I learned a valuable lesson from a bunch of inner-city kids as their 20-year-old summer camp counselor: when to take action and when to do nothing and wait.
Like lots of things in life, the instruction came by accident.
My unintending tutors were all kids who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, enrolled in the MIT Science Camp during the summer of 1967. My friend Rich Adelstein, an MIT undergrad, had helped to create the enterprise and got me the job to oversee six of them.
Despite the name, academics had no part in the daily doings. The kids came from troubled homes and tough neighborhoods. Most of them were aged 12 to 15-years. Some were shy, a few petty criminals, and one or two learning disabled. We had an angry handful and several who seemed rather dazed by the demands of living. Still, the adults hoped all of youngsters might benefit from the experience.
Each counselor, almost all MIT students, had charge of a few of the boys. No girls allowed back then. Many of the activities of my group of six happened in cooperation with another counselor, Geoff Smith. Geoff, a swell fellow, was smart and easy to get along with. We worked well together.
Geoff and I took our charges on day-trips to Martha’s Vineyard and New York City. We played some baseball and put on a play under the direction of a Boston College undergraduate theater major, Betty Rose. We had just enough bodies to recreate “Twelve Angry Men.” The seven weeks made for a fun and productive summer.
One day Geoff had a dentist appointment, so I led both of our groups: perhaps a total of 10 kids on the morning he was away.
We walked through MIT’s Building Seven when one of the older boys signaled the others to run in different directions. The group had come to a four-way intersection, offering multiple flight paths for escape. In a flash they disappeared. I stood at the crossroads and looked down each hallway. Nothing. Nobody.
The safety of these boys was on my mind, but what was I to do? I froze. Any path I chose would, at best, avail me only a few of them. I did nothing, not because I reasoned out a clever idea, but because I couldn’t think of a good solution.
Perhaps you’ve guessed that I stumbled upon the right course: waiting. Had I started down any one of the corridors I’d probably still be running. Since I didn’t, the “chase” didn’t materialize and they got bored. In 10-minutes time all returned on their own. We proceeded to our appointed destination without comment.
Sometimes problems work themselves out if you don’t interfere. If you stop chasing someone, he stops running from you. You can drive people away in pursuing them, whether by your ardor or anger.
Slow down. Be patient. Try to live with uncertainty. Don’t act impulsively. Master your temper and anxiety. Wait, wait, and take a breath. Action for the sake of action doesn’t make sense. You can worsen an already bad situation. Assertiveness is not always the answer. Patience might be better — much better — than misguided energy.
People can be similar to boomerangs. Like these kids, with enough time and a bit of luck they come back to you.
The top photo is Peter P. Gudo, the Great Thinker by Mr. Thinker. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This post is a revised version of one I wrote five years ago.
Another very interesting post – but if this is a revised version of a post you wrote five years ago, why now? What has prompted the revision? If this were akin to free association, what is the association with? Apologies, I do not want to play very at your own role of analyst – but it was the first question that came to mind!
When I started this blog in early 2009, a typical day’s readership might have been three people, of whom two had been paid by me to read it! 😉 Now, over 400 posts later, I (very occasionally) will do what I did here: take a look back and, if the essay wasn’t seen by many folks, transform it a bit. Anyone who has written a lot, as you have, realizes that you get better at your craft with practice. Inevitably I make changes in the way I express myself when I revisit something I posted before. WordPress created a link (above) back to the predecessor under the heading “Related,” which you can visit if you care to — “To Wait …. ” As it happened, I