North Star Camp for Boys

Thursday, July 21, 2022

A Sermonette on Community

Earlier this week, I alluded to Cole Hanover's sermonette from last Friday Night about community, and I wanted to share it here in written form:
Community is the reason I come back to camp each year. Before camp, I wasn’t looking for a community; I would get upset whenever I was assigned to a group project, and I thought it was cool to be an “outsider.” In every community, certain traits are rewarded. I've seen some centered around wealth, some centered around athleticism. But at Noth Star, we see things a liiiitle differently. Here at North Star, we reward growth of character. Here’s a story about a time I learned what it meant to be a member of a community that rewards character:

In the depths of a dumpster somewhere in the Chicago area lies a terribly tattered, gruesomely grimy, 30-something-year-old pair of hiking shoes. Unlike the mundane objects in their surroundings, these busted boots carry a story, one that has both figuratively and literally dragged me through the muddy process of manhood. Allow me to elaborate.

In my first year at camp, in J-2, I had a blast. I had my best friend from home, Ben Rothschild, and met awesome new guys like Ethan Doane, Elliot Bramson, and Jack Ringold. But no cabin is perfect. Ben and I argued over the smallest things, Ringold was occasionally violent, Elliot had a competitive side, Ethan had a temper tantrum when I stole his magic trick book, and I was far too often naked in front of my cabinmates (they weren’t happy about it). The next year, for reasons unbeknownst to me, Ben and I were switched out of that cabin and put in J-6, while the rest of them were in J-5. I still liked my cabinmates though, so I was still happy. But for the next few years, I didn’t realize my cabinmates and counselors might not have enjoyed my presence as much as I thought, especially when I would sit out of activities, refuse to do cabin work, or deliver a snarky comment to my peers. Looking back, especially for my first few years, I was sometimes rude, whiny, disobedient, unengaged, and a smart-alack. Even though “sometimes” is not much, it is still vastly more than I prefer. Eventually, I became aware of this fact, but at first, I had a clouded perception of my own behavior. That’s the biggest thing I learned at camp. Character is not how you’re perceived, but how you act when nobody’s looking. Around the time I came to this conclusion, a few weeks before my 6th year, I made a resolution to not make too big of a fuss.

I had just finished middle school, and life was good. I’d also just about finished packing myself for the first time, which is a lot less fun than it may seem. So you can imagine that once I thought I’d checked off all items on the list, I was fairly relieved. But all that relief was drained out of me when my mom told me we forgot hiking boots. While she offered to buy a new pair, my super-genius father rushed up to his closet and unknowingly brought downstairs the demonic moccasins that would plague my next few weeks. In a rush to go to bed, I hastily tried them on, concluded that they fit, and thought nothing of it, drifting back to inaction.

On the first day of camp at the flag pole, I heard the names of all my usual cabinmates, but to my surprise, didn’t hear mine. Miraculously, Ben, myself, and Austin Flamm were all switched into S-2, back with Ethan, Elliot, and Ringold, the guys who I never stopped seeing as the kids they were 5 years earlier. I held into this warped reputation of them, taking no regard for how they had grown. I distinctly remember pulling aside Austin and Ben, saying, “guys, this will be a difficult cabin to be a part of, so we just have to stick together and defend each other against these guys.” I played into the trap so many people fall into every day, I let my cabinmates' insignificant mistakes define my perception of their character. This mistake is how communities fall apart.

On the second day of camp, right after we unpacked, we embarked on our five-day hiking trip, a longer and more demanding trip than I’d ever taken before. I knew I’d be fine though because I’d have my new hiking shoes. As I said, I’d been notorious for being an annoyance on these trips, but I was determined to stick to my “no fuss” resolution, especially because I wanted to impress my new cabin. I am proud to say that on the first day, we exceeded all expectations, and plowed through the five miles. In fact, I stayed in the front of our single-file line the whole time, setting the pace for my peers, and exceeding my comfort zone speed. While it was quite a challenge, I knew I was doing the right thing, and not falling behind. The sights were beautiful, and I considered it a good day, even though a park ranger kicked us out of our camping area, and we were forced to eat a dinner of cold carrots and onions. The theme of ups and downs was definitely a constant during this trip.

