My Truest Self, or Everything I Need to Know about Life, I Learned at Church Camp

As many of you know, I am busy living the dream as a TA and graduate student at North Carolina State University.  As many of you also know, that is only one-half of my life.  Like Bruce Wayne, I have a secret identity, and when summer starts to show its face through beams of sunlight and a spike in humidity, I dust off my utility belt/Chacos and head down to the Katie-Cave to watch for the signal.

That’s right. By fall-and-spring semesters, I am a mild-mannered (hah! I kid, I kid) graduate student and writing instructor. But by summer, I am…a camp counselor.  And not just any camp counselor.

I counsel church camp.

I repeat, I counsel church camp.  I went to church camp as a camper for nine years.  I worked at church camp during the summers when I was in college and my friends were backpacking through Europe or doing internships or, I don’t know, dating boys.  Heck, I even directed church camp between college and putting off the real world (AKA graduate school).  So there you have it. I am a church camp addict, a church camp freak – a total church camp nerd. I have the staff t-shirts, the bumper stickers, and a decade’s worth of awkward pictures stashed in a box in my closet.

It is sometimes difficult to convey the importance of these weeks to those who are not “in the know,” so to speak. It’s the kind of experience that’s not the easiest to put into words.  However, since I’m an Englishy person who needs to at least try the impossible, here goes:

Church camp has taught me about being a better person. I say “about being” rather than “how to be” because although I’ve learned the following lessons at camp, I won’t claim to follow them all of the time.  I’ve heard it said more than once that it’s easy to be at your best at camp; once you leave, the world steps in and it’s a lot tougher to be that person once the post-camp high wears off.  I’m in a post-camp high right now, as a matter of fact.  I just finished a wonderful week counseling CYF Conference at Camp Caroline in NC last week. Therefore, these truths are burning brightly in my soul right now. I think I’m recording them for posterity, so that in the midst of bleak January, when the paper-work and the mental-work and the money-work piles up so high that the soul-work gets lost in the rubble, I’ll have this to look at to remind me a little bit about being my best person – my truest person.

I think that’s what it is.  Now that I think about it, I don’t think it’s a matter of being your “best” person (because what on Earth does that even mean?).  Camp allows you to be your truest person, the one you are in your soul of souls, by taking away all of the distractions – electronic, job-related, and personal – that get in-between you and your truth.  It’s a safe place to be yourself, the self that God intends for you to be. And that’s a brave thing to do – being that person.  We’re vulnerable when we open ourselves up to others, putting all of our flaws on display – and we’re even more vulnerable when we’re putting our strengths on display, I think.  My friend Allison refers to “spiritual gifts” that we all have, and I think we often keep these gifts hidden (under a bushel, if you want) because we’re afraid.  We’re embarrassed.  Camp has always been a safe place for me to let those gifts out, to be that person that I’m meant to be.

Camp is a microcosm of a life lived to the fullest.  In a week, you can live more than you’ll live for the remaining 51 in the year. Is it any wonder that I’ve learned the biggest truths at camp?  I’d like to share them with you, in hopes of explaining just how great an impact camp has on all who are involved with it.  I’m certain that those of you who are camp-addicts like me have your own truths, but maybe you’ll find something that resonates with you here as well.  If you’re comfortable, I’d love it if you’d add your truths (maybe on the comments page to this blog?) – if only because sharing is caring.

1. Sometimes, you just have to laugh. Or sing. Or dance.  Or cry.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that I learned how to laugh at church camp.  Not the kind of laughter that is spurred on by the Daily Show, or the kind of laughter you let out when you’re embarrassed, or even the laughter you share with friends over a few drinks at trivia night. I mean laughing for sheer joy, laughing because you’re alive and because Creation is a beautiful place and because you’re taking air into your lungs.  That’s what I mean.  This laughter is a prayer in and of itself, a message of praise to the Creator.  Singing and dancing for joy, simply because you can.

And camp has also proved that, in the words of Gandalf, “Not all tears are an evil.”  At camp, we cry together.  We weep for joy, for sadness, for pain and the relief of it.  We cry because we’ve been laughing too hard.  Sometimes, we don’t know why we cry, but we do.  I cried the entire way through Senior Worship at Camp Caroline last week, but not out of sadness. I wept because of the overwhelming grace I saw in the graduating seniors, who have so much potential and spirit and wonder about them. And that was no evil.

Last week at CYF Conference, I don’t think I went ten feet without hearing laughter or singing or shouting for joy.  It was an amazing thing to see. In my daily life, I am not a terribly open person.  I’m sociable, sure,  and I have friends, but I’m kind of closed-off.  It’s a coping mechanism that helps me deal with the stress of my daily life.  Camp teaches me that I have to experience the air I breathe in, and choose whether I want to return that air to God in a huff of stress or in a song of joy and thankfulness.

