Regret: Facing the childhood shame of teasing a disabled child

A young man leans to his left on the window of what seems to be a train. He asks himself:

I have regrets. I attacked his disability.


©Sabphoto / Adobe Stock

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Can compassion heal shame from my childhood?

How can a person claim to have lived a life with no regrets? Any search of a quotations website will throw up a long list of actors, artists, and authors tritely claiming: not only do they have no regrets but their fame and fortune were built on an absence of them. I suppose they are right. I guess. If you are famous, it’s possible to live a life without regret, or in the words of Frank Sinatra, have “too few to mention.”

I find it difficult to believe everyday people who say they don’t have regrets. At best, such a sentiment seems trite and inauthentic; at worst, assuming what they say is sincere, it is downright worrisome. If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard this assertion before; or at least something along that line. I think only people without self-audit or with an unhealthy dose of self-deception say they have no regrets. For me, I have learned, like Thoreau, “to regret deeply is to live afresh.”

“Empathy's the antidote to shame. The two most powerful words when we are in a struggle: me too.”

Brene Brown

But I’m not famous. Most of us aren’t. I have regrets.

I deeply regret my actions as a young teenager in high school. My shame washes over me. My behavior shames the man I am today. Like just about every high school, mine could be a bit prison-like at times. You don’t want to stick out (especially for the wrong reasons), and you certainly don’t want to be made fun of.

As a 14-year-old kid, I hadn’t yet developed the thick skin of a mature adult. At my school, nothing was really off-limits between the students. People would tease you if you had an odd gait, liked the Spice Girls, or said something perceived as effeminate or gay. All bets were off; anyone or anything was fair game.

Read more: It’s still not cool to judge a book by its cover

One lunchtime I was playing on one of the school’s football fields, and a kid, Zack*, was taunting me over something mundane. I don’t remember what was said; too many years have passed. It was probably harmless banter, as apparently, I couldn’t have been too distraught if I don’t recall what he said. Anyway, rather than ignore him—or even counter with an equivalent level of banter—I unleashed the nuclear option. See, the thing is, Zack only had one arm.

I don’t remember my exact response, but it was probably something incredibly witty such as: “Well, at least I have two arms.” In case you couldn’t tell, I was sarcastic about the witty part. The irony is that I pride myself on my ability to come back with witty zingers. I could usually go toe-to-toe with the best of them. But, for some reason, that day I fell short. I was mean. Really mean. Rather than simply accept the barb and just say “Touché, Zack!” or something harmless, I put my own pride above his.

“A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying... that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”

Alexander Pope

I have regrets. I attacked his disability.

Zack could’ve said the worst thing imaginable to me, but my response should never have been to go for a clumsy cheap shot: to attack his disability. In doing so, I lost his respect and, in all probability, caused him lasting harm, especially if other boys teased him in the same way.

Read more: Why I self-harm? A true personal story

I always wondered why I was unable to let go of this isolated incidient from childhood. I guess it is because over the years I have come to despise that boy who was me. Writing this article, even though anonymously, is cathartic. While I believe I have always had compassion, the ability to feel and connect with the suffering of others, it has taken a conscious effort to develop self-compassion, which is the ability to feel and connect with one’s own suffering.

What to make of all of this? I hope my story serves as a warning to anyone who receives an insult from someone who has a disability—or, indeed, minority status of any kind. Sometimes, you need to be the bigger person and not try to win every battle at all costs. Don’t hit back at the very thing that makes them different. To win at all costs is to cause sadness while simultaneously making yourself out to be an insensitive arsehole. It can also play on your mind years later, serving a reminder of what you once were, and how you have hopefully gown.

Today, some 15 years later, I say sorry to Zack and my teenage myself: “to regret deeply is to live afresh.”

*Zack is an alias

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