Along came day two. We were required to trek twice the length of the first day, so I had my doubts, but I started off strong in the front. About midway through the day, I got tired, and I ended up in the middle of the pack. Eventually, it felt like I was stepping on flimsy rubber with each step, and that’s when I saw that part of the soles of my shoes had began to peel off. What a funny occurrence, thought everybody. After the whole group paused for a few minutes, the shoes were good as new, fixed up with medical tape from the first aid kit. However, as the next few days went by, the shoes would begin to lose all reliability. They would burst at random, emitting the popping and squeaking noises of a malfunctioning machine, and every time, the whole group needed to stop so they could be taped up. They would gain additional thick layers of mud each day, making it even more difficult for the tape to stick. At one point, we found duct tape, but that worked even worse. We tried to wash the mud off in a river, but that just made the shoes grimier. As this process continued, I gradually worked my way further and further towards the back until the group stopped waiting for me, and it was just the trip leader and me, walking alone, both frustratingly dreading the next tape breach.

By the end of the fourth day, the only thing holding my shoes together at all was tape and prayers. My predicament was only worsened by my sensitive feet, the reason I normally have special supports in my shoes. Without this support, my immense pain spiked. This endless cycle climaxed on the fifth day when we were drenched in rain and my shoes completely gave way, resulting in me having to wear tripper Syd’s extra pair, which were five sizes too big. To make matters worse, one of the counselors decided it would be best if we arrived at the landing as a group, and put me back at the front of the line, making me set the pace for a few miles, resulting in some groaning and frustration from my cabinmates, but nowhere near as much as I was used to on previous trips. They weren’t upset because I wasn’t doing my fair share of work, but because I was struggling, and because of their empathy, they felt my struggle with me. Empathy is the currency of a community.

I was dumbfounded. Being put with these guys after so many years wasn’t a curse; it was a blessing because now I had a new chance to change their perception of my character. If my cabinmates could be so open-minded, forgiving, and flexible, why couldn’t I?

My counselor was named G and was from the UK, so obviously he was wise, or at least sounded so. He was the only counselor who led me on both my Porkies and the Superior Hiking Trail, and he seemed pleasantly surprised the whole way through. Occasionally, in between painful silences in the back, we would have fun little conversations, almost letting our problems slip away. At the end of the trip, I asked him why he was so happy. He responded, “I’m happy because you are. While suffering throughout this entire trip, you haven’t complained once, even though you had every right to do so, which is the exact opposite of last year. It’s been an honor to have witnessed your growth of character.”

Once I was struck by this sincere comment, I drowned in a sea of emotions: surprise, appreciation, skepticism, pride, and confusion. I had been meaning to grow as a person for a while, but I never expected it to happen without me even noticing. I may not have addressed it at the time, but during those five days of pain, I learned willpower. Willpower is the foundation community is built on.

When every crutch I was leaning on was snatched from under me, I truly had zero excuses not to put my best foot forward and power through the situation. And when I had to do it, why make a fuss about it? Why not embrace the obstacles? It was at that point I realized that I was going to keep the scrappy shoes in the cabin for the rest of the summer as a reminder that once I lost my soles, ironically once my foundation crumbles, that’s when I could actually build myself up, that’s when I could shift my perspective and will myself to a place where I’m actually proud of my character without having to worry about my reputation. And I can’t stress enough just how proud I am to be in a community that lets each other make mistakes, that builds each other up instead of bringing each other down, and that emphasizes growth of character above all else.
Thank you Cole for sharing your story!

It was a beautiful day at camp, with our 2nd day of activities off and running. Our evening finished with an Open Mic night that featured musical talent, circus skills and plenty of humor, while we simultaneously had some great games running on the fields.

Today's Grace:
"Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowledge."
- Plato