i just returned from my second year of high school camp. serving in the roles of “camp elders” this year, my husband and i were responsible for encouraging and caring for the counselors and staff and stepping in wherever else was needed. over the course of the week i had both beautiful and difficult conversations with staff and campers, helped out in the infirmary (i have come to believe that every camp infirmary needs a mental health expert/volunteer), led the staff in contemplative prayer and meditative exercises, delivered a lot of encouragement notes and tokens, and generally loved on everyone present. what surprised me most, both this year and last, is that i was lonely for the experience as soon as it ended. exhausted, completely spent, and ready for the week to end, i also felt sadness as i loaded my car to depart.
the lessons i learned this year were different from last. i share them here as a form of motivation for each of you who read this blog. volunteering is costly. it is inconvenient. it certainly rarely wins one raises or rewards. it stretches and shapes and moves us into new, and sometimes uncomfortable, spaces. even still, it is important. so much so that i believe it is essential for a life that values empathy and other awareness. it grows us, i believe, and shapes us. here is what my week of volunteering taught me.
1 it isn’t all about me. given the way in which we live these days, it’s easy to believe that everything really is all about “me.” the ads flashed before us on facebook are chosen based on our clicks and likes, the videos suggested to us on youtube are done so based on what we’ve enjoyed in the past, push notifications seem to anticipate our wants, 24 hour available customer service means we never have to make time today or wait until tomorrow, and netflix is happy to make entertainment suggestions based upon what we’ve watched. unaware of these “ploys” we simply bask in a world in which our preferences are catered to. in direct difference to this, when you spend a week sharing time, space, and a communal schedule with 250+ others, you give up seeking only what you’d like. you’d like to stay up to 2 a.m. working/watching youtube/trolling facebook/answering email and sleep in until 9 a.m. or later? too bad...meeting with your community begins at 8 and meals are only served at set times so it’s best to think ahead/important to live by lights out guidelines. basically, to go to bed at a reasonable time tonight so you’ll be refreshed in the morning. to participate in hang time now because it’s when others are available, to pay attention to a shared rhythm because it gets us out of ourselves. this actually works.
2 recreation and arts and crafts are important. i cannot imagine a camp devoid of scheduled recreation or a place to do crafts. these times of whacky, exertion- or creation-filled wonder are important. physical challenges and arts and crafts opportunities allow us to open our creative potentials while, at the same time, busying our bodies while we engage with those around us. when we don’t move our bodies during the day, when we avoid fresh air and sunlight (or rain), when we don’t work together physically for a common goal, when we don’t give ourselves opportunities to stretch ourselves creatively, we miss opportunities for health. we are made body, soul, and mind. each needs time for recreation and refreshment. solo time, play time, time to create, and spiritually directed time are as important as work and learning time. why not build games, barefoot walks, sketching or sculpting into our days? it takes a little effort yet the pay off is a more well rounded and grounded sense of self.
3 love languages matter. many authors posit sub-types of love languages. gary chapman suggests five: words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, physical touch, and gifts/tokens. i find these to be effective categories. not everyone feels loved by a hug. not everyone needs note after note of encouragement. not everyone is refreshed by lots and lots of information. by paying deliberate attention (and possibly even taking notes) you can learn how those around you best receive the love and care you have for them. when you pay attention like this you can begin to minister to others in much more meaningful ways. you’ll also begin to feel freer to ask for what you need in the way of support, making it easier for those who love you to do so tangibly. this helps build and maintain community and gets us out of the myopic thinking (everyone likes what i like and will also read my mind so i don’t have to ask for anything) that reigns today.
4 how you look (externally) does not matter (if you’re willing to take risks). yes, first impressions happen. they just do. i hate this. they are, however, changeable. so what if someone sees you and labels you upon meeting you? this does not mean that you have to fit their label. similarly, others that appear to have the least in common with you may just surprise you once you actually encounter them, talk with them, share time and space with them. given this, it is essential to keep a strong check on the tendency to categorize people upon initial meetings (or even sightings). a highlight of my camp experience was found in watching kids and staff who would appear to have nothing in common bond and begin to relate authentically with each other. this is community in its richest form.