On that note…

2. You cannot plan everything. Sometimes you have to simply let life happen.

This is possibly the hardest truth for me, and it’s one I have yet to accept fully. I am a worrier.  Seriously.  Not only am I diagnosable, but I have been diagnosed. Chronic stress.  I like things to be planned out and for my time to be regimented. It often comes in handy, in terms of my academic success and the cleanliness of my apartment, but it can choke out other things, like love and life.

When you’re working camp, you learn that a day will rarely turn out how you plan – and that’s not a bad thing.  The most beautiful moments are unscripted, whether it’s a spontaneous singalong or a worship that goes a half-hour over time because everyone is genuinely connected to God and each other.

You have to be open to the unscripted moments.  You can’t be afraid to look silly – chances are, you need to look silly.  The spontaneous moments are God sending you an opportunity to let out the joy, the silliness, or the depth you keep leashed tightly inside the shell of reputation and personality that we all build up. And responding to an unexpected shift can make a huge difference to someone whose needs might just get met by that silly moment, by that affirmation circle, by that group hug or that second Morning Watch.

I’m working on this one – just call me a work in progress.

3. You can never say “I love you” enough.

Once upon a time, a very wise mentor from my camp years said to me, “You are loved. And that’s not a bad thing.”   Can you tell he knows me?

Church camp taught me to be comfortable with those words, to say them when I feel them, and (more importantly) to accept them when they are offered to me.  Because I’m prickly. I hear the word “love,” and I get this “deer-in-headlights” look in my eyes and start seeking the nearest fire exit.  And I don’t think I’m alone here. We live in a world where love is so often tangled up in expectations, pressures, and a host of other nasty, ugly little things that the true meaning of love, of agape, is lost to us.  We’re leery of love, and of people who tell us that they love us, especially if it is a kind of love that doesn’t fit into society’s me-centered definitions of love and affection.  Camp friendships simply don’t fit into any classification – and that’s what makes it so special. I have a hard time explaining the bonds between camp friends to someone who has never experienced them.  We rarely see each other, but we genuinely love one another – and want the best for each other.  We celebrate each others’ joys and weep for each others’ sorrows, even if we’ve all been scattered the world over.

Could it be that we’re all so close because we have seen each other’s truest selves?  We’ve bared our souls, laughed and cried together, broken bread together, lived together.  We become a part of a greater whole, and of each other.  That’s love.  And though I rarely say the words outside of my family (who have gone through the camp experience with me – so they count), I say it all the time to my camp friends.  Because it’s true, and I can’t give these people anything less than my truest self.

4. People grow and change. You have to let them.

This is one that I am learning now.  Sure, it’s a truth that applies to life in general, but I think it becomes so much more evident at camp, where you see people once a year for a decade or more. Sometimes we forget that as we’re growing, so are the people around us.  We want to punish or praise people for who they were, for who they have been, without recognizing that they are, that they are in constant flux, growing and evolving and changing as people.

As a result, we don’t forgive, we don’t forget, and most importantly, we don’t ever correct our misapprehensions about people.  Camp has taught me that I am not always the judge of character that I like to think myself, and that first impressions are rarely correct.  It has taken me a long time to realize that by judging someone for what I used to think about them, I was missing out on the chance to know them as they are.  And that was my fault, and my loss.

On the other hand, camp has given me the opportunity to “start over” with people, as well as the opportunity to let old friendships evolve into new ones – and these friendships have meant the world to me. I mean, I grew up with these people.  The campers and counselors have been a constant in my life through the hardships and the transitions and the bleak times.  Camp is forever, and I am now realizing how lucky I’ve been to have that kind of constant in my life.

5. At some point, you have to forgive yourself for not being someone else.

Forgiveness is a much-underappreciated virtue in our society.  Really, in any society.  It is hard to forgive others – but it’s even harder to forgive ourselves and to accept ourselves.  Camp was a really important part of my journey towards accepting myself because I knew that everyone around me already accepted me, warts and all.

We beat ourselves up for the smallest things, don’t we? Things we should have said, things we shouldn’t have said, things we should have done, things we shouldn’t have done…the list is endless.  Being at camp, whether up on Rocky Knob at Christmount or on the pier at Camp Caroline, teaches me that the things I’m punishing myself for pale in comparison to the grace that created all the beauty around me, the grace that created me. I am good enough for God, so I ought to be good enough for myself, right?

No matter how bleak the night might seem, the sun will rise over the mountains or the water and the day will begin again. And I am good enough for that new day, for this Creation around me, for the laughter and the songs that surround me, for the beauty of the silence and the noise of nature and the love of others.

I am good enough.

And I am not alone.

That’s pretty powerful stuff.