I found myself sitting in my supervisor’s office recently. The reason why I found myself sitting in a chair in the middle of the room was to assess how I have been doing at the job I have been given. My assessors sat across the room from me, flicking through their notes.
“For the most part,” they began, “you seem to have done pretty well.”
They paused. A pen clicked. I waited for the other shoe to drop.
“One of the only problems we need to work on is that you seem to come across as too professional to be relatable.”
There it was.
For the most part, this trait wouldn’t be too much of a problem in a career. Except, I work in my admissions department at my university, trying to share parts of my own experience with students and families who are interested in the school.
In other words, it’s my job description to be relatable.
I think my problem lies in the fact that I still get stuck in the rut of a narrative that it’s better to be efficient than real to others. Somewhere along the line, I bought into the notion that I inherently have no value. I either produce or I get out of the way. Others value results, not relationships. Therefore, I cannot be a burden to anyone else.
Intuitively, as a guy finishing up his undergraduate degree in ministry, I know that this cannot be further from the truth. But in practice, when I reflect on many of the choices I’ve made up through high school and into college, I realize that when I respond with a gut reaction, my gut is still very much a firm believer of this narrative.
I don’t ask for help. I project a polished image. I psychologically own situations I am in, subconsciously believing that how they end are a direct reflection on my own worth. I stay out of others’ ways. When in leadership, I tend to over-function and lose sleep.
Relationally, I tend to undermine relationships that I think are getting too close because I know that one day, I will probably be a burden on those involved. In a twisted sense of the word, I think I act that way because I care about those persons involved because to have them care for me is to be a hindrance and limitation to their potentials.
What a great cocktail for a guy who thought he was cut out for ministry, right?
The strange thing is, when I find myself back in this rut, I remember my time as a summer camp counselor in New Hampshire. Come to think of it, the summer camp should be starting right around now.
After finishing my freshman year of college, I found myself teaching kids about wilderness survival skills and outdoor cooking throughout the summer. In the evenings, I would stroll back to the cabin that I oversaw and made sure all the campers had taken their showers and done their chores before settling down. But, while being a counselor was fun, I began to feel burned out and disillusioned by camp ministry – the kids would never pay attention to the Bible studies in the mornings or the devotionals at night I had prepared. No one seemed to care about faith. I began to look forward to the evenings when the day was done so I could sit up at night, alone with my thoughts.
I had already become well habituated with writing blog posts, not unlike this one. But, living in the woods, even with all its perks, did not provide any naturally occurring signal or electricity to charge a laptop. Writing blogs, in other words, was out of the question. And so, I found myself resorting to journaling with pen and paper by flashlight once more.
At the beginning of the last two sessions of camp, we had a single ten-year-old join us with the intention of staying for a month. He wasn’t a good kid, wasn’t a bad kid, but seemed to keep to himself for the most part.
One evening, I walked into the cabin to see this kid’s feet poking out from under my bunk. After clearing my throat, the boy crawled out from under, holding my wastebasket full of paper, rough drafts of some thoughts I had written days, weeks before.
His eyes were as round as saucers.
“Are you a storyteller?” he asked, animatedly.
I muttered something, which he took it as a mark of affirmation. He ran off to the far side of the cabin to share his discovery with the others. Before long, the cabin had conspired to refuse to fall asleep until I had told them one of my stories.
It became a ritual – every night, I would have to stop by the main house in order to print off another blog post before making my way back to the cabin. The boys loved them. Honestly, I didn’t see it coming – these were the thoughts of a college student about college. Why would campers in grade school care about that?
To be honest, I admit my writing isn’t the most engaging thing. For the most part, when I started telling my stories, the cabin didn’t make it to the end. One by one, the campers would drop off to sleep. But every night, as I turned to turn off the light, the month camper would be awake, still listening on his bunk.
This pattern continued until the last week of camp when our cabin went on our overnight hiking trip. That night, as the boys collapsed into their sleeping bags about the shelter, I didn’t expect the boys wanted to hear another story. But as soon as I turned off the light, I heard the same boy object:
“Hey, you promised!”
I sighed and turned the light back on. I pulled out a piece of paper I had tucked in the side of my backpack – the last story I would tell them. It was a little longer than the others. But I read it until the end.
When I finished, the shelter was silent. The darkness within the cabin seemed to hold its breath. Most of the campers had fallen asleep long ago. I yawned and moved to click off the light.
“Wait!” I heard, the same boy making his presence known, “Could we – talk?”
I raised my eyebrow.
“Sure,” I said, “Let’s sit over by the fire pit so not to wake the others.”
We walked about ten feet over to the small ring of stones where we had recently cooked smores. My co-counselor was watching the last of the smoke rise from the ashes.
