Empathy for the Bridge Troll

We all remember the story of the Troll who lived under the bridge and refused to allow the Three Billy Goats to pass, when they arrived at the bridge. They wanted cross in order to enjoy the green grass on the other side of the bridge.But instead of letting them pass, he threatened to eat them. The first two Billy Goats convinced the troll to let them pass, promising him that their big brother was bigger, and would be a much more satisfying meal. Of course, when the third goat arrives, he was big enough and fast enough to take the troll out.

And that’s the sad end of the story for the troll.

There’s little concern or consideration for the troll in the story.

But what if we did consider the troll?

Why is he so mean? Who taught him to be so mean? Why does he just sit under the bridge? Doesn’t he have a home? What does he stand to gain? Is it just because he’s hungry? Or does he get satisfaction from the fact that he can scare the smaller goats? Isn’t there some kindness in the fact that he did let the first two go? Why is he tricked by the first two goats to allow himself to be met with the largest of them all only to be obliterated because the third goat was able to knock him off the bridge?

Of course, it’s silly to go through this exercise with the troll in the folktale, but what about the trolls in every day life?

I recently had the opportunity to meet someone in real life that I had previously regarded as a social media troll, because of his comments on Facebook about a particular topic, on which we were opposed.

The circumstances of why we were meeting were not the best, but we both recognized that there was a human being on the other side of the screen. And we met, discussed the issue, and discovered we had quite a bit in common. At the end, a friendship seemed possible, and empathy prevailed.

I’m so grateful for that experience — but I realize it’s not always possible to come face to face with the person who seems to have no other desires than to pick fights online. Much like the Troll on the bridge.

But what if we ask ourselves the questions I posed about the Troll? Why is this person so mean? What is behind their behavior? Were they given all of the love, attention and guidance that I was as a child? Are they struggling financially? Is their relationship on the rocks? Are they dealing with a dying parent, or mourning the loss of a loved one? Are they covering a fear by acting this way?

The Internet, in the hands of people without empathy, dehumanizes us. It allows us to forget that there is a person on the other side of those words. And, it’s so much easier (and satisfying) to go head to head with them and try to knock them off the bridge.

After all, who do they think they are? What gives them the right to be so outrageous? Our sense of right vs wrong and our desire to seek justice, and defend our good name takes over and we allow the trolls to have the power — even though what they probably are seeking is validation, love, attention. Not power.

What if they don’t even realize the impact their words or actions are having on you? What if, it’s not even personal?

Could you, would you be willing to let them have a pass. To let it go, to not take it personally, and just see them as someone who might be hurting?

Sure, there’s always an argument against this option. Bullies should be dealt with. I don’t condone the actions of the would-be trolls who create drama and toxicity to our social streams.

But, what if you invited them to coffee — instead of engaging in an online war that, most likely, no one will win, and will definitely force you to waste precious time.

Don’t worry if the troll has the last word. At some point, the biggest billy goat is going to come along, and that will be the end of the story.


Also published on Medium.

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