What Troubled Boys Can Teach Us

A group from the Allegany Boys Camp, located in the scenic deep woods of western Maryland, recently visited our church. The residential all-year camp was established for boys with emotional and behavioral troubles. The boys and their leaders shared songs and gave us insight into their daily life. I was impressed by some of the powerful techniques they employed to effect positive personal change. Their methods are apt for people from all walks of life in all organizations.

To one degree or another, we are all imprisoned by patterns of thought that limit our functionality, compromise our inter-personal relationships, and rob us of the peace and joy that we are supposed to experience in life. In extreme cases people break free of these chains via a “reset button.” A classic example is the addict “hitting bottom,” whereby they either muster the resolve to make needed changes or die.

In the case of the boys who live in camps such as the Allegany Boys Camp, they may or may not hit bottom. They’ve already been removed from their family environment where they couldn’t learn to function in a healthy way. Instead, they experience life broken down to the very basics as a way to shatter their limiting paradigms. A wilderness camp that lacks electricity or running water suits perfectly.

We take so much for granted in our modern life. We lack perspective about what is truly involved in the creation and delivery of the goods and services with which we are accustomed. We take the people in our lives for granted.  We assume that things will always be as they are, regardless of our personal decision making and behaviors. That assumption is dangerous, sometimes deadly.

The boys at the camp have some clothes and personal toiletries. That’s it. Their days are completely structured. That structure is well thought out. They deal with first things first, like when they wake each morning they make their beds and clean their tents. The boys engage in strenuous challenges that afford them opportunities to learn new skills and make important decisions. Their schooling is reminiscent of “unschooling,” or directed learning from life experiences. (Other than math – the counselors said it was hard to teach math that way.)They take on serious projects like designing and building the large and sometimes elaborate tents that provide them shelter. As they learn, achieve, and grow, they earn privileges. A bunch of other good things happen too.

Of course they gain more perspective about modern life and the important relationships in their lives. They learn that they are not isolated and alone – that others have walked similar tortured walks and emerged victorious. They share serious and not-so-serious experiences, and my guess is that they form bonds unlike they have ever previously experienced in their lives. Their new relationships, skills, and continual accomplishments build self-esteem and confidence. This erodes victim mentality, diffuses anger, and awakes them to the possibility of a brighter future.

The camp’s leaders shared two practices that particularly stood out. First, to accomplish the many tasks necessary at the camp, they employ a three-step process: 1) Plan, 2) Execute, 3) Evaluate. Each part of the process is equally important, and every boy must participate in all three steps. Second, when problems inevitably arise, they confront the issue immediately and together. Nothing is left to fester.

These deceptively simple practices hold power for all of us. In our workaday lives, we often operate unmindfully, at warp speed, and in response to circumstantial demands. We imagine that step two, execution, is what matters most. We give ourselves permission to sweep issues under the rug. This mentality is costly, both personally and corporately in our families and our organizations.

Planning and evaluating suffer under the demands of deadlines and pressures of crisis management. Yet this is where intelligence is both applied and gained. You may hear it said that “life is a marathon.” This may be a disadvantageous way to think. It’s perhaps more powerful to think of life as a series of wind sprints.

Before we do, we think. We take the time necessary to properly plan. Then, when it’s time to execute, we do. We run that wind sprint flat out and give it our all. After, we stop, take a breath and see what we may see. We are intentional about learning from our experiences. We ask good questions, such as: What went right? What went wrong? Why? What do we know now that we didn’t know before? If I had it to do over, what would I do differently? This manner of living our lives, running our teams, and functioning in any corporate activity is far superior to keeping our heads down and mindlessly hamstering away.

We are mostly risk averse. We generally dislike confrontation. We want to conserve energy. For these reasons, the most common disposition is to let things go. What things? Things that bother us. Things that we do that bothers us and things that others do that bother us. We’ve learned to worship our comfort zones, hold our tongues, keep a stiff upper lip, be a team player, don’t make waves, and avoid being seen as a troublemaker. This may be fine for incidental issues. But the ones that recur? They won’t go away on their own. They get worse. When we lack the courage to address them quickly and decisively, they cost us far more.

