Six years ago, 13-year-old Steven Urry hanged himself in his bedroom closet after being tormented by bullies. (His Name was Steven: A 13 Year Old Victim of Bullycide) His parents were left to face the unfathomable -- life without their son.
The time period after they buried Steven was one of unbearable torture. The unanswered questions haunted them day and night. WHY would Steven take his own life? Their son had never shown signs of self-harm before and hadn't displayed the common indicators of depression. He had lots of friends in his neighborhood and a supportive family who loved him very much. WHY hadn't he shared with them the extent of the bullying at school? The question they agonized over, again and again, was this: WHY didn't he tell them what happened at school that fateful day? Sadly, it's very common for kids not to tell their parents about being bullied. It was only after he died that Steven's parents began to hear from his friends about the cruelty he had endured since starting middle school just a few months before. It was far worse than they ever knew. As the days and weeks went by, Steven's father Mike, says, "Everything in our world was overshadowed by the mental addition of a thought like, 'Ya, but Steven's DEAD!!' It never leaves, softens or changes. You never get over it, so you just have to get on with it."
As an outlet for his pain, Mike sat down and wrote a heart-wrenching open letter to his son's tormentors describing how the cruelty that led to their son's suicide destroyed his family:
We lost part of ourselves that day; part of us just disappeared. His sister will never have a little brother to talk to, and will feel his loss every single day. She will never truly understand what happened, or why. She loved Steven and cannot understand why you didn't like him. His mom may never really recover, you can't possibly conceive how losing a child destroys a mother, eating into her soul, like a disease with no cure. You stole the woman I love, leaving a shadow behind. You stole her husband as well, and replaced him with an angry, broken man. You can't know the depth of a father's pain, my anger at you, or how lucky you are that I had help dealing with my desire to erase you from this world. I will never find true peace, but I will not lower myself to your level, and act out on my frustration and pain, like you did.
Remarkably, instead of taking revenge, Mike has somehow been able to find the extraordinary strength and courage to channel his pain to help others. He says,
The seeming unfairness of knowing that revenge won't cure the pain has been tough to accept, but I don't think a person who takes revenge ever truly heals. As the saying goes, "It won't bring him back." Doing something positive doesn't really lessen the pain so much as offer an alternative to it. Anything is better than being constantly haunted, and helping others is about as good as it can get when it comes to creating happiness.
After several years of mourning the death of his son, Mike founded an organization called His Name Was Steven whose mission is to end the culture of school bullying and raise awareness about youth suicide. His website provides an endless list of resources as well as free anti-bullying flyers for parents to hand out with Halloween candy. "Let kids know they are NOT alone," he says.
When I asked Mike how WE can best honor Steven, he said,
I think the best way is to stand up and speak out. Don't accept that this is the way it has to be. We can change our society for the better, but it takes all of us. Recruit your friends to the cause, make a choice to show empathy and treat others the way you'd want to be treated.
Personally, Steven's tragic story and his father's inspirational courage have catapulted me into taking a stand and making a call for change. The problem, as I see it, is that our society today is in a Culture of Conflict ruled by what I call the 4 C's -- Compare, Compete, Control and Conform. In honor of Steven Urry, Amanda Todd and all of the other children and teens suffering, I am making a call for change -- a call for a culture of connection ruled by a new set of 4 C's -- Compassion, Care, Cooperation and Consciousness.
The problem today stems from the fact that we have been conditioned to find our self-worth and validation from the outside in. How we feel about ourselves is based either on what others think of us or whether we think we are better or worse in comparison to someone else. It all becomes the perfect breeding ground for relationships and interactions based on a Culture of Conflict - Compare, Compete, Control and Conform.
In a culture of connection, however, I believe that if we can find true self-love and respect from the inside out while cultivating empathy, compassion and respect for others, we will be able to see others as fellow human beings instead of people to be in conflict with. We can be at peace with who we are as individuals while at the same time honoring and respecting others for who they are. Yes, bullying is an extremely complex issue and creating a new culture of connection is an enormous undertaking. But we have to start somewhere.
I have been teaching life skills to thousands of children and teens for 20 years and have developed a life skill system to empower children with tools to develop their confidence from the inside out while cultivating the social intelligence for positive, healthy interactions with others. In Steven's honor, I'd like to share the tool that focuses on developing empathy, compassion and cooperation. It's called My Shoes, Your Shoes, Our Shoes and while it's certainly not going to solve everything, I believe this tool can be a powerful first step towards a culture of connection. The following is a basic outline:
MY SHOES is about expressing your inner strength and individuality. The steps are:
1. Express clearly your thoughts and feelings
2. Explain instead of blame
3. Speak instead of scream
YOUR SHOES is about learning how to hear, understand, empathize and care about the thoughts and feelings of others. The steps to Your Shoes are:
1. Feel and understand what it's like to be in someone else's shoes
2. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart
3. Open your mind and close your mouth
OUR SHOES is about honoring individuality while looking for ways to connect and work together. In order to live in Our Shoes, we need to:
1. Respect each other's feelings and opinions
2. Work together to find a solution or understanding
My Shoes, Your Shoes, Our Shoes is a simple, practical tool that is easy for children to understand and apply while being equally as practical and powerful for adults. You can teach it to your kids but try it for yourself, too. It can be used as blueprint for healthy, positive communication and connection with family, friends, co-workers or anyone who happens to cross your path.
Remember the words from Steven's father: "Stand up and speak out. Don't accept that this is the way it has to be. We can change our society for the better, but it takes all of us." Let's get to the root of the bullying issue. Let's work together to create a culture of connection. Are you in?