It was 11 p.m. (ish) and I couldn’t sleep. My wife had drifted off almost an hour prior, and I longed to join her in slumberland. Maybe it was the “to-do” list racing through my head of the last minute gifts, or wrapping up in important video edit, or the seemingly endless state of suck in the world that kept me awake.
So I did the one thing that usually helps in this situation: find the crappiest movie I can, turn it on, and zombie into nightly oblivion.
This, however, has a potentially opposite effect: what if one of my favorite movies that I haven’t seen in forever and a day is on?
Cue: The Sixth Sense. Curse you M. Knight and your masterpiece of storytelling.
It was early in the film, so I was going to be up for a while. In no time, I was right in the thick of it, trying to anticipate every twist and turn, marveling at how beautifully this story unfolded.
And then, in the middle of nowhere, an absolute gut punch brought my bliss to a screeching halt.
For those of you who have not seen the film, I will not ruin any of the absolutely spectacular surprises. But what I can tell you is this: Haley Joel Osment plays Cole, a kid with a very peculiar ability. To this end, he is different from the other kids at school, and he’s treated that way. He’s also smaller, slightly aloof, definitely not the kid who’ll peak in high school.
His mom is played brilliantly by Toni Collette. She and Cole are on their own, abandoned by the sperm donor. She works two jobs to support them. They have a hard existence, but they have each other. And make no mistake: she’s a mama grizzly in every sense of the word.
During a rough moment for Cole, his mom tries to make him feel better by making him laugh.
Wanna know what I did today? I won the Pennsylvania lottery in the morning, I quit my job, and I ate a big picnic in the park with lots of Chocolate Mousse Pie.
Cole smiles. And then counters.
Wanna know what I did today? I was picked first for the kickball team at recess and then I hit a grand slam to win the game. Everybody lifted me on their shoulders and carried me around, cheering.
And like that, at 11:24 p.m., with my wife passed out next to me, I cried one tear.
I was that kid… the kid no one wanted on their team, the kid who, if he did get to pick the teams, would get eye-rolls from other players because they were forced to play on the same team, let alone breathe the same air.
I don’t have this experience anymore as I finally became okay with who I am as a human being. But I’ve never forgotten those days. They are a lifetime away from where I am in my own journey today, but the scar tissue is still there. It toughens you, heals the wounds from those who break you, and steels your resolve to stand up for those who don’t always know how to stand up for themselves.
But then a very interesting thing happened two days later. I was having coffee with a friend and we were discussing the movie. She told me about the other side of the coin.
I used to see that in the hallway of school. I’d hear things. But I was so shy, I never spoke up for them, even though I should have.
And that right there is the rub. The problem is not just those who think that it’s perfectly acceptable to treat other human beings like garbage; the other issue is not actually saying something for fear of being uncool or unpopular.
And I can see the issue with that. It’s very rare to find that one in a million amazing person who actually gets it at a young age, a person who has a pretty good idea of who they are, and more importantly, does not care what others think. Because it’s usually not until later in life when we are old enough and confident enough to actually do the right thing, regardless of what others think.
I was absolutely not that kid. I wasn’t even that young adult. It’s only when I got to the point of liking myself and not worrying about others that I became the person I was always meant to be. In short, I’m in the vast majority of people who took forever to get their shit together.
But why does that have to come in your 20’s, 30’s, or 40’s?
I am not a fan of living out my fantasies of immortality through my children. Vicarious, I am not. However, the one thing I can do, and we can all do, is to teach our children the things that we didn’t understand at their age.
For starters, it is never, ever acceptable to belittle someone. It is not acceptable to ignore, to roll eyes, or to say mean things. When you do things like this, you are simply being mean, and being mean is a failure of humanity. It is not cool. It is not popular. And as someone who has eventually seen the other side, karma can be more vicious than we could ever be to each other.
This does not mean that you have to like everyone; it simply means that everyone deserves at least a modicum of respect.
It’s also never, ever acceptable to gang-up, to egg on. Leaders don’t do this. Followers do. The world has too many followers who follow terrible leaders who do things like this. If you’re going to follow, at least follow someone who isn’t a jackass. You will be judged by the people you follow, right or wrong.
And it is the worst of the worst to go out of your way to humiliate someone. I can say that each time I’ve ever done this in my life, I had a major problem looking at myself in the mirror the next day. They are painful lessons.
But almost more importantly, it is not acceptable to stand by and simply watch and do nothing. There’s a quote from a kids movie, Barnyard, where the senior cow says, “A strong man stands up for himself. A stronger man stands up for others.”
It really did help that it was Sam Elliott voicing it. James Earl Jones would have been a good choice, too. But that message is entirely accurate.
As a parent, it’s not our job to live the lives of our children for them. It is, however, our absolute responsibility to teach them what they don’t know. Too often, things devolve into Lord of the Flies when a group of children — boys, girls, both — have no idea how to regulate themselves, filter their thoughts, or control their impulses. It does not have to be this way.
We owe it to ourselves, to our children, to the world to do our best to eradicate the mean as best we can. It will never be fully extinct, but it doesn’t mean that we still can’t try.
And lets be honest: kids who stay mean become mean adults. And mean adults suck worst of all.