what i learned at summer camp (part 3)


I believe that we have much to learn by serving on teams and in communities, especially if those teams/communities are comprised of people who are different from us, who we have been placed alongside by (beautiful) chance rather than by (hand-picked) choice, and who come together to work toward a shared intention. Over the years I have gotten to serve on these kinds of teams as a staff member at summer camp. Each time I have offered a summation of the things that I have learned because I believe that we all have much to gain from sharing our experiences. 

This summer I was honored to have the opportunity to travel to Northern Ireland to experience camp with a community of beautiful, unique, creative, authentic, engaged, and deeply loved young adult Quakers. These individuals welcomed me authentically and taught me much. They included me, encouraged me, and allowed me to speak love/Love/LOVE into their midst. While I could write for days about the inexplicably deep relationships created during those days, I will simply highlight some major learnings that I feel could benefit the world. May some of these inspire you to find your own team in which to invest and then to share your learning with those of us who need it to grow.

1 There exists a community of youth and young adults who can be still and silent (for significant lengths of time), create meaningful community, and live side by side free of the distractions of digital devices even when they have access to them. Campers at Moyallon spend a portion of their first evening coming up with a set of community guidelines to affirm. Very early in the process (right after Jonny suggested “No Malarkey” which was my personal favorite of them all) someone suggested limiting the use of digital devices in order to be present to each other. There was clear community support. Over and over throughout the week I noticed a marked absence of cell phones even though campers and staff had full access to them. Beyond this I found an ease in the stillness and quietness that this group shared. The hour long time of silence on Sunday morning was free of fidgeting and nodding off. Each evening, before bed, the assembled group sat in spacious silence together. In the community gathering around the fire on the final evening, a full 30 minutes of rich, deep silence commenced before anyone felt led to speak. During these times people looked both up and around, comfortable with eye contact even during intense silence. No one giggled or interrupted the quiet out of discomfort. They simply let it be and from it came insights and connection that could be found no other way. Communal silence is important and can be achieved. Even with/especially with youth and young adults. We are all benefitted by facilitating and creating these kinds of spaces and experiences.

2 Bigger is not always better (and less is sometimes more). After a year of speaking in large banquet halls and auditoriums I felt real anxiety when I learned that the campers and staff at Moyallon together numbered under 40 and ranged in age from 14 to 50. It’s a very different thing to garner and hold the attention of 1,000 demographically alike individuals than to do so with 40. With a big room and a large audience, charisma can fill in the cracks. With a  small room and intimate participant group, authenticity and genuine care for both your subject and the people you’re sharing it with are required for any kind of effectiveness. Smoke and mirrors, glitter and concealer won’t work. The only way to hope to create a compelling space for learning with a small group with whom you will be living for a week is to enter in authentic, humble, and human ways. 

I can’t help but think that this applies to much of the way that we interact with others in all of life these days. A status update intended for hundreds is different than a conversation between myself and a trusted other. So much of our lives online (and, many times, off line as well) are weighed and measured by the size of our “audience.” This often leaves us relying on a carefully curated public persona to keep our followers interested and coming back for more. I wonder how it might change our way of being in the world to focus more on authenticity, on being known for who we genuinely are rather than as who we present ourselves to be and on seeking to know others for who they really are rather than for who they feel they must present themselves as being. To tackle the unconscious message that more is better by concentrating in deliberate ways on the smaller groups to whom we belong and matter than to the larger groups we amass may be vulnerable but may be important for keeping our relational needs truly addressed. 

3 The desires to know one’s self honestly, to understand one’s unique gift to the world, and to feel grounded are universal. Regardless of age, station in life, community, gender, or any other personal identifier, all of us long to feel centered, to be able to live from a place of balance, to have the courage and opportunity to know both our strengths and weaknesses, and to feel capable of working with both. Every day we are given the opportunity to live from what I refer to as an internal locus of control, functioning in accordance with our deepest values and calls. We can be true to who we are meant to be and what we are meant to do in this world or we can allow our feelings and beliefs about ourselves to be driven by others. The truth is, however, that living from a place of informed self knowing awareness is hard work and requires space, teaching, and the presence of a community who will accept and value who we genuinely are. Places like Moyallon provide these components, offering spaciousness for personal exploration and re-setting and for the point that follows.

