This I Believe

Russell - Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania
Entered on February 21, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65

Simplicity and Collaboration

I’m 52 years old. An age that seemed almost theoretical back in the late 1960s and early 70s when my idealism felt so real and so present all around me. I was part of a generation that saw the future as a proposition involving equality and justice and understanding and empathy. The Beatles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Joni Mitchell informed my view of the world with music and lyrics that both reflected – and for a short time actually contributed to – the promise of an evolving American culture where goodness and caring would replaced ambition and power as destinations. The idea was that simplicity and collaboration could produce a better world than complexity and competition.

I am fortunate to have actual evidence that this simple notion once worked. And I am even more fortunate that I have a cadre of friends from a particular time and place who share my memory and current belief in this wonderful and still powerful truth. We were all summer counselors at a YMCA camp in Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania. From the time I was 9 years old in 1962 until 1977 when graduated from college I spent my summers in the beautiful company of small children, teenagers and very young adults whose shared mission every day was simply to have more fun than we had the day before, and in the process learn something about the people we shared our lives with.

Kids learned to swim, made lanyards and wallets, painted rocks, canoed across a lake, acted in goofy skits, sang idiotic songs, argued over who peed on the toilet seat, lost countless flashlights and socks, mostly didn’t brush their teeth, stared incredulously at how many stars there are in the pitch black night sky in the mountains, told gross & scary horror stories, felt meadow grass sweep across their legs as they walked everywhere they needed to get to, made fun of each other and the counselors, rode down level 2 rapids on the Delaware River on arguably unsafe rafts, built fires from only twigs and sticks using a single match, snapped each other in the butt with towels, told grossly inappropriate jokes, and smiled and laughed as much as they talked. And in a small way they were transformed each time they did any of these things. When their two weeks were over, some greeted their parents with rapid fire stories of their adventures. Others pleaded to stay another two weeks. Some cried openly at the thought of leaving this world to return to one where there was TV, candy, soda, beds with sheets, flush toilets and laundry baskets. Most slept like the dead on the car ride home because they had stayed up past 1:00 a.m. the night before not wanting it to end.

As counselors we had no documented teaching goals, policy manuals or training materials. There were simply a couple of hundred kids and about 50 staff people who all shared an unspoken but perfect understanding that sharing and collaboration are the surest routes to peace, harmony and fun, and that complexity and competition are enemies of the state of grace. We learned to be friends, to accept each other, to find something wonderful in the weirdest among us, and that in the end the world is a small place filled with people who need to talk and laugh and cry and be loved. So we all did those things all those summers.

Most of the people of my generation have long since forgotten – or worse – abandoned – the ideals and dreams that made the music of The Beatles, Crosby Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell and others truely important and real. Almost all of them can remember the words and will even sing along if no one is around to hear them. But the brilliant and inspiring light those lyrics once shed on each new day has grown so very dim that the actual sense of participation in their meaning has been lost through the gradual assertion of pressures and anxieties that come from living a competitive life in a complex world.

I’m 52 years old and now my 3 sons go to Camp Speers every summer. It’s different now. There are flush toilets, handicapped ramps into the buildings, a speaker system in the dining hall, and a salad bar available during the lunch and dinner meals. And they don’t heat the fake maple syrup any more. But there is still the exact same, unshakable connection that passes like electricity among and between the kids and counselors who live there for 10 weeks a year. When I see this, I believe again and absolutely in the beautiful power of collaboration, sharing, simplicity, peace and love. I believe these young people are all transformed and become qualitatively better people just as I once was. And I hope they will remember these precious lessons and will succeed – where my generation has faltered – in being truly guided by them as they live their adult lives.