Over the last few weeks, while scrolling through my timelines, it’s felt like I’ve been witness to the world imploding as the year neared its end. Admittedly, 2016 was a crazy year, and most couldn’t wait for it to see its way out. From the deaths of numerous icons, to the most insane presidential election I know I’ve ever seen, to worldwide terror making headlines multiple times a day, I can understand how one would think the end is nigh. Though for me the hardest thing to swallow while observing the sheer panic, derision, and division is distinguishing the utter lack of faith we have left in humanity. The negativity is rampant. It has me begging, are we truly beyond hope? Is this really it? Is hatred and alienation our new societal mantra?
The answer is no. Unbelievably, humanity is still alive and well. It just doesn’t have the click-bait scene-stealing power it once did. If you look hard enough, you’ll find it because I know it’s there.
To me, humanity has always been about this purely unconditional love and support we have for those around us. It’s blind and deaf and it embraces all that’s good in this world. It’s one of those concepts taught to us at a young age and presumably seen in those Sally Struthers commercials for kids who need money for food, but it never quite clicks. We send Sally our money, and perhaps feel a congratulatory sense of self-worth for such altruistic actions, but we are still so far removed from the act of physically handing those kids their food, that a disconnect remains. Humanity is something you think you know what it is, but you don’t really until it’s been bestowed upon you or you have bestowed it upon someone yourself.
I was 16. It was the summer before my junior year. Indiana Teen Institute (ITI) was a summer camp wherein educational administrators throughout Indiana would select four students each to represent their school by attending what is essentially a week-long leadership workshop. I was selected to represent Fairfield Jr-Sr High School along with another classmate and two students that would-be sophomores that fall. The four of us, two guys and two girls, made our way to the campus at which the camp was held. The other girl in our group got mono and had to go home, so it was just the three of us and our school’s guidance counselor for the remainder of the week.
We were put with another group for various icebreakers and activities. We had two amazing leaders that I completely adored. The goal, as I mentioned before, was that of teambuilding which meant every pursuit with which we were tasked, in some way, shape, or form, worked to construct trust and to mold leaders.
It was around midweek. Our team had become close rather quickly. We listened to one another and supported each other. We meshed well. That said, there were struggles. Sometimes we didn’t agree on how to address a new task. Sometimes there were too many leaders and not enough followers. We rotated headship and compromised when there were dissenting opinions. We were by no means a well-oiled machine, but we’d certainly greased the gears enough for forward motion.
So there we were, in the quad on a grassy lawn about to begin a new exercise. This one was supposed to be tough. Our team stood behind a line of string considered point A. Across the way there was another line of string considered point B. I’m sure this game has a name or various iterations, but essentially this is what we were told as we were each handed a piece of 2×4 wood that would be our “stone” for the duration of the task:
“For this challenge, you need your problem-solving and collaboration skills. You are a team on an expedition deep in the jungle, when suddenly there is a big forest fire. Trying to escape the fire, you have reached a wide river that you must cross with the whole team in order to survive. In the river there are very aggressive crocodiles. Get too close and you’re finished. But fortunately you have discovered a set of magic stones laying on the bank. This is the only support you can use in order to cross from one side to the other. The magic stones float on the water as long as there is constant body contact. As soon as body contact is lost, when a stone is in the water, it sinks and disappears. If someone puts a hand in the water, the crocodiles will immediately bite it off – the same with feet.”
Basically, if you laid a piece of wood down and let go, it was lost. If you fell off your piece of wood, you were lost. The goal was to get the entire team across the river in-tact. Obviously, an assembly line had to be made. There would be a leader, which was me, and I would be the first to set my “stone” in the water. I had to bend over while still behind the line, and gently place the “stone” on the grass. I had to step onto it while keeping my fingers in contact with the wood or else the wood would be taken from us and we’d have less “stones” for our trek across the river. The “stones” weren’t very wide which meant the difficulty of balancing oneself was yet another hiccup being added to the challenge. And one could hardly balance himself on a “stone”, let alone two people on one if we had less to go around.
“If someone falls in the water, the person is eaten and the challenge is over.” Which meant that if anyone touched the grass in any way, they were toast, and we had to begin from the beginning all over again no matter how far across the river we were.
Of course, there was an allotted amount of time in which we could triumph or not, which also affected the difficulty level of the challenge. It was a camp after all, and there were other seminars and activities to attend.
We had a rocky start. Inevitably someone would forget to keep their fingers on a “stone” and we’d lose it. Bending, leaning and standing on skinny little two by fours also created an epic balancing act I’m not so sure our group of teens and school counselors could manage. Not everyone is athletic or even remotely coordinated. However, what we lacked in stability and application, our group more than made up for in determination. Every step forward was ultimately many steps back as we returned to the starting line repeatedly. Eventually we became frustrated and dejected. Even the fiercest determination can fall short when faced with what is seemingly no end in sight.
Other groups in the quad had long ago packed things away, many, if not all, unsuccessful in their endeavor to cross an imaginary crocodile infested river. They headed off to the next event while we were the only ones left in the yard. What should have been a 15-minute exercise was quickly approaching 60 minutes plus, but as despondent as we’d become, we still refused to give up. We were going to get to that finish line no matter what.
At this point, we were quite stressed and on edge. People were getting snippy. Some were drained from the energy it took to concentrate so hard and some simply were exhausted from the physicality of it all. Maybe we should have packed it up as well…
Finally, we agreed to one more go and surprisingly it clicked. Out of nowhere we had become that well-oiled machine. We were anticipating each other’s needs. We were offering words of encouragement. We were taking care of each other while steadily moving ahead. Little by little, “stone” by “stone”, we were making it across the river. It required every ounce of stamina, every calculated move, and every bit of concentration we could muster and design. We were sweating. We were tired, but we were going to see it through.
We were one “stone” away from getting me to point B which would then allow the rest of the team to easily follow suit, conquering what had become the impossible. I balanced one foot on the “stone” behind me while the person next to me had my hand. I bent over to grab my “stone” so I could advance it to its last location. I set it on the ground, fingers still in place, and went to take that second to last game winning step when the person behind me moved. It was the slightest bump, but with my one foot in the air while bending to keep my hand on the “stone”, I wobbled and my neighbor’s grip slipped. The next thing I knew, I had fallen to the ground and I was out of the game.
I can’t convey to you the unreserved devastation I experienced in that moment. My heart felt like it was being ripped from my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I was drowning, figuratively, and per the rules of the game, quite literally as well. As we neared the finish, as leader, it had fallen to me to get us across that line, as though the world was solely on my shoulders, and in those moments, it had been.
I was destroyed. I was also so absorbed in what could have been, what I should have done and what a failure I was feeling, that I never noticed the entire team stepping off their “stones” to drown right along with me.
They stood above me, surrounding me, and laying their hands on my shoulders which forced me to look up, unclear what was happening. By the time it registered, they were physically lifting me and walking me back to the starting line. Without words, we began again. We worked together and crossed the finish line without one mistake.
My uncle once told me that every generation thinks they have it worse and would prefer to live in someone else’s era. He also said the only reason the grass looks greener is because we don’t know what it took to make it green. We might feel like we’re in the bell jar, but humanity is not dead. There is hope, and we’re it. Use this new year to demonstrate it.