Maya Angelou and the Art of Not Being A Bully

It’s interesting how we fragment a person’s life into bits of wisdom (that they may or may not have actually said—I mean, come on, people have pinned quotes by Hilter attributed to Taylor Swift).

This one by Maya Angelou, though, isn’t a bad one to be remembered by: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


I read that quote, and instantly I remembered the one time I made a kid cry. Sixth grade. That lovely stage of life when my legs were too long for the rest of my body and my mouth blurted out things before my brain could awkwardly catch up. That day, I tried to make a joke that was actually pretty mean, and I didn’t realize it till after I had said the words and couldn’t take them back.

I still remember his face when he ran out of the room, and the heat and shame that rushed into mine. I still remember my teacher’s lecture about insensitivity. I still remember exactly what I said and what I wish I could have said instead (which was absolutely nothing).

I remember thinking, in complete shock, I. Am. A. Bully.

That’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Maya Angelou’s quote because it was the day I learned, really learned, that my insignificant opinions, the words I say without thinking, matter.

That realization is terrifying to someone who is desperately afraid of hurting others.

So what’s an accidental bully to do? Well, let’s start with the first place I saw the Maya Angelou quote yesterday, in a comment on a picture from Humans of New York.


This was the caption on the picture: “One time I was taking him and a friend to the park, and his friend had a slight walking problem. I didn’t even notice it, so I was walking pretty fast. He ran up to me, tapped me on the shoulder, and whispered: ‘Dad, will you please slow down?’ I’ll never forget that.”

There it is. There’s the answer, little Amy. You don’t have to be a bully. How? Empathy. Empathy notices. It remembers. It does the little things. It puts you in another person’s place, just for a little while, just long enough for you to care and do something about it.

I could fill in a caption like this a hundred times over from my own life. “One time I saw you . . .

  • Offer to take everyone’s trash and throw it away.
  • Sit on the bus next to the designated Annoying Kid. (Because every summer camp has one.)
  • Make pumpkin muffins instead of brownies because you knew one person in the group had given up chocolate for Lent.
  • Pick up the board game that you didn’t even play after everyone else just left it there.
  • Intentionally stop and look at someone each time you asked, “How are you?”
  • Cry with someone when they got that phone call from home that changed everything.
  • Move to sit next to the new kid in the youth group, the one wearing a South Park T-shirt with a cuss word on it.
  • Tell the kid mocking a special needs classmate to shut up.
  • Hold open a door for a teacher carrying a load of boxes—a mean teacher—when you thought no one was watching.

I’ll never forget that.

I watch for these people, for these little things, almost obsessively, so I can steal these gestures of empathy and copy them. Kind of like what an alien might do if it came to Earth and needed to learn how to imitate humans as closely as possible. Because, let’s face it, being unselfish is an alien concept to me. It’s not my natural culture, or any of ours despite what random-acts-of-kindness ads try to tell us.

I find Romans 12 to be a handy passage when it comes to doing the little things, because it focuses on heart attitudes as much or more than specific actions.

(Significant sidenote: if you go on a well-intentioned checklist crusade and try to work up the willpower to do good things, say profound things, and always be aware of how you’re making people feel, it will not end well. Also, you will probably be miserable.)

Go back to eleven-year-old Amy, frozen, staring at the wall, face still bright red. I just made someone cry. What kind of power do I have? And how can I give it back?

You can’t, little Amy. You’re witty and good with words and impulsive and almost completely lacking in common sense, which means this could easily happen again. You also have the gift and the curse of caring deeply about others, and the more you love people, the greater your ability to hurt and disappoint them will be.

But you can learn how to control the power your words have. You can remember to stop and think about how your words will make other people feel.

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