There is something spectacular about waking up at 6 am in the woods, especially in October. Tall, moss-covered trees tower through the fog as morning light just begins to stream in, highlighting some colorful leaves and some crunchy dead leaves on the ground. In a moment I’ll put on my hiking shoes and crunch across the leaves at this kids’ camp where I’m hosting my Fall Color artist retreat. Soon, we’ll share stories over eggs, bacon, and pancakes with warm Adirondack maple syrup. Being here with friends reminds me of summer camp.
A week seemed like a long time away when my parents sent me off to YMCA camp in Indiana. I wasn’t looking forward to going because I had poor self-esteem, and I did not cherish the idea of taking a week of my summer to hang out with more bullies.
Fat and Embarrassed
At 10, I was severely overweight, frequently bullied by other boys, and often mocked for being fat. Unlike most of the others who were trim and fit, I was unable to keep up in gym classes and embarrassed when I was the only kid who could not climb the rope in the middle of the gym. Mr. Ennis, my gym teacher, didn’t help, making me try over and over as the others laughed and I failed.
Making Myself Sick
I didn’t hate school, but I hated gym class, and I would look for every possible excuse to avoid it, including making myself sick with worry. So much so that I developed stomach ulcers, which brought even more attention to me because I had to leave class four times a day to eat saltines and drink milk. Now I was the sick fat kid.
Though I hadn’t been looking forward to Y camp, I quickly made a bunch of friends there who had not received the memo that I was a big fat loser. In hindsight, we were probably all outcast kids, gathered to escape our otherwise miserable childhoods. The week went so fast that on parents’ visitation night, once I had realized most of my friends were there for two weeks, my parents extended my time. Other than my best friend Stu, and a couple of friends at Scouts, it was the first time I remember having friends who liked me for who I was.
When camp ended, we all traded addresses and some were pen pals for a month or two, but we never reconnected until the following year, when we picked up where we left off. But once camp ended that second summer, none of us ever saw each other again. Things might have been different if we had had social media back then.
A lot can happen in a week.
Surrounded with Friends
Today we’re starting day three of my Fall Color Week retreat. People who had been perfect strangers a week earlier have already become painting buddies and best friends. It happens fast here. Half are new, the other half return year after year when they can, some for several years in a row.
A Delayed Response
Years ago a woman approached me and told me she’d finally made it to the retreat after years of trying to get there. Family responsibilities got in the way, but she had been dreaming about that moment of attending. In that week we all grew very close, and she made two or three best friends, including a couple of people who lived nearby and who would become local buddies. At the end of the week she told me it was one of the best weeks of her life, exceeding her expectations with the benefit of new friendships she had not expected.
Months later, I received a call that she had unexpectedly passed away. We were all heartbroken, having lost “one of us.” The following year we put her photo in a frame and put it out in the breakfast room to honor her.
An Important Lesson
Before leaving, she shared that though she had wanted to come for years, she almost never made it, including the year she finally got there. I’m not only grateful she came, made some deep friendships, and had a wonderful time, but it made me realize how important it is to follow our dreams and not let anything get in the way. Had she put it off one more year, we never would have known her or been touched by her.
Volumes of books and photo albums could be filled with the stories and traditions that have come out of this annual week after many years. For me, it’s a dream come true. The fat kid with low self-esteem is now living a rich life full of friends.
This morning as I’m reflecting on all the special moments of the week, the new friendships made and older ones rekindled, I have this overwhelming feeling of being grateful.
When I was a kid, I could not get past the circumstances that were causing my horrible experiences. I thought they would last forever and that I was doomed to a lifetime of being mocked and bullied. But that all changed when I realized that others were not doing it to me, I was doing it to myself. Though there is no excuse for bullies and bad behavior, they were just being kids and hopefully did not remain bullies forever,
It’s Not This Way Forever
It’s a reminder that no matter what circumstances you are living and what horrible things you think may never end, it does not have to be that way. Things change. People mature. When our brains are immature, we can’t see a way out, yet there is always a way out. We hold the keys to make changes within ourselves.
When I hear the horror stories of bad reactions, of people who have such deep anger that they feel the need to get even, I remember the pain I experienced. There were times I wanted to get even. I’d see the ads in the back of comic books telling me I could go from a weakling to a muscle-bound hero, so I could defend myself and others and stop getting sand kicked in my face. I dreamed of one day going into the locker room and clobbering them all.
But of course violence or getting even solves nothing. Forgiveness solves everything.
In junior high school there was a kid that was so mean to me that I wished he would move away or die. It seemed the only solution to stop the madness. He sat behind me in class and bullied me every day for four years.
Forgive Him? No Way!
Decades later, I was at a Promise Keepers event and the speaker asked if there was anyone we hated. Even though I had not thought about this kid for 30 years, his name popped up. We were encouraged to forgive whoever came to mind. Forgiving him was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, even as an adult. But I felt free after.
Childhood wounds stay with us for our entire lives, but they are from an irrational time in our lives. They can color our decisions for decades if we let them.
But they also mold who we become. Perhaps I’m driven to make lots of friends and be socially active because of the wounds of being a lonely, bullied fat kid. In hindsight, that harsh treatment made me who I am. I now wonder, who would I be without that? It made me stronger, more resilient, more resourceful.
Strength Through Fire
I’m always sad to see the wounds my kids experience, but I know pain will make them stronger. Still, it’s hard to watch, and I want to rescue them. But rescuing them isn’t the answer most of the time.
What things from your childhood are you still carrying around with you?
What wounds still impact the way you behave and the decisions you make?
What do you need to reframe to understand that these wounds may have helped you?
Who have you not forgiven?
Who did you do wrong?
Who did something to you in the distant past that you need to let go of and forgive?
Who have you ghosted for years because of something they said or did? Is it serving you well or making you bitter?
Where does your anger lie?
Who are you blaming?
The hardest thing for me to do in my life has been to get on my knees and ask God to help me forgive others. I carried anger toward the mean boys for years.
Once I got so sick of being the bullied fat kid with the greasy hair, I started changing myself, remaking my image. Though I could not overcome all those years with other kids who would always consider me the way I’d been, a move to a new school and a makeover did the trick.
How silly is it to pridefully hold anger?
We all make mistakes. We all say certain things at certain times we should not have said.
We all have times when we are hurting.
We all have done things as immature people.
Let go. Forgive.
Everything can change, but it’s not up to anyone else but you. You take the first steps.