What I Learned at Summer Camp

Once upon a time, I decided to get a master’s degree in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite University. The work is meaningful and there’s plenty of it, so why not? I ended up in a cohort of about 25 students, only three of us from North America, and that in itself was an education.

One of the classes I had to take was a graduate seminar on The Literature of Conflict Transformation. Sounds dull! Litty-chure and I are not on the best of terms–where’s the happily ever after?–and the reading list was several dozen hefty titles. To chomp through it, we would have been reading a big book every three days or so.

The prof had other ideas.

He told us we should at some point read the whole list, but he asked each one of us to choose three books we wanted to report on to the whole class. Each week we would cover three or four books in a two-hour round-table discussion. The professor himself took three of the larger texts and handled the first week’s presentations. (EMU’s conflict program does not hold with the notion of professorial deification, one of its many outstanding qualities.) We divvied up the rest of the list so everybody got at least one “first choice,” and everybody got at least one doorstop.

Then the fun began. The entire class was composed of people who either had experience or aspired to become experienced, at handling difficult conversations. These were world class listeners, with big hearts, great humor, tons of creativity, and tremendous passion for their causes. The Muslim professor and the Hindu social worker debated the further use of non-violent protest in India. The Palestinian Christian raised in the camps and the Israeli journalist debated the road to peace in the Middle East. The middle-aged pastor and the twenty-something prison reformer went after stabilizing post-war societies…

If ever voices should have been raised and angry words flung, these were the topics likely to provoke that behavior.

It never happened. With thirteen other people intent on keeping all exchanges constructive and civil, any two students in the class could tackle a tough topic and know the backup team would dive in to correct over-steering. This wasn’t tone policing, it was re-framing, storytelling, personal sharing, and questioning in such a way that nobody was disrespected, and no topic was off limits. We laughed a lot, we cried some, we sat in silence from time to time. We learned lessons more precious than I can convey, and–oh, by the way–we familiarized ourselves with the conflict transformation canon as it existed at the time.

Nobody wanted the class to end.

Scott Peck, of ye old The Road Less Traveled fame, would say we stumbled upon an experience of true community, and he’d be right. The professor was brilliant, the class was brilliant, and we are ALL brilliant, given the right support and healthy processes through which to express ourselves.

Was there ever a class, a book group, a church retreat, a lunch bunch that you didn’t want to end? What made it special? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 gift e-card.


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16 comments on “What I Learned at Summer Camp

  1. In addition to conducting a community chamber choir, I now am chair of programming for a community arts/business alliance.

    We started off with a brunch at a local university, about five years ago, with diverse people wanting the same things. Local business people, both performing and visual artists, performing venues and art galleries, arts educators, sculpture parks and public art from various villages, all came together to get the word out the arts are great and HERE in our community. Business people loved the idea, municipalities loved the idea, artists love the idea.

    The discussions about what this organization would be were some of the happiest times in recent memory for me. Imagine discussing what you were passionate about–your life’s work–not at the beginning of your career but in the middle of it. 🙂 Got me recharged and invigorated!

    We don’t meet nearly as often, and it’s not about what we would DO that we now discuss but how we are DOING it! I miss those early discussions but have made friends I would never have made if I hadn’t been involved with forming this organization!

    • There’s just something about having companionship on the journey, and the tougher the journey, the more precious the companionship. Whoever had the idea to bring all those people together in the first place as a genius.

  2. Mmm, nope. Vacations I haven’t wanted to end, yes. But not a class or group.
    The closest thing, I guess, is the lectures that the local college extension has been running on what to plant after the hurricane devastation. The talks have been great, and I’m sorry they’ve ended for that part of it. The comments from the peanut gallery are definitely something I won’t miss, though.

    • I’m sorry your travels haven’t taken you to a place where a group you belonged to found its best behavior. The experience has been rare for me–that class was a standout. I felt the same way about one of my therapists, and there have been flashes of that same sense of holy ground, but only flashes, on other occasions.
      I can see where planting after a hurricane would be an interesting and hopeful topic, but I do hope I never need to ask what you learned in that class.

  3. I can remember many years ago being on a 3 day course for managers,the subject being STRESS and how to manage it.Lots of talks and discussions and relaxation methods and understanding ones own strengths and weakness.Measuring time,realistic goals ,it was packed with useful guidance.The final session ,was in the afternoon and the trainer asked us to lay on a mat on the floor.She asked us to imagine the scene she was talking about.We were by a river,it was summer and the only sounds you could hear were nature going about her business.This went on for about ten minutes when we could hear several men in the group snoring and completely out of it.I wondered at the time if it was a female voice or if men in general can relax faster than women.Or perhaps the course tired them out!!!Who knows.I found it a very valuable course in my career.

    • That’s a half funny/half not story, of men falling asleep when given a chance to do so. Maybe the stress got to them?
      I don’t do well with experiential learning situations. I’m too self-conscious. Lie on the floor on a mat amid strangers? I’d have to really trust the facilitators, and that’s not going to come in a weekend. And guided imagery meditations make me bristle, usually, but you got a lot out of the workshop, so they must have been doing something right.