4 Seeing others for who they genuinely are, looking them in the eye, and telling them that they are recognized and valued has the potential to change both the see-er and the seen. It blows my mind how meaningful it is to have someone look me in the eye and recognize something truly honest about me. Further, I am struck by how few natural opportunities the world provides us with to do this. At Moyallon I sought intentional ways of creating this kind of encounter and noticed the ways that others did the same. The “cuppa,” Northern Irish for sitting down with a cup of tea for a chat and rest, was one such recurring time. Using the time to affirm those I sat with blessed me more than them I am sure. It gave me the opportunity to find things in each of them that inspired me to be a better person. I could go on and on about what each of them inspired in me (and will in another place).  In an attempt to offer an American version of the cuppa for the campers and staff, I offered to apply temporary tattoos that fit the theme I spoke on to anyone who wanted one. It became an opportunity to sit, face to face with each person while the water worked its magic, adhering the tattoo to the skin. I decided to use this time to name unique traits and gifts that I saw in each person and I cannot tell you how deeply meaningful this was for me. It felt as though I was getting to be part of sacred moments of intimate connection and grace. If I could repeat a single time at camp, it would be this one where I got to thank each person for gifting the world with them self. I tell you, this is worth doing in whatever way you can as often as you can. If you can’t think of a way of doing it face to face then do it in whatever way you can: writing, singing, texting. Just do it. It is humbling, uncomfortable-in-every-good-and-stretching-way, connecting, squirm-inducing, and simply the best thing ever.

I have written, in the past, about my graduate school professor who wisely told me to begin all interactions by finding something to agree on with the person I was encountering. How might our interchanges with others be transformed if we began each one by agreeing about each of our basic need to be fully ourselves? If I said to you, “I come to this encounter feeling called to bring all of who I am and I am guessing that you feel called to do the same. We may feel called to different ideologies and conflicting opinions or beliefs but I will do all I can to respect your need to be true to you and hope that you will do the same for me.” This shifts encounters radically from being focused on bringing you over to my side toward being about me doing my best to hear what matters to you and treating you with respect. Hearing you shouldn’t threaten me. In fact, hearing you might just be my best way of seeing you. Seeing you is respecting you. From there it’s hard for me not to just love you (and I really really love those folks at Moyallon and so many people in so many other places).

5 Play along (even especially when doing so is a stretch).  Getting out of my comfort zone is growth inducing. No. Matter. What. To become be a part of a community, I will be asked, at times, to do things that I would prefer not to do. For me that often involves playing games. Doing so, however, allows me to connect with the feelings associated with risk taking and makes me more empathic to how it feels for others when I ask them to take risks to connect in ways meaningful to me. If I don’t participate in team building games because I am uncomfortable, I have less “right” to ask others to participate in ways I find meaningful. So, at Moyallon, I played ping pong, ran through the camp during wide games, and donned a frozen t-shirt for a game of football (yes, soccer to you Americans). Taking this lesson even further, the camp auntie, Pleasaunce fished for grapes in a bowl of flour with her teeth, made her way back and forth on a slip and slide covered in soap, made an amazing save in the football game, and more. Her willingness to enter in with her community was nothing short of gorgeous.

At Moyallon I spoke about how blacksmiths learn to monitor the fire required to re-shape metal. Using a color scale that ranges from Red to Orange to Yellow to White, they know that the Orange/Yellow heat is optimal for making metal malleable. Red heat isn’t hot enough and White heat melts the metal entirely. If we only expose ourselves to experiences that are comfortable to and for us we miss opportunities to be shaped in important ways. Especially when wanting to be a healthier person who can exist flexibly in vibrant communities, we must be willing to get wet, dirty, and uncomfortable literally and figuratively.

(An accompanying truth for me, that is related to this point, is that hierarchy has a price. Being doreen instead of Dr. Dodgen-Magee is an intentional choice for me in my life. If you are a person who clings to knowing your place and staying in it, I encourage you to wonder about that a bit and to experiment in healthy ways with allowing others to move from their prescribed places as you do the same. I have never had this fail to teach me.)

