Lessons from a Camp Counselor

Lake Crescent

Do you need a life boost?  Want to giggle more?  Want to catch yourself smiling?  Below is a list of my top 10 lessons on how to be happier from a seasoned camp counselor.  

Why should you listen to a camp counselor?  Because if you have ever been to camp or around camp people you would know that we are another breed.  Everything we do is heightened.  Bigger laughs.  Longer hugs.  Deeper tears.  Monumentally silly.

Camp people won’t bullshit you.  Camp is a short time in the summer.  We work on a deadline.  None of this Take As Many Years As You Need nonsense.  Honey, when we  go to camp, we go big.  It is why, after a summer of intense experiences, we are often tongue-tied when people ask us how it was.

“How was my life changing time???” We think.

“Um…amazing” is usually all we can come up with.  There are rarely adequate words.

So whether you miss your camp days or are new to this and just want to find out what the fuss is about….this is my gift to you.

10.  Pay attention.

The other day I was driving to the ferry after hiking in the rainforest.  I stopped in Port Gamble (a quaint, if not a bit too Stepford for my tastes, town) to stop at this general store I like.  Instead, there was a thriving public garden with many Dahlias throughout it.  I got out my camera (see the photos) and my macro lens and went at it.  Never even went in the store.

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9.  Be silly. 

At camp we have a Prop Shed.  This is the shed back behind the stage at campfire.  It is filled with the most outstanding combinations of old dresses, funny hats, orange life vests, and oversized men’s blazers.  There is a dark green terry cloth bathrobe.  There is a football helmet.  I’m just getting started.  We argue over who gets to get the most outrageous outfit.  The goofier the better.

One of the dangers of becoming an adult is you forget this side of yourself.  You forget that pink feather boas (yes, I have one) can be fun.  You forget that sometimes wearing goggles and a Marilyn Monroe wig with swim flippers on your feet is the best way to not take yourself seriously.

8.  Sing.  Camp folk excel at this.  We know songs with great titles like  Albert the Camel. We Come From the Mountains and Chicken.  We know actions to songs, when to sway and when to clap.  We know that there are sometimes dirty versions of clean songs.  We embrace it all.  If you are not a camp person you may think all we do is sing Kumbaya.

We do sing it, but we also know the hand motions and all the verses.  BOOM.

7.  If you see something amazing in someone, say it.   Before your Grown-Up Self gets all I don’t do that  on me, hear me out.  People NEED this.  People don’t see the good in themselves nearly as easily as they see the bad.  They need you to point it out.  They may not be ready to believe you, but you should still say it.  You planted the seed.  And then maybe one day they start to think, “Maybe so-and-so is right….”

6.  Be ready for Burrito Night.  The dining hall kitchen has a schedule.  Burrito night is going to happen every Tuesday.   You’re sick of them.  It is fine.  Life goes on.  Be glad you have something to eat.  But stay away from the cheese.  Camp cheese gives you gas.

5.  Ask questions. Get tremendously curious about other people’s lives.  You will be surprised what people will tell you when you ask.  Here are some good starters.

Tell me your life story.

What do you do for fun?

What’s something you wouldn’t normally tell me?

If you were a medication, what would your side effects be?

HINT:  You will need to really listen for these to work.  They will lead to other questions.

4.  Show up.

When people are going through the darkness, show up.  Say, “I’m not going anywhere.” Then mean it.  If they want to talk, show them you can handle it (you can handle it by the way.)

3.  Stop wasting time acting like you think you’re supposed to act and just ACT LIKE YOURSELF.  If your next thought is, But I don’t know who that is...get busy figuring that out.

2.  Geek out about something.  Be shameless about it.  Think of those people who are obsessed with Star Trek.  The general public mocks them.  I admire them.  Be into what you’re into.  If something rev’s your engine, who cares what anyone thinks.  Fear usually sits in the space between “normal” and where you are terrified to go for it and just shamelessly be obsessed with something.

Geek out suggestions- TV shows, the history of basket weaving, Val Kilmer movies, the scientific names of plants, kitchen gadgets and my personal favorite…Broadway musicals.

1.  Love more generously.  Let the people you love know it.  This is too important a matter to leave it to chance, to hope that they will pick up on it.  Be generous with this. I have had camp friends run toward me as we bashed together in a great big hug followed by a sincere, “Love you.”  It is the greatest thing to hear and I am grateful they were courageous enough to say it.

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You’re gonna think I’m nuts, but hear me out.

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I believe in signs.

I don’t always know whether they are coincidence, signs from The Universe, or God or what, but I believe in their significance.  If that sounds too woo-woo, tree-hugging, new age whatever to you, I totally get it.  I’ve hugged a tree before and I’ll probably do it again.  But hear me out.

If your body can send signals that you are sick or something is not right, or body language can tell us things without you saying a word, then why not other signs?  Who is to say that we can’t be prompted into noticing things that we would normally blow off?  Who is to say there isn’t a greater message there?

Did that pair of shoes just tell me to buy them online?  Why yes, yes it did.

Who am I to argue?

Recently I had an experience that felt like this.  My dear friend Meagan Jones passed away recently at the ripe old age of 23…wrong in every sense of the word.   She was blunt and honest and loyal as hell.  She had an edge when she was annoyed and was brave when she shared the difficult truths of her life.