  4. I really enjoy traveling alone but I have occasionally found myself in an improvised group during long train rides and shared destinations. The circumstances of being out of your daily life and location sometimes make honesty and openness to new people, places etc. a special alchemy to bond with near strangers. I spent an afternoon on the Amalfi coast 20 years ago with a wonderful elderly couple eating good food, laughing and talking. I would never have met them had we lived in the same town but it was a delight to spend a day with them.

    • You remind me of an experience I had forty years ago in a youth hostel in Grindelwald, Switzerland. My younger brother and I had a Eurail passes and were knocking around for a few weeks after I had finished college. This November, in Switzerland. We got there after dark, the hostel is up a STEEP climb (with backpacks, of course), it was trying to mizzle on us, and we were tired. We go there and the fireplace was blazing, the hosts offered us hot chocolate and bread and cheese (my fave!), and some Australian guy got out his guitar. The Aussies then would take gap years that turned into two or three years, traveling around the world, working here or there, traveling some more…
      That guy sang The Mountains of Mourne, one of those wistful, sweet, far-from-home ballads that about had me in tears. I’d never heard it before, but some of the other travelers knew the words.
      We were ALL far from home, ALL a little homesick, and all reveling in the adventure of travel, youth-hostel style.
      It was a little unlooked-for magic, and I have never forgotten it.
      A Don MacLean version of the song is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xR4-zYE0jqQ

  5. Nope for me, too, with agreement on vacations enduring. I honestly don’t know if it’s because I’m an Air Force brat and we moved every 2-3 years in my childhood but I tend to look forward to things ending so that I can experience new things. That’s even true for books though the good ones end too soon. I know that doesn’t make any sense at all but I do rush to the end and then wish it wasn’t over! I even preferred the fact that my undergraduate school had 10-week quarters and so things didn’t drag on too long. I graduated in 3 years and I was so happy to be done with that. But within a few months, I was taking a graduate course and back in school. I guess I’m just a bit weird. But I’m used to me now.

    • I did a four-quarter system too, and like you, that was long enough for me. I ended up going for about twenty-two quarters all told (started in my senior year of high school, got two degrees), but it didn’t feel unbearable because the academic scenery kept changing. This is why I like living where I have four distinct seasons. Just about the time I’m at the end of my tether with the heat/cold/bugs/darkness… whatever, it changes.

  6. Goodness, I envy you that experience. I can’t say I’ve had one quite that good, although I have met people who opened my eyes to other experiences and ways of living and looking at things. Some of them were from people who had lived through horrors, which taught me not to be too complacent, and to be less judgmental. You never know what your neighbor down the street is dealing with.

    • That curriculum humbled me. I finally got a sense of how unbelievably lucky I am, on the one hand, and how arrogant my country has been on the other. We’ve also been very generous, altruistic, and inspiring, but when we’re bad… yikes.

  7. I can’t say that I had any experiences that I didn’t want to end, but I’ve had a few over the years that I certainly enjoyed. There were groups at school and work and I loved and also religious retreats. Sometimes it was the ideas that were exchanged, sometimes it was just the people I enjoyed most. With the retreats it was the feeling of peace – like I was leaving the world for a few days. During my work life that was a precious time.

    • I didn’t come across the retreat as a regular experience until I joined a Mennonite Church. They had signing retreat, poetry retreats, church conflict retreats, family retreats, mom retreats… the Laurelville Center in PA was like a general summer camp for Mennos, and at some point, most of us in the region attended something there.
      It was a lovely place, all woodsy and comfy, great food and lots of it. Having attended any function there, you then had “Laurelville” in common with everybody else who’d also passed that way. A nice idea, and I think everybody who has been there would have something positive to say about the place.

  8. Those occasions when one does realize true community have come to me even in somewhat difficult surroundings, or perhaps even BECAUSE of the difficult situation, because we were forced out of our usual attitudes and expectations and guardedness. I lived in South America in the mid 1980s in a difficult time and place, quite intense, possibly dangerous, and we needed each other. I treasure those memories and those people, whom I still know even though the experience was long ago, because we truly saw each other – our faults, virtues, strengths and weaknesses – and we loved and were loved in spite of them. Nowadays I have a neighborhood group of friends who meet once a month for adult beverages and ranting, laughing, sharing. Sometimes as the conversation flows around me I sense that elusive connection of truly knowing each other spirit to spirit, precious and elusive. It’s a surprised feeling of joy when one finds that, isn’t it?

    • I read Louise Penny mysteries, and indeed, ine each book there’s a mystery about a dead body or a drug ring, or something police-y, but she’s hit No. 1 on the NYT in part, I think, because she also has built a true community into her novel world. Inspector Gamache and his neighbors in Three Pines battle everything together, the Canadian winters, loneliness, family upheavals, his cases… They are imperfect people who come through for each other, and that experience, of being accepted for who we really are, and offering that acceptance to others, is so fundamentally human that I think if you can put it into a book, you WILL succeed as a writer. Her readers love not just her stories, but her, the person. THAT is a successful author!