The culture of the Allegany Boys Camp creates the expectation that issues will be courageously confronted and that these issues are the business of the entire group. One person’s problem is every person’s problem. If families and work teams adopted this mindset and our organizational culture became informed by these practices, I believe that it would lead to higher function and healthier and happier relationships.

Thank you to the leaders and the boys of Allegany Boys Camp. Your generous sharing of your stories inspires me. I hope they inspire you too.

Must Violence Be Everywhere?

On Labor Day I took my family to Mt. Gretna. The plan was to hike the beautiful trails and treat ourselves to ice cream at The Jigger Shop. We did in fact hike, and we did get ice cream. But not at The Jigger Shop.

Not ten minutes before we arrived, it had become a crime scene. We knew something was amiss when police sped past us as we approached. We saw ambulances and speculated that somebody must have had a heart attack. The truth turned out to be worse.

A woman was murdered by an abusive man from whom she had been trying to escape for at least a year. He chased her out of her gift shop and shot her dead in the parking lot of The Jigger Shop. Shortly thereafter he turned the gun on himself. We arrived to see employees and patrons huddled in the nearby places to which they had fled. We learned of the details from bystanders as Life Lion helicoptered the perpetrator out. At this writing he is in critical condition.

The experience had a surreal quality. Maybe it was the contrast between the charming hillside, wooded streets, and storybook cottages, some of which were elaborately decorated with blooming flowers and imaginative sculpture, and the flashing lights, police tape, covered prone body, and the knowledge that no place, no matter how serene, is free from violence. In the aftermath of this experience, it’s clear that violence happens any time in any place.

Since we have lived in our current house there have been at least four separate homes on our street where police have arrived in response to domestic violence. Right now, within the circle of people I personally know, there is a person in hiding from a potentially violent spouse. The experience my family had on Labor Day is sadly not uncommon. Every day it seems that there is a similar story – today it is a beautiful Texas dentist who was murdered. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, someone is physically victimized by their intimate partners once every three seconds.

That’s why I’m surprised to learn that the trend is not towards more domestic violence, but away. This Bureau of Justice Statistics report  cites a 64% decline in the years between 1994 and 2010. This makes sense, as the rate of violent crime is shrinking with the aging of the population. It just doesn’t seem like it. I suppose that’s why we must be careful about conclusions we draw from anecdotal evidence.

Domestic violence has always been a feature of society. Statistics for domestic abuse pose challenges for accuracy, but it is accepted that roughly one third of women and one quarter of men worldwide suffer at least one instance of domestic abuse during their lifetimes. By any measure, the problem is pervasive.

What, if anything, can we do as individuals and a society about this?

There are those who argue for increased gun control, as fewer guns mean less gun violence. The argument may hold water if one can successfully show that it would fall more than the suppressive effect that armed victims have upon perpetrators (individuals, gangs, and governments.) One would also have to show that the policy would indeed keep guns from the hands of criminals and that the net effect would be worth the cost of freedoms and the changing of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

This would also leave unaddressed the fact that the rate of domestic violence is as high or higher among unarmed populations. The issue is not one that will be remedied through legislation – it is already illegal to physically assault another person (at least in our country – in countries that abide by Sharia Law husbands are free to beat their wives.) This problem is like most of our other problems – it is a problem that stems from sickness of the soul.

People who abuse others have likely themselves been abused. It is through their experience that this behavior is normalized or somehow deemed appropriate. They clearly suffer from emotional problems, and these have myriad causes, from the side effects of medicine to genetic disposition. But there is also a clear cycle of violent behavior.

