For the past nine weeks, I haven’t posted on Truth Be Told because I’ve been working as a counselor at a prominent Jewish sleep away camp in Southern California.
In the coming days, I will dive into what I’ve missed – Washington’s über-political debt machinations and the rampant corruption that plagues the business world. But before I comment on those, I’d like to offer a simple (and what, to me, is a meaningful) reflection on a universally applicable lesson I derived from being an educator in a place that has given me the ultimate education.
This summer, I spent my days leading services, clearing tables, planning overnight trips, teaching songs – the works. I was constantly engaged and always busy with campers in a plethora of different settings. But one afternoon stands out in my memory.
On this particular afternoon, I trudged up a hilly knoll and found myself in the bunk area, where the younger campers live. The day was rolling at its normative brisk pace – everything moved and nothing stood still. Ecstatic pairs of feet paced back and forth, from lawn to lawn, as frisbees flew and the leaves of a thick oak tree cast an ephemeral shadow on the grass.
“Ami!” The comfortable commotion briefly stopped. I looked up – past the trees, past the frisbees – at another counselor’s sweaty, exasperated face. “Ami,” – he was almost panting – “What do I do?” He launched into an exhaustive tirade about a twelve year old named Michael who hadn’t showered in days.
Michael just didn’t want to take a shower. That was it; he simply wasn’t into it. Being wet made him uncomfortable. Water wasn’t his thing.
Michael’s pathological aversion to showering made the bunk’s slated “shower time” a difficult hour for his counselors. On this day in particular, Michael had decided to up the ante; he would not shower, no matter the cost.
When the counselor rushed me into his bunk, the scene was a strange one.
Michael had thrown himself onto the slimy tile floor of the bathroom and, like an iron pretzel, had artfully attached his arms and legs to a pipe that held up the sink. His body wound itself over the floor in a way that only a twelve year old’s can. Tears streamed down his face as he begged, glued to the sink, for some solace. He had remained there – a staunchly seated pretzel – for about an hour.
It often seems that the walls of our lives are plastered with notions of stubbornness. In our internal lexicons, “headstrong” is synonymous with “angering,” “irrational,” or “unreasonable.” Time and again, we see the intentions of those with whom we disagree as groundless and unfounded. We perceive the manifestation of their frustrations as a personal effrontery upon ourselves.
Michael’s unbending will was no different. We – those who strove to help him – were blinded by the irritations he projected onto us.
We were all frustrated. Why wouldn’t this kid just move? Why did he have to be so difficult all the time? I scanned the scene again: a group of tall, mature young adults standing above a terrified and uncomfortable child, boldly and loudly insisting that he do something that made him cringe. The problem was evident; there had to be another way. Hesitantly, I situated myself on the slippery floor, latched myself onto the sink, and looked at Michael.
“I don’t like taking showers, either. They don’t feel good on my body.”
Michael looked up at me.
“You know what does feel good, though?”
“Being clean. Doesn’t that feel good?”
Michael couldn’t help but agree. I told him that I was going to wash my face and that he could join me. Slowly, Michael stood up. We lathered up our hands in warm water and gently doused our faces in soap.
“Didn’t that feel good?”
“Being clean is cool, huh?”
“Yeah, it is.”
Then we made a deal: to be able to feel clean – but to not feel too uncomfortable – Michael would take a brief hundred and twenty-second shower. Miraculously, he agreed.
I realize, now, that I have been trying to quash others’ stubbornness for years. We all have. We look for ways to out-Machiavelli those who irk us – in school, in work, and in our most significant relationships. People spend decades studying and researching ways to master human interaction (the kind that are laced with inflexibility) and come out “on top.” In the end, though, it doesn’t take a doctoral degree to grasp the key to understanding another’s intentions.
What does he think he needs right now? Is she feeling some sort of external pressure that has led her here? Just as people don’t ball up on the floor of a dirty bathroom without reason, so too don’t people decide to vote against a bill, sell stock, or cast a vote groundlessly. Dealing in politics is often no different from dealing with a small child’s pathological fears. After we have clarified our own beliefs and expectations, to make any sort of deal or come to any relevant consensus, we have to be on their level, see through their eyes, and establish a solution suitable and sensitive to their needs and desires – no matter how silly or outlandish.
For years, I’ve been taking glimpses into the political world – a place of unwavering inflexibility and an abiding accusatory nature. I’ve taken glimpses into the finance and commerce world – a place of duplicitous intentions and ever competing calculations.
But this summer, I finally got it: their tactics are impotent, as long as you start at their level. And all it took was a glimpse into the world of a very clean twelve-year-old named Michael.