It had been about a month when I was sitting in church not paying attention—I’ll own that—and was thinking of her, noticing that even though she had died recently, I hadn’t thought of her for a few days.  I know in my head this is normal.  Still, the guilt arrived at the entrance to my thoughts and started pounding on the door.

“So soon?”   Guilt demanded, “You are forgetting her already?  Did your friendship mean so little to you that you forget a mere month-ish later?  That’s pathetic.”

Shoving Guilt aside, my mind drifted and tried to focus again on what was happening in the class at church.  They were doing introductions of new people.

“Welcome, what’s your name?” The class teacher said.

“Meagan Jones.”  The young woman asked.  I stopped breathing for a moment.

I don’t share this to make it seem extraordinary, just to point it out… The Don’t Miss This Moment of that experience.  “Her name is common,” Doubt countered.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that sometimes the universe, or coincidence, or God or even the incomparable Meagan Jones takes the time to show us something and the importance lies in our noticing.

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The Elusive Goodbye

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The hospice room is large—the bed, its center—but it is empty.  Where are you?

In your room, perpendicular to the bed, and there’s a chair where your awkward body sits, slumps really.  You’re propped up like you’re feeling fine—that’s what healthy people do, they sit—but instead of attentive and alert, you are a rag doll.  Your head flopped useless to the side, your mop of brown hair piled on top of your head like this is normal.  Your bloated stomach from the swelling and the tumor looks wrong on you.  This is not how cute, college girls of 23 look.  You do not belong in this place with old bodies, bald heads and loose skin on bones like lace.  This place, where death hangs on the walls like yellowed paint.

 

Best Communication Tool Ever

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If you want to know one of the gold standard phrases for effective communication with another human being, say this outloud.   NOW.

“Do you want me to listen, or do you want me to comment?”

Did you exhale right then as you heard it in your own mind?  Were you hit with a wave of peace at the thought?  Did you think of a list of people you would like to hear this from in your real world?  Family members?  Friends? Spouses?  Co-workers? Parents?  Keep going, the list is long.  The idea that we could decide how people respond to our sharings is powerful.  The idea that we can request listening only as an option is unheard of.   Too often someone gives their own commentary on our sharings when we aren’t looking for that.

Denny McLoughlin coined the phrase “Do you want me to listen or do you want me to comment?” and I’ve eaten it whole.  It also works great with teenagers if you curious.  Teenagers love it.   The teens I’ve taught this to plead with me, “Will you teach that to my parents?”

There have been a number of times, at the camp I worked at, when a teen shared something personal and heartfelt with me.  I responded with “Do you want me to listen or comment?”

The teen would say, “Listen.”

And I would listen. I would usually have things to say, but I would bite my tongue and try to enjoy the fact that the only thing I had to do right then was Listen.  Not come up with something brilliant, I only had to hear them.

Then, after listening, nodding and soaking up what they said, they almost always said, “Ok, you can comment now.”

It is empowering to control who gets to comment on your life.  And when they do comment, it is because we invited them in, rather than finding out they had broken down the door.

This line tends to go hand in hand with another one of Denny’s teachings.

“Any unasked for advice is criticism.”

Sit with that for a second—Any unasked for advice is criticism—and think of the number of times someone has suggested what you should do, or how you should feel, or how you need to  react to some situation.  Did you want to punch them?  Did you find yourself suddenly annoyed?  Was it maybe because their comments felt like they were saying, “You aren’t doing this right.”?

This happens a lot in the health world.  If you have a disease, people have opinions.

And suggestions.

And comments.

And tips.

Some of my personal favorites are “Have you ever thought of seeing a specialist about this?” 

I also remember repeatedly being told, “Have you talked to a naturopath?”

Other times their opinions came in the form of how to handle what was happening, “You know you just need to stay positive.” 

All of these types of comments, these comments that were not requested, are intended to help.  They are intended to show me how much they care and want to be supportive.  But the reality is they often have the opposite effect.

Of course I have thought of seeing a specialist.  I AM seeing a specialist.  I am seeing multiple specialists.  I’ve got a whole team of special people. I’m up to my neck in specialists.  (If you worry a disease will affect your ability to be sarcastic, I am here to reassure you, it will not.)

No, I have not seen a naturopath.  I have nothing against them, but I’m already pretty overwhelmed by all the other stuff this disease entails. 

And lastly,  I’m don’t always feel positive.  Maybe I’m not supposed to always feel positive.  When you suggest that I should be positive, and I don’t feel like it—when I am sick and tired of being sick and tired—you indirectly suggest that I am not handling this the “right” way. 

Unasked for advice is criticism.  Even unintended.  It is why we bristle when we hear it.  It is why our eyebrows knit together, why we take a deep breath, why we bite our tongue.

Instead, here are some comments I find immensely more helpful.  Feel free to steal them.

“Sounds like a lot to manage.  Can I bring you chocolate?”

“Any awesomely weird side-effects from the drugs you want to talk about?” 

“If you ever want to bitch about this, feel free to call.  I’m all ears.” 

 

Now that’s the kind of comment I want to hear.