We've all heard the horror stories of young adults and children having hurtful or embarrassing photos, videos and/or speech about them posted on the Internet for the world to see. But did you know that cyber-bullying can be as simple as sending an e-mail to someone who has indicated they do not want to have any further contact with you? I also have a personal dislike for all the chain e-mails that go out, especially those that indicate that something will or won't happen if you don't forward it on to 10 or more of your friends.
Why are we experiencing this almost epidemic of malicious behavior? One reason may be a lack of empathy and compassion, which are both a behavior and an attitude. As a behavior, it is the capacity to place oneself in another's shoes and feel or relate to what they are experiencing. Empathy as an attitude is keeping one's mind and heart open to feelings, ideas and concepts that may differ from what you yourself hold to be true. Compassion is a presence of being where one holds wisdom, understanding, love, appreciation and respect for all beings in his or her own heart. The Buddha and other spiritual leaders teach us that we must even feel and radiate compassion for our enemies.
Another factor is that anonymity can encourage kids and adults to be crueler online than they would be face to face. Even though the Internet is an extraordinarily valuable tool for our time, it also tends to depersonalize the people using it; this is especially true for those who already lack empathy. This aspect makes it much easier for cowards to throw jabs and hurtful words and become vicious with someone from a distance. For example, I seriously doubt that either of the two Rutgers students who posted the embarrassing video footage of their fellow student, Tyler Clementi, on the Internet realized that their lack of empathy and compassion for his sexuality would cause Tyler so much shame and humiliation that he would take his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Tyler was a lovely, sweet and talented young man who harmed no one in his choice to be a gay American college student. Perhaps had these students been taught empathy, compassion and mindfulness at home, church, mosque, temple or school, this terrible tragedy could have been averted?
Sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace need openness, but freedom of speech should also take into consideration that words can be powerful weapons and if not used mindfully can inflict deep and hurtful psychological wounds. Inflicting injuries from a distance is in itself a cruel and inhuman manner to respond to another being's feelings and sense of self. From both a Zen and a psychological view, if you have an unwholesome intention and are consciously choosing to attack others, you are limiting your own capacity for change and stunting the creative unfolding of your own life. Your energy is being wasted on the futile effort of trying to force the external world to conform to your vision. The mental and emotional effort required to maintain this negative energy and pretense is enormous. Having wise intention is more than merely being ethical; it's necessary for one's psychological well-being and clear thinking.
Then there are those, especially children and teenagers, who may normally have a strong sense of self and compassion but find themselves giving in to "group thinking" and becoming emotionally hurtful. For various reasons they can become swept up into activities that are incongruous with the values and behaviors they were taught. Divorce, a change in family dynamics or friends and even moving to a new neighborhood can stir up deep unconscious feelings of resentment, hurt, loss and abandonment. Often simmering on the surface of these feelings is anger. Acting out this anger is easier than struggling with the deeper issues that require awareness and mindfulness of the sorrow, loss and vulnerability children feel when sudden and shocking changes occur. It is not good enough to simply teach your children strong values and codes of wise and right conduct, but one should also discuss with them how to handle those moments when they are pressured by their peers or predatory adults. Several of the children I grew up with in the 60s ended up in spiritual cults, one of which was in the top 10 percent of my high school graduating class. He was bullied spiritually into submission by a cult leader guru who caused him enormous pain and suffering.
So how can we eradicate this malevolent behavior? Ghandi said you must be the change you desire. This starts with coaches, teachers, parents and others who need to mirror compassion and empathy along with understanding and care in all situations, even in the most extreme of life expectancies.
I think it would be great to create a bumper sticker that says, "It's Not Cool To Be Cruel!" I council my patients to talk with their children and teens at home over dinner, in the car and in the family living room on how to be more courageous, empathic and compassionate. It is important for them to understand the destructive nature of cruelty and how it can destroy lives. They also need to learn how the values of creativity and hope can inspire and help people feel that growth is possible. This way they can discover that contributing to another being's growth and transformation is far superior to tearing down or taking apart their sense of self. Of course the best way for children to learn this lesson is to see it in action through their role models and parents. All the best heartfelt discussions can fall on deaf ears if the caring adults are unable to set an example and "walk their talk."
As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang, "Teach your children well." From this great lyric we can imagine and grow an entirely new cyber-generation of mindful, compassionate beings who are more tolerant of all races, colors, creeds and sexual orientations. We can all live in peace. So let's all join together and become more mindful now!