I didn’t get into fights when I was a child. I never picked on other kids. I was taught to walk away from trouble if I could. So I almost never had physical confrontations.
But there was one Sunday night — when I was about 12 or 13 — when a small-town bully left me no choice. I hadn’t thought about that confrontation for a long time, but I’ve dreamed about it repeatedly lately. I’m not sure what my unconscious is trying to tell me.
I was spending a week with a friend who lived an hour or so from my home. His father was the pastor of Oakman Central Baptist Church in the tiny town of Oakman, Ala., so I had been to the church several times that week. And there was a bully there — a slightly older kid — who seemed to think it was great sport to pick on the visitor.
Sunday night was going to be my last time at the church for that week. I was going home the next day. And it was after the Sunday night service — on the front porch of the church — when the bully pushed me one last time.
If you’ve ever spent time in smaller churches, you know there’s a period after the service when many people are still standing around talking. Then the groups start breaking up and one family after another heads for home.
I was on the front porch as the social period was winding down. I don’t know where my friend and the various members of his family were, but I was among a group of young teens at the front of the church. And the bully was among them.
I have no idea what he said, but he was verbally taunting me at first. He was baiting me. He got closer and closer to me as he taunted. I realized uncomfortably that other people had backed away from us. He was poking his finger at my chest and mildly pushing.
I made the sudden calculation that I couldn’t avoid this fight. Without forming a plan, I suddenly threw myself into the bully. I pushed him back — and then I launched the most savage punch that my right fist could manage. I hit him so hard that he staggered backwards and then fell to the ground. I braced for his counterattack.
Instead, he ran away.
I was terrified afterward that I was going to be in trouble for hitting somebody. When adults were summoned, I had to explain what had happened and others backed up my version of the story. For awhile, nobody could find the bully.
The adults grew concerned when they couldn’t locate him, but someone finally found him — in a crawl space under one of the church buildings. He had gone there to hide. He was still crying when someone found him.
I didn’t get into trouble. In fact, not much was said about it. It turned out that the kid had a reputation as a bully, so the unspoken attitude among the others seemed to be, “He got what he deserved.”
The event wasn’t formative in my childhood memories. It’s barely even a footnote. I can’t remember the last time I had thought about it until recently — when the story started playing out again in my dreams.
In each of the dreams, I experience the same panicked feeling of being backed into a corner. I feel like a trapped animal who doesn’t like his choices — and suddenly has to choose the “least bad” of the available options.
And each time I dream about it, there comes a moment when I violently lash out with caged fury — and the bully runs away from me.
Each time I have this dream, I wake up with the odd instinct that it represents something in my life right now. I wake up feeling as though my back is against a wall and that I’m about to have to take a wild chance to strike back against something I’ve allowed to oppress me.
And every time I feel that way, I have that same triumphant feeling that I’ve vanquished the bully and I’ve broken free. It gives me a feeling of liberation and relief each time.
I don’t know what it means, but it feels significant. It was just last week when I was writing about being unhappy with my life right now. And this somehow seems related to all of that — in a vague way that I can’t quite put into words.
I feel as though my back is against a wall. I feel as though I’m running out of time. I don’t quite know how to fix things.
And something tells me the time is coming — in a way I can’t yet understand — when I’m going to have to take a tremendous and scary gamble.
Maybe I’m fooling myself, but deep down, I have a feeling that whatever “bully” is holding me back today — metaphorically speaking — will run away if I suddenly spring into action and knock him out with one mighty blow.
These dreams have reminded me to be proud of my child self — who came through when he had to — and it makes me feel that I’m going to do something similar when I need it most right now.
I hope I’m right. Something needs to change.