Matt Flynn was bullied from his first day of kindergarten through high school, and continues to wrestle with these scars. Here, he reflects on how the love of others led him to faith, which helped him to become more compassionate instead of bitter.
I remember my best friend from pre-school. He lived right across the street from me. We probably played together almost every day. I also remember starting kindergarten. I walked into class, excited and expectant, and happy that my best friend would still be in school with me. Except he wasn’t.
He was still in school with me, but he wasn’t my best friend. He wasn’t even my friend. There he was, with several other boys, and as soon as I showed up, he made some mean comment to me that the others mimicked. And as fast as that, I was the loser at the bottom of the social ladder.
And it continued. All through grade school, I was degraded, teased, and made to feel insignificant — bullied by a pack of my classmates and others from different grades who knew who I was, like my older brother’s friends and classmates. I was desperate for validation, affection, connection; drowning in confusion and constantly failed attempts to get people to like me; wishing for these kids to be my friends while also wishing that I could get the better of them and show them up; not knowing where to turn or how to act; and never knowing or understanding “why me?”
This lasted all through grade school and high school. There were bright spots — stars shining through the black of night — but those good people and their efforts weren’t enough to save me from some serious emotional, psychological, and developmental scars, some of which I am still discovering.
One of the most obvious and difficult to overcome is that I am very hesitant to trust people and to share parts of myself that I think people could take advantage of or use to hurt me. This was also, sadly, why I was so afraid of and unwilling to accept help. Letting anyone in seemed risky, even if they were trying to help me. I grew up longing for, but afraid of, emotional intimacy.
My parents, knowing that I was bullied and hurt, helped me become compassionate instead of bitter by encouraging and supporting me and keeping me involved in wholesome activities, like sports and the Boy Scouts. Even with their help, though, I had a terrible temper, anger issues, low self-esteem, and bad attention-getting behavior. Moreover, I would sometimes turn to tormenting others to try to raise myself up a rung or two on the social ladder.
In all this, I found myself seeking and responding to compassion. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn to Scripture stories, particularly stories about God doing things on behalf of people in need. My favorite was the story in Genesis of Joseph, who was betrayed by his brothers, almost killed, and sold into slavery. God was with Joseph through his sufferings, and Joseph continued to live an upright life. In the end, God’s love for Joseph and Joseph’s fidelity to God led to Joseph being able to save the land of Egypt and its neighbors from famine and to a reconciliation with his brothers and reunion with his family.
I couldn’t put words to it, but that was what I needed and wanted. I needed God to walk with me in my sufferings and to show me, somehow, that He had made it mean something. And I wanted to be made whole again.
As I grew, Scripture continued to speak to me, and I continued to long for God and to turn to the only intimacy I could allow myself — with someone who would never hurt me. God reached out to me through those stories, through my parents, and through others, especially the people I met in Scouts and, later, in high school and my youth group.
God was real to me from a very young age because I knew a world without love and was thus more attuned to the ways I did encounter love. I couldn’t say it at the time, but each one of those encounters with love was an encounter with God. When I was in the middle of it, though, I just felt the power of the stories and wanted to live like the people in them.
So I listened to the Scriptures more, and I encountered a God who is always close to those who suffer and who, surprisingly, teaches us to forgive. I wanted to be closer to God, so I innocently accepted that I had to forgive. There was no momentous struggle — I simply accepted it.
The struggle came after, and it is a struggle that continues to this day. Even though I have slowly gotten better at it over the years, I cannot yet wholeheartedly exclaim from my cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I have never questioned the importance and centrality of forgiveness — without it, the God I know and love does not make sense — but I still stumble over moments of hesitation, recollections of wrongs, pangs of forgotten pain, insults and injuries to my pride, and, hardest of all, my affection for wounded loved ones and friends.
This struggle has actually brought me closer to God, because I know that, without God’s help and Jesus’ example, I could never forgive, even as imperfectly as I do now. And it has helped me realize the infinite depths of God’s love — that He can forgive us for all the ways we hurt each other, His beloved children.
Ironically, while I was learning to forgive, I was also taking my self-protection to a new level in junior high and high school by becoming arrogant and self-righteous. I began to ask rebellious questions and to cultivate a certain type of intellectual, moral, and spiritual superiority. I knew I was smart and was more intentional about living my faith than many others and took too much comfort in assuring myself that I was bullied because my classmates were jealous or just bad people.
But I had patient teachers and mentors who understood me much better than I did. When I asked questions or made statements that were clearly meant to challenge, they didn’t condescend or sneer or refuse to answer. And when I behaved in ways that were immature cries for attention or ways of lashing out, they didn’t respond by letting it slide or rigidly adhering to the rules. Instead, they gave me serious answers or asked questions in return to help me think more. They held me to a defined standard of conduct and gave me opportunities to heal or to seek mercy. They taught me, without me really knowing it, to seek truth, pursue what is good, value beauty, and strive for excellence.
God — and my mentors — were patient with me and my questions, and my family was often called upon to be patient with my behavior. As I used my beliefs to cultivate a false sense of security, I became insensitive, hurtful, and inconsiderate, sometimes forgetting the compassion I had found so compelling. But that compassion never totally left me, and it led me to look to my faith to teach me not just how to think, but also how to behave and live for my entire life.
Through domestic and international service experiences; living in an intentional community with homeless people; making real friends; and letting myself, slowly, be more vulnerable with the loving people surrounding me, I grew in my experience of God’s mercy and my ability to extend it to others. I also began to see how God was using my pain to teach me empathy and love. Through the words and actions of others, He was guiding me to a place where I could say, “I’m not whole — I’m broken. But being broken as a part of this life of faith is better than being whole without it.”
The sufferings I have endured and the scars I still bear have been transformed through encountering and walking with Jesus in His sufferings and the sufferings of others. These encounters make life even more beautiful and meaningful (even as they reveal other tragedies as more terrible). My faith constantly urges me to pursue what is good and true and to strive for excellence in my daily life.
Without God’s love as it was expressed through my parents, family, mentors, teachers, and friends and communicated through the Scriptures, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Many, if not all, of these people relied on their own faith in relating to me and supporting me. The Catholic Church became a home for me because of its people, the proclamation of the Scriptures, the place and role of forgiveness, and its encouragement and innumerable opportunities to care for and get to know people who are suffering and in need.
Through encountering God in my suffering and learning to follow him as a Catholic, my life and experience of the world have been enhanced in ways that I could never have imagined. And I have come to see that it is through my broken cracks that I am most able to see God’s light shining through.