“We got it from here, James,” I said. He nodded and headed over to his nearby hammock.
We sat by the fire for a moment before I ventured, “What’s up?”
I couldn’t see the camper’s face. The darkness had obscured his eyes from me. He said nothing, though it looked as though he was searching for words.
I heard water hitting the ground before I saw it. It was slow at first, but it gradually grew the constant sound of water pit-pattering against the stones of the fire pit. It continued, uninterrupted, for fifteen minutes.
Finally, a sob escaped the camper’s mouth. “What-” he choked out, “What caused you to write that story?”
I glanced down at the piece of paper, now a sodden piece of pulp, in my hand. I had begun crying, too. “My friends,” I said. “My family.”
I found myself revisiting that same story today, after work. It narrated my last day as a freshman at my university, saying goodbye to strangers who had become some of the best of friends.
I wrote of how I had been sitting in an empty dorm room, my gear outside, when I had been suddenly struck with a sense of loss. The room was filled with people, with memories, once – not even a week ago. Now, it was gone, disappeared into the past.
I had come to call the place home. But, as the walls and the room itself became increasingly bare, the very life that resided within the room breathed its last. I was looking at the corpse of a year’s worth of strangers who became my family, of mornings and nights filled with incredibly meaningful conversations, of “mountaintop experiences” and more than one visit to the valley of the shadow of death. And my friends were there through it all.
And now, now it was all over.
A lump formed in my throat as I stepped outside. A friend was heading home, her bags already all packed away in her parents’ car. Her eyes red, she looked at us, the faithful few, and asked, “Why is it that loving people is so exhausting?”
In that moment, I remembered that a professor of mine once told me that to truly love something, we must acknowledge that one day, that person or thing will die in its own way.
We allow for change in all its forms, but change is only a nuanced term for the continual putting to death of one thing to make room for something new. To love the people that we are force us to act in the same manner, else we risk falling for an idea of the person and not the person themselves. And this love, this state of caring for one another even until death and beyond, is what makes us human.
I could have said something, but instead, I stood, a tear running down my own face, silent, a smile softly playing at the corners of my mouth.
The camper and I sat in silence around the dead fire, unsure of what to say. Eventually, he began to share his own story, one filled with brokenness and hurt and pain – the likes of which I would have never guessed a ten-year-old would have experienced. I heard of his fear of abandonment and a father that had been the world to him who he never could see. I heard of how he got up every morning wondering whether it was his fault. I heard of how he put on a brave front every morning and worked constantly to do something of note so that maybe, one day, his father would call him and congratulate him and tell him he was proud.
“Those words,” he stammered, “Those words your friend said have given me words for this pain I have.”
He paused and looked up across the fire pit at me, “It’s just, I don’t want to be a burden, you know?”
I gritted my teeth.
“More than you know, man.”
I never got to follow up with the camper after that night. Upon returning to camp, I found myself having to pack up my bags to make it back to my university on time for my sophomore year.
I found myself in a friend’s living room, checking my emails when I saw an email had been forwarded to me by way of my camp director. It was from my camper’s mother.
For a good portion of the email, she mainly addressed the director and thanked him for the program that he had put on, going into detail all the elements of the program that made the camp stand out, but as I reached the end of the letter, I stopped scrolling.
The last two paragraphs were addressed simply, to my son’s counselors.
I still have them.
The reason why I hold onto these paragraphs, the reason why I love doing what I do, was summed up there.
Thank you, it read, for investing a month of your lives into my son. He loved the program and he loved having you as counselors. In fact, he won’t stop sharing the stories you shared about your own lives at night.
But I want to thank you, especially, because my son hadn’t really smiled in a long time since his father left. But when he talks about his counselors and his time at camp, all he can do is grin. I don’t know what you said or did that changed something for my son, but it has made all the difference.
It’s strange how, when we find ourselves poured out into others, when we take the time to invest in the people that we are with, they have a habit of always leaving something behind.
Why is it that loving people is so hard? Because we fear that if we let go, they might not return. So, we don’t burden others, or try not to be, I think. But if we live that way, we can never fully be present with those with us in their triumphs and trials.
It’s only when we open up to others that connections like the friends I’ve made at my university or the moment shared around the fire pit can occur.
Why is loving people so hard?
Because, I think, it’s when we are most fully ourselves.
The pen clicked again. I was back in my supervisor’s office. I refocused as I came back from my thoughts.
Blinking, I started, “Sorry, come again?”
My supervisor smiled. “Sure! What I was wondering was, do you think we can work together on being more relatable?”
“Oh,” I paused, smiling slightly, “Most certainly.”