All human beings, like all creatures, can be violent. This includes everyone, emotionally damaged or not. What leads to peace and domestic tranquility is a sense of well-being and safety, an appreciation for the connectedness between people, and a well-developed sense of morality.

Where these things are lacking, violence ensues. An unmarried mother is ten times more likely to suffer domestic abuse than a married one. Welfare recipients are four times as likely, with some studies indicating that as much as 82% of welfare mothers experience abuse. Education and wealth do not inoculate against domestic violence, but they sure do reduce its likelihood.

Yet more school and more money do not provide satisfactory answers to this problem to me – how about you? I suspect we would benefit by something a little more powerful and pervasive. Something more radical.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Jesus Christ was a radical. In a world at least as violent (granted, without guns) than our own, he taught love and peace. In the gospel of Mark 9:50, he described how this works: “You must have the qualities of salt among yourselves and live in peace with each other.” What he meant was that just as salt seasons and preserves food, moral people influence, inspire and elevate those around them.

We can take from this a strategy to deal with the issue of domestic violence (or any other moral issue.) We must start with ourselves. We need to tend to our spiritual health so that we might “flavor” the spiritual health of those around us.

You know what I like best about this strategy? It focuses us on that which we can exert some power – ourselves.

Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride

We’re now knee-deep into the next U.S. Presidential election cycle. To say that the race is interesting is quite an understatement. With huge personalities and even bigger issues, the next fourteen months promise the political ride of our lifetimes.

But it isn’t just theater. If you pay close attention, you can tell a lot about where we are as a society by the goings on. We’ll take it left to right.

Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist who finds the Democrat party too conservative for his tastes, is drawing surprising crowds. (A recent Los Angeles event exceeded 27,000.) Maybe this would be less remarkable if he was a fresh dynamic face a la the 2008 Barack Obama. But Sanders turns 74 next week and is saying the same things he’s said for years. Yet even young people are responding to him.

Perhaps it’s that they simply can’t get their arms around the current Democrat front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Her largest gathering to date has been 5,500. But she has something Bernie does not (aside from fame) – a massive political machine that has been consolidating and building power for 30 years.

Despite that she is not the shoo-in most assumed. She is a deeply flawed candidate, lacking the communication effectiveness and likeability that served her husband so well and burdened with the baggage of decades of near-constant scandal. She retains strong support among those who don’t follow current events – they are accustomed to her surname, they fondly recall her time as First Lady as one of relative peace and prosperity, and heck, it’s time for a woman President, right?

But those who pay closer attention know that she may not remain viable. If the justice system worked with integrity and consistency, she would have already been indicted for egregious breeches of national security in order to conceal her communications when she was Secretary of State. Perhaps in the end she will dodge this bullet. She has all the others. But she won’t if the Obama administration decides that it would be best for its legacy to back someone else.  Even if they don’t, she is dying a political death by 1000 small cuts as the drip-drip-drip of illegally hidden emails continues to emerge in big batches. They may hold no massive revelations, but it is a constant reminder of her ethical and decision-making shortcomings. And there are five months of it yet to go.

Democrat party insiders are seriously worried that she is becoming unelectable and that her nomination would mean handing the Republicans victory next November. The problem is that they have a thin bench. The handful of other potential candidates, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee (don’t be hard on yourself if you’ve never heard of them, hardly anyone else has either), do not seem to hold answers. It appears likely that Vice President Joe Biden, if he can muster the energy himself at age 73 for such a massive undertaking, will enter the race. If he does, he will likely be the nominee.

The Republicans, in stark contrast, have the opposite problem. There are so many (16 at the moment) vying for the nomination they can’t even fit them in the same debate. The Republican Party bosses desperately want Florida’s ex-Governor Jeb Bush to get the nomination, as this would extend the reliably pliable Bush family insider legacy.

Their problem? Nobody else does. In fact, the mood of republicans is to get as far away from professional politicians as possible, especially entrenched-in-Washington types. This is why Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, none of them ever having held public office, are gaining steam. In a Monmouth University poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers, the three of them together represented a 56% majority, with Trump at 23%, Carson at 18% and Fiorina at 10%.

