it. This was awful, and it was the only way I knew to feel better. When our deep human needs go unmet, cruelty can feel like our only option.
And that’s why our normal strategies for dealing with cruelty fail. We try to protect others from the suffering caused by bullying, but we don’t address the suffering that causes bullying. In fact, we often cause our bullies to suffer more.
Zero tolerance for bullying in schools, for example. If you bully, you’re a threat, we want you out. Other kids bullied you first? Your grandmother just died? You don’t have enough money for food? We don’t care – get out!
Why do we treat bullies with such cruelty? It’s because we don’t care about them anymore. We see the world as us and them, humans and snakes, and they are not human anymore. So instead of ending cruelty, we give it more suffering to feed on.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
The insecurities caused by my bullying started to eat my sister alive, and she stopped eating. She went from overweight to thin, thin to emaciated, and from emaciated to nearly dead because of a horrific eating disorder. I will never forget the sight of her collapsed on the stairs in our family home from exhaustion, a skeleton in place of my baby sister.
She went to inpatient treatment for an entire year. And I went deeper into self-hatred. How could I have done this? Why am I so broken, so bad?
When her treatment finished and she finally came home, I waited for her to be angry at me. I wanted her to yell and scream and blame. I deserved it – I was the monster who did this to her!
But that didn’t happen. Instead, she came running up to me. She threw her arms around me. And with tears in her eyes, she said “Kyler, it’s okay. I know. I still love you.”
In an instant, my world turned upside down. I didn’t know how someone could accept me after all that I had done. But if my sister could love me, maybe I could learn to love too. Maybe I didn’t have to be so cruel to others, or to myself.
My sister had every right to see me as a snake, as a monster. But instead, she saw me as a human being, as her brother. And then, she chose to act – not with rejection, but with radical compassion.
Radical compassion is a choice. It is the choice to be loving, even when the love is not earned. It is the choice to see someone else as a brother, not a snake. It is the choice to give someone what they need, not what they deserve.
My sister made that choice. Others have as well.
Aubrey Fontenot found out his son was being bullied. After confronting the bully, Aubrey discovered that the bully and his mother had lost their home and were living on the streets. Aubrey made the choice to buy his son’s bully new clothing, offer friendship and care, and even raise thousands of dollars in donations for the family. Instead of seeing an enemy, he saw a person in need.
Rose Espinoza was worried about the safety of her family as the neighborhood was frequented by gang violence. Instead of moving away or barricading her home, Rose made a different choice. She transformed her garage into a K-12 tutoring program, offering free food and education for the kids in the area. Within two years, criminal activity in the neighborhood dramatically decreased while academic performance improved. Instead of building a wall, she opened a door.
Sharletta Evan’s three-year-old son was shot to death by a teenage boy in a drive by shooting. After the trial, she met with the teen who killed her son. She made the choice to forgive him. And she made the choice to love him, and even consider him family. Years later, he calls her mother and she calls him son.
These stories are uncomfortable – but that’s the point. Radical compassion is radical.
It’s hard, but it’s worth it. A recent study compared different practices of addressing bullying in a sample of 745 schools in California. The odds of bullying in schools that used supportive, compassionate practices was found to be 90% less compared to schools that used more punitive and exclusionary practices. 90%. That is the power of choosing compassion.
If cruelty is our venom, then compassion is our cure.
And every one of you here has the power to offer that cure. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a touchy feely type. It doesn’t matter if you feel anger towards those who are cruel.
What matters is your choice. Because you don’t need to feel loving to choose love.
Here is my challenge.
The next time someone hurts you, you will have a choice. You have the choice to treat them like a snake, or like a human being. And the way you treat them will affect how they treat themselves.
The people who harm you might believe, deep down, that they are bad people, that they are snakes. They might believe that the only way they can get what they need is through cruelty. But we know that they aren’t snakes – they are people just like us. And we can help them see that, too.
In that moment when you feel hurt, when the natural response would be to see this person as an enemy, I want you to do something that feels unnatural. I want you to look past the serpent. See the person who is struggling, imagine the wounds that led them to lash out in cruelty.
And then, respond with love.
Maybe that means just walking away instead of striking back.
Maybe that means doing the hard work of forgiveness, and starting to let go of the bitterness you feel towards them.
Maybe it means giving them the chance to experience kindness, whether that looks like a gentle response or an offer to help. Of course, this isn’t always feasible or wise – sometimes people will reject your kindness, and sometimes people are abusive or otherwise unsafe to be around, and in that case you need to be kind to yourself and prioritize your own safety.
Whatever love looks like in that moment, choose it.
Most of the time, when you do this, you won’t notice any difference. And that’s okay. Maybe you planted a seed of kindness in the other person, or maybe you stopped a seed of cruelty from growing in yourself.
But sometimes, rarely, you’ll see the power of compassion in all its glory. Sometimes, you’ll see a murderer realize he can still be forgiven. Sometimes, you’ll see a brother feel worthy of his sister’s love. And sometimes, you’ll see a bully learn what it takes to love himself.