Saturday, June 28, 2014

Camp, Conferences, and Evasive Behavior

Now that the start of summer has been formally reached, it’s the time for the young to experience a particularly cherished rite of passage. By this I mean camp. The theories long-propagated by organizers promise the comforting nature of steady, close contact of one’s peers. They envision the sort of constant, positive interaction which produces lifelong friends.

It is true that you might meet a handful of fast friends there, formerly complete strangers, with whom you will stay in touch forever. Yet, these experiences are, far too often, a minority result that doesn't particularly hold up in reality. Parents of students seek to outdo themselves, ensuring that their children have the best camp and vacation experience possible, but in seeking perfection, they overlook a particular blind spot. One crucial distinction cannot be corrected by programming alone.

Here is what usually happens. The close proximity to each camper often facilitates superficially close relationships, for a time. Each eventually opens up with secrets usually guarded and concealed; it is a tactic that usually creates distance in the end, not unity. It might be healthy, from a psychological standpoint, but the fear of transparency, either as a child or as an adult, eventually pushes people away from each other. Friendships made in camp or in conference usually stay there.

During our adult life we copy the same evasive patterns. Thoughtful organizers make sure to give us e-mail lists and phone numbers, to better facilitate forming the friendships and acquaintances sparked by weeks, perhaps even months of intimacy. And yet, few pick up the phone or type e-mails with the intention of keeping in touch with a bunk-mate or a partner during a workshop. I cannot understand why. What are we afraid of, really?

We might well be seen as risk-averse creatures, keeping ourselves protected from some perceived slight. Failing that, our politeness might well be surface and we may have compartmentalized our life, forming invisible laws and rules about who we trust to be a friend. The moment we do that, we prevent community from forming

As adults, we can generate lots of excuses. Work is too busy. I volunteer for a particular cause. I just don’t have the time. These are excuses, but they seem plausible enough, so we buy them. The most perceptive of us know that they’re only lies or at least half-truths. We claim we don’t have a need for more friends, because that might upset the house of cards lifestyle we’ve been living. As a Christian, I believe that we must form loving communities in order to make the world function as it should. Many people well before my time have discussed and championed the same basic ideas I’m advancing here, concepts first articulated well before the day I was born.

The concerns of children are more plausible and easier to excuse. Lacking driver’s licenses, their mobility is restricted. Every year they are congregated into classes with the same teacher and the same students. They’re constantly forming friendships or avoiding them, and so camp is just an extension of the other nine months of the year. They have much to teach us, or, failing that, our own past could serve as an instructive lesson.

Adults in the work world might be required to attend a conference or a professional development seminar, but it’s not the same. The focus is on work, not on socialization. This is a shame, now that we are busy enough to leave no room in our lives for friendship.

We keep talking about peace. Peace to me is built upon mutual trust and understanding. It is based on real relationships where two or more people are not overly preoccupied with the supposed priorities of their lives. This process requires vulnerability, the very same vulnerability I have been carping about for years. I don’t think that we’re thoughtless people. I think we’re easily distracted and quick to confuse what ought to be our true priorities.

We will not have climate change reform if we do not open up to each other. We will not prevent the eroding away of Roe v. Wade if we do not open up to each other. We will not continue the progress of marriage equality. We will not establish complete parity between men and women, particularly when we consider that a woman still makes 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. These are only a few examples, but I list them here to state that we must reach out a hand to a total stranger or two to see our goals through to the end.  

I believe in organized religion because at its core, not its perversion and lust for power, religion seeks to find ways for very different people to live together. This is our task and our goal. We must stop dividing ourselves and find ways to bring ourselves together. I’m not the first person to say this and I know I won’t be the last. Let us act like John the Baptist and prepare the way for the Lord. This is our God-given leading.

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