Donald Trump adds particular zest to the show. He defies accepted Presidential political calculus. He makes all sorts of verbal mistakes, over-simplifies issues, and self-aggrandizes. He’s abrasive to those he doesn’t like, he’s evasive, even testy, when confronted, and as a billionaire he doesn’t exactly check the “knows how I feel” box.

The Washington machine, an unholy conglomeration of the vested interests of the current power structure, prefers their political theater a bit more refined and predictable. They see him as a sideshow or distraction – certainly not serious – a candidate who is bound to fizzle. It’s very possible. But they don’t speak or act like they understand the dynamics behind his rise.

This is because they are elitists. They don’t respect the will of the people. They prefer their oligarchy to representative democracy. Americans hate this. It’s not the founding vision. The resentment is the force behind the Tea Party, the most significant grassroots political movement in over 100 years. The Tea Party has handed the Republicans two landslide elections, one in 2010 and one in 2014. Their message was clear – stop the Washington juggernaut. The Republican Party response has thus far been: “thanks for the votes and the suggestion, we’ll think about that.”

They continue to ignore the message at their own peril. If the Republican machine selects Bush, it will be the end of the Republican Party as it is now constituted; they will go the way of the Whigs. It shouldn’t surprise the insiders that their political ship is listing. But they fall into the same trap as everybody – they can’t see past their paradigm. This always blinds us to reality.

Trump is tapping the vein of discord. Sanders may be as well. Both men speak plain. They say what they really think and they mean what they say. In Trump’s case, he’s a tough and strong advocate for American interests. Sanders shows integrity as he stands on issues even if they have historically been unpopular. Americans are unused to seeing these qualities in their leaders. They are responding with real enthusiasm.

I find the rise of neither Trump nor Sanders, but that of Dr. Carson to be the most interesting and refreshing development thus far. Like Trump, he breaks the mold. Unlike Trump, his style is soft-spoken and humble. He is reluctant to make matters about personalities, his or his opponents. So what might be propelling his growing support?

I hope it is this: he is a man of obvious and unassailable principle and character. He has bedside manner. Like Sanders does with Clinton, this contrasts sharply with Trump.

Americans are not only disgusted with business as usual, they sense real danger. Maybe they’ve seen one or more of the growing number of predictions of impending doom and collapse. (Or they watch The Walking Dead.) Maybe they’re afraid as President Obama’s deal with Iran looks like it will pass through Congress. They fear that if Iran, and by extension Islamic terrorists, obtain nuclear weapons, it spells trouble with a capital “T.”

Maybe they don’t like their investments bouncing around like a Super Ball. Race relations seem to be going in the wrong direction, and now it looks like “Black Lives Matter” advocates are inciting violence against police. The Washington machine is unwilling to close the southern border. All of these, and other factors, are straining our system.

Against this backdrop, people feel desperate for strong leadership. A guy like Trump provides precisely the tenor that attracts frightened people – a strong leader they can trust to slay the dragons for them. The problem is that it doesn’t usually work out so well. Leaders like that eventually slay dragons you like too.

Dr. Carson is not a dragon slayer. He is a healer. He doesn’t fit a previous Presidential prototype. This is also one knock against him – people mistake gentleness for vulnerability. They suspect his lack of political experience means that he will find himself chewed up by the machine. I doubt that. Principle is principle. A person who lives by their principles is not easily dissuaded or defeated, no matter the foe.

We need to talk more about the principles that unite us. We must clarify why they matter and how they should be applied to today’s challenges. Someone thoughtful, courteous, well-spoken, and respectful may be best positioned to lead this conversation. The media certainly won’t. While I’m not at the point of saying that Dr. Carson should be the Republican nominee or the President yet, it’s encouraging that he is doing well.