5 dancing is a great way to end every day. there is nothing like a huge group of folks you know dancing to the village people (or any other number of dance classics) to bring a day to a close. even if you’re alone, hearing songs that bring a smile to your face and a lightness to your step helps usher you into a new time of day. 15 minutes spent dancing, with no care for how you look, heals a multitude of stressors and leaves you tired. try it. you’ll see.
6 there is no difficult/hard conversation that is not worth having. over the course of the camp week everyone present was given ample opportunities for challenging conversations. getting straggling couples to head to their respective cabins, telling a counselor that home is not safe, confronting rumor and bullying, and more provided opportunities to wade into the deep end with people. this is where growth occurs. it feels convenient to stay in the shallow end, to avoid topics where disagreement, emotion, or discomfort might lurk, and yet in doing so the opportunity for growth is cut short. every time i entered into a difficult conversation at camp (as in life) with the goal of listening and working hard to communicate well, i left it feeling more empathically engaged, resilient, and connected. i hope my conversational counterparts felt the same.
7 it’s important to be kind to everyone. at high school camp, as in life, it’s easy to want to avoid the others you suspect will take every bit of energy you have and natural to want to write some off as “that” way, “unreachable,” or “disinterested.” it’s human to hope that someone else will be the one called to love the “thems” among you. naming people is easy. it’s understandable that we’d like to identify those that will be easy for us to serve versus those that won’t. the reality is, however, that we each have a difficult (and sometimes parallel) journey to those we encounter when we serve. once we engage with someone lovingly it’s often not long before we realize that we share the same limiting reality of being human. whether we volunteer with habitat for humanity for a day or a pet adoption service once a month, at a library weekly or a political campaign bi-annually, we will encounter people we wouldn’t otherwise meet. it’s important to take the opportunity to get to know them and to encounter them well, attending to our deep and shared common humanity rather than our more external differences. we just might come to love them or they us. some of the kids and staff that would have been easiest for me to label and avoid ended up sharing life stories that made me cringe, cry, or laugh out of deep connectedness and a longing for them to feel loved. i want to be a person who welcomes them up front....not only after hearing how they became who they are.
8 intergenerational interchange is important. people under 25 should get the opportunity to teach their elders about snapchat, messy buns, and the current cost of higher education and impossibility of finding a job. people older than that should have the opportunity to tell those younger than them about what it’s like to age in this culture, what kinds of music they like, and which old movies simply must be watched. both groups, and all those in between, benefit by simply sharing time and space around a communal table, on the frisby golf course, during hang time, and in settings of all kinds. we have so much in common and, at the same time, so much to learn from each other. it’s important to find ways of being within each other’s radius so that we can do so.
9 saying goodbye should be hard. if you’ve spent a week with people (or a few hours or days...whatever you can afford) and you feel nothing at leaving them, you have likely held back. volunteering provides an opportunity to be among people who share an interest or passion. these are people who are giving of themselves as you are. taking the opportunity to inquire beyond the normal, “what do you do?” and to answer with more than the traditional, “just fine, thank you.” might provide you with profound opportunities for community building. take them. relational risks toward connection are worth it...every time.
10 giving yourself away is something that is rarely regrettable. staying up too late to answer just one last (o.k., admit it, 20 more) email(s)...regrettable. eating the entire bag of chips...regrettable. unnecessary purchases...regrettable. huge debt incurred for outlandish vacations or ridiculous “toys”...the same. giving freely of yourself to a task or need or cause or idea or person for its/their benefit is rarely so. on the front end it can feel costly to commit to time spent for others and yet, on the back end, it is almost 100% of the time life giving, instructive, and rewarding.
in what ways have you been grown by giving yourself away? i’d love to hear about it here.