As I was taking my daily walk up the ridge toward the Hollywood sign, I encountered a boy who had put up a sign on the garage door of his house that read: WHAT IDEAS DO YOU HAVE ABOUT HOW TO STOP THE MEAN PEOPLE? Near the sign, taped to the garage door, was a notepad with a pen attached to it, and also a plastic bucket to receive slips of paper with responses.
I wrote an idea down and put it in the bucket. My note said: BE SO NICE TO THE MEAN PEOPLE THAT IT MAKES THEM CRAZY. It was my paraphrase of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans (ch 12: 19-21): "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, 'if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
As I went back down the mountain toward home, I thought of another answer. I quietly went up to the garage door and wrote TALK TO THEIR FRIENDS AND ASK THEM TO TELL THEM TO STOP BEING MEAN. Maybe the answer is peer pressure, I thought. If the social circle around a person makes it uncool to behave in a certain way, there's a good chance that the behavior will change. I put this note in the plastic container, and as I did so, the little boy spoke. He had been high above me on the front deck of the house, unseen by me, watching me write. "Nobody cares," he said, looking down at me, lamenting that I was the only person so far who had put ideas in the container. I asked him his name, and he answered "Lukas". He is seven years old. I said his question was a great one and that I would seek more answers for him.
The next morning I showed a picture of Lukas' sign to my students in the public policy course I teach at the graduate School of Social Work at USC. I passed out cards and invited my students to respond to Lukas' question. With my business card, I bound my students' answers and put them in Lukas' plastic bucket after I got home that evening. Shortly afterward, I got an appreciative email from Lukas' mom, saying that my students' answers had made a strongly positive impression on him.
I have a feeling that young Lukas is wrestling with the dawning awareness that not all people have good intentions. He's trying to come to terms with the problem of evil. Surely there's a way to stop it - isn't there? Perhaps the best we can do for Lukas is to let him know that he's not alone in living with this tough question, and not alone in trying to do something about it.
One of my students put this on a card for Lukas: "I want to thank you for caring enough about the world and for opening the public's eyes. You will make a great leader one day. You are the hope for the future. Happy Thanksgiving!"
I got many responses to my request to my "musings" readers for answers to Lukas' question.
They came from all over the country. I passed them on to Lukas' mother. Lukas was amazed and touched. His parents talked to his teacher and got the school involved in discussing his question. I met with Lukas' mom, dad, and twin sister last week. I asked Lukas: "Why did you ask this question? Why does it matter to you?" "A boy punched my sister at school and it made me mad," he answered. His mom said that she'd been volunteering with homeless people on LA's Skid Row recently, and in discussing it with her kids, Lukas became upset that such poverty existed.
Here's a sampling of the responses:
From members of a church in western Massachusetts, whose pastor posed the question to them in her sermon:
What if instead of people being victims, they know that a bully is insecure and wants to bring them down? Have compassion and pay attention.
Hurt people hurt people.
I know I can be mean. It’s a good idea to start with myself. My family can be mean. I try not to, but then I get jealous and unkind. It has to start with me.
Mean people need to be listened to and release anger—then they won’t feel the need to hurt.
All it takes for evil to flourish in this world is for good people to be silent. If you see something, say something.
There is no such person as a mean person. The person is suffering, Show compassion.
Have empathy for those who are hurting and hurt others. Listen to them and when they feel heard, tell them of the impact on others of being mean.
From Belmont, CA: I say love them! Be kind to them! It will drive them crazy!
From Salt Lake City, UT: William Wilberforce discovered that to get a people interested in ending the slave trade (utter meanness) he had to get his countrymen (the British) to end their coarse habits of attending public hangings, going to cock fights, bear-baiting, and other public crudeness (local meanness).
From Green Valley, Arizona: How do you stop the mean people? Education, education, education. Teach empathy from the earliest years... especially through the animals we love... Give everyone you meet the gift of grace... You never know how hurt someone may be underneath the meanness.... Teach the mean people that THEY too matter.
From Moss Beach, CA: Meanies think someone will love them because they're 'cool.' What's really cool is to treat everyone with respect and love, even the meanies. Do that, and people will love you, and maybe even the meanies will notice, eventually, that your way just works better than theirs.
From Palo Alto, CA:I find that most mean people do not know they are being mean. Teaching people about hostile behavior (like sarcasm) is a start.
From San Francisco, CA: I think everyone has mean, evil, in them. It is the goal in life to overcome the mean in yourself, and try to show others how they can also overcome their meanness, in themselves. The thing is, people don’t SEE the mean in themselves. The note of “being so kind to the person it makes them crazy” is perfect. The first act of kindness given to the mean person, they receive they probably won’t understand it. Same for the next, hundred. If you continue to be kind and forgive the mean person, they may start to realize that their meanness fire has been diffused so many times that it’s not worth continuing being mean, and it’s not getting the reaction they need to re-fuel their fire. They may also realize that they have been forgiven a million times for being mean, and feel relief. They may start to live life realizing that being mean takes a ton of negative energy and time, and that being nice and kind to others, and forgive others for being mean, actually makes you feel good. But this is all a MAYBE. Some people may realize and understand, change, and become kind. It is our responsibility to persevere and be kind no matter what. Because – sometimes we ourselves may sometimes slip up and be mean to others. Wouldn’t you want to be forgiven, again, when you made a mistake, and were remorseful, and wanted to move on, and be free and clear to be nice again? In the meantime, those of us who are in the process of constantly forgiving others who are constantly mean to them, we suffer and feel the pain of being abused, and it feels so unfair. But that is also part of the goal, which is VERY HARD: get to the point that forgiving also means letting go of the feeling of suffering, abuse, and injustice. It’s hard, but we have to focus on it.
When I visited Lukas and his family the second time, I brought along our granddaughter, Rumi, who is also 7 years old. Very carefully she wrote down her answer for Lukas with pencil on paper, and put it in the plastic container he had placed under his sign on the family's garage door: "Be love. Give love."