6 Cultural/Personal Bias is real. It is easy to unconsciously assume that those who share a skin color, language, and faith community share my worldview, values, and beliefs. This is a dangerous and limiting assumption. I learned this lesson time and time again while at Moyallon. In encountering these precious souls who looked so much like me it was easy to assume that their lives were much like mine had been half a world away. What I kept being reminded of, however, in ways large and small, was that I limit other’s ability to be truly known and encountered when I assume that their experience in the world is the same as mine. When I approach others hoping to know them authentically, allowing for space and committing myself to listening well, however, I get to find out how truly unique every person’s experience really is. I usually also learn how much I don’t know, how much my bias impacts my experience in the world, and how self centered I am in both conscious and unconscious ways. To be honest, this is not always comfortable. It stretches me to be a witness to another’s truth. It requires open handed hospitality and open hearted graciousness, invites differences of opinion, and demands respect amidst those differences. It will also change the world.

7 Bullying is real and leaves lasting wounds. People who are mistreated suffer not only from the actions of others but also from the sense of shame that accompanies interpersonal mistreatment. Neither the inflicted wounds nor the internalized response of shame just disappear. They need tending to. Often, as we grow into adulthood, we lose track of how much bullying the children, adolescents, and young adults among us are experiencing. Untreated demeaning, de-humanizing, or directly abusive experiences live in most of us and cause us to be fearful, defensive, or reactive in triggering situations. In my time at Moyallon I was struck time and again by hearing of terrible treatment toward people who I saw as intensely smart, beautiful, unique, and valuable. Stories of relational aggression of all kinds came from the mouths of the most unlikely individuals and my heart ached for how alone bullying can cause a person to feel. If each of us were to ask a few of the people in our lives about the mistreatment that they have faced, simply bearing witness to their pain and being with them in it, perhaps healing could begin. Conversely, finding safe people with whom to share our own stories of mistreatment can help us begin to overcome the unconscious hold they may have over us and invite recovery.

8 It’s important to remember, every now and again, that I am not central to the functioning of the world. A sad and untimely loss the week before I was scheduled to leave, a shocking death that occurred while I was in transit to Ireland, as well as excruciatingly complex realities being dealt to several friends and clients made me wonder if I should back out of this speaking commitment and stay home to serve my community. In discerning that I was to go and be present to this new community I learned some very valuable lessons. First, others, who may not have had the opportunity to step up at home had I been there, got to do so and thrived. They got to have new and powerful experiences and forge connections previously un-deepened. Second (and likely more importantly) I got to learn that, while important, I am not the only person who can help others. This keeps me humble and open and that benefits everyone. Third, I faced the truth that I need to back away sometimes in order to re-calibrate and practice what I preach about self care. Whenever we hear ourselves saying “I can’t take a break. It’s impossible. I’m mandatory to the functioning of the world.” we likely need that break and the world likely needs us to take it. 

In Closing: We all have much to learn and contribute. We also live in a time when we are flooded with opportunities for serving and giving. Sometimes we allow this to stop us, waiting for the “just right” opportunity to present itself. I feel called, more than ever, to challenge us to look less for the perfect opportunity and more for the simple and grand experiences before us that will allow us to affirm others and to be affirmed. Your simple, authentic, unique presence, when offered graciously, healthily, and in accordance with your gifts and talents, is rich with potential. May you find those places to invest and in so doing be rewarded with learning that is rich and deeper than you ever imagined. And for those of you at Twin Rocks (who are too many to name) and Moyallon*, whom have taught me so well, thank you f(F)riends.

* So much love and LOVE and more goes to Oliver, Michael, Harry, Peter, Daniel, Anna, Liam, Nadia, Karl, Finn, Alex, Sarah, Heather, Myron, Hannah, Victoria, Claire, Sarah, Jonny, Stephen, Mark, Judith, Kathi, Lydia, Hanna, Pleasaunce, Carolyn, Christine, Janet, Aoife, Orla, Leanne, and George for welcoming me into their hearts and community. More than I can say….