A kind-hearted teenager pulled me aside at the beginning of laser tag to explain the instructions. Since it was my first time, she showed me where to find the targets and how to shoot. I slid on my little vest, cupped my ray gun, and entered a set of double doors painted like the door of a dungeon. I had no idea what to expect. Once we got inside, everyone took cover inside barriers or strategically bolted for higher ground. I began shooting. I knew how to shoot my gun, so I pointed it at anyone and everyone. I shot my son next to me. I shot the 8ish year-old stranger walking up the ramp in front of me--many times. He finally turned around, stared straight into my clueless 40-something year old eyes and asked, "Hey, what do you think you're doing?"
To me, I was playing a game. He had a vest with a target and I shot at it. Then I realized that his vest glowed red, the same color as mine. My target should have been the retreating blue team. Ah! It all made sense. Once I figured that out, I was back on track. I finished near the bottom of my teams' stats, but my shooting percentage rose higher than anyone else's. I didn't just shoot blindly. I aimed right for the target.
All of you know me as Chani Barlow, author of inspirational non-fiction and blogger of miracles and uplifting moments. Yes, that's me. But I grew, matured, and took some difficult roads to get to this version of me.
Let me introduce you to the pre-teen/teenage version of myself:
Right around junior high, I discovered my super power. No vats of toxic acid or radioactive spiders for me. I'm not sure how it started. But whenever it suited me, I could open my mouth and let my fiery tongue spew out insults, comebacks, trash talk, and sarcasm. Anything that could bite or sting. I didn't need to cuss. No need for physical aggression or punches. I could deliver a perfectly plated zinger so efficiently, I knocked the wind out of person in front of me. I sat back and watched the hurt climb its way up to my victim's eyes. It was a powerful skill and I was unmatched.
As I write this, I still picture some of the facial expressions. Other 6th graders with open, bewildered mouths. The slumped shoulders and trembling hands that swiped at tears threatening to fall. Back then, I took sadistic pleasure in making particular people miserable. If I saw a target, I pulled a trigger. No residue left for a teacher or parent to question me. Now that I'm grown, I cringe at those expressions branded into my brain.
It. Is. Torture.
So, why? Why did I do it? Why just point and shoot, especially at those who could have been on my same team?
I wish I had a good answer to explain what happened on the playground 30 years ago to the anti-bullying culture of today. Bullying was wrong then (and I knew it) and it is still wrong now. Being a mean girl is inexcusable. I don't justify my actions. I take full responsibility for my thoughtlessness and pettiness. It still keeps me awake sometimes. I offer my heartfelt apology to anyone I wounded, intentionally or not, from that time period. I still remember names, faces, and details of our exchanges. I don't want to humiliate you further by singling you out here. But know that I am truly, truly sorry.
It might surprise you to know that picking on others had nothing to do with them. They didn't do anything wrong. I was a huge mess. On the outside, I could portray a very smart, together teenager. On the inside, I processed insecurities and trauma of my own. I wasn't brave enough to be vulnerable, even to my parents. Feeling powerful and in control masked my own hurt. In the end, I hated myself for it.
I can think of a handful of girls, in particular, that suffered from my power hungry appetite for the last word in a conversation. In fact, all of our paths crossed again, decades later. One shoved her finger in my face and declared emphatically that I had ruined her life. She turned her back on me and huffed out of the restaurant. I deserved it (and more). Another one didn't even recognize me, not even when I repeated my name and tried to stammer out an apology. She shrugged and nodded a goodbye as she balanced two tubs of cream cheese against her bagel bucket.
A third reached out to me on social media, wanting to be friends. I couldn't understand why. It still shamed me to remember our touch-and-go moments together. I couldn't imagine why anyone from my teenage years would want to be friends with me. Me?! She told me that people change. Our time together was ancient history and she had forgiven me. I didn't deserve it. Not at all.
Why do I send this blog post out there? Like I said, I blog about miracles and uplifting moments. Let's see if we can turn this one around.
What have I learned from this? (And really, why did laser tag send me into such a deep reflection?)
We are all on the same team. We always have been. The divisions we create have less to do with the people around us and more about what's going on inside of us. What's really happening? Focus on the core issue. Sit with it, however uncomfortable it might feel. Don't put a Band-aid on it. Deal with it directly.
This isn't a game. Hurting someone, intentionally or not, causes irreparable damage. Damage to them, damage to you. Be careful and intentional about what you say and how you say it, especially to those closest to you. Make sure your actions match your words. Having the last word in a conversation doesn't necessarily mean "I win."
Everyone has a choice. At some point, everyone will feel hurt. They can choose to point fingers and blame others, even if it's justified. They can be indifferent and move on with their life. Or, they can take the higher road, forgive, and reach out appropriately, even if it's not reciprocated.
We all make mistakes. Some flops are worse than others. Sometimes, the most difficult person to forgive is yourself. I love the following quote by Jeffrey R. Holland: "However late you think you are, however many chances you think you have missed, however many mistakes you feel you have made, or talents you think you don't have, or however far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ's Atonement shines" ("Laborers in the Vineyard," Ensign, April 2012).
Reach out for heavenly help. Be better. Do better.
5. People change when it matters to them. They mature, they learn, they realign their priorities.
They embrace a new outlook. They wish they could do things differently. You are different from the person you once were. It might be the same for them.
I hung up my vest with glowing red lights on the wall. My son nudged me.
"Wanna go again?" he grinned. His teasing eyes revealed that he wanted to take on this 40-something year old mama bear.
I bit my tongue, knowing that if I wanted, I could trash talk him under the air hockey table. I didn't. My teenage super power now requires constant vigilance. Sometimes I slip up. Sometimes I say the wrong thing (or the right thing at the wrong time). I'm working on it, but it will probably take a lifetime (or a vat of toxic acid) to rid myself of it for good.
I just smiled back at him and said, "Nah, I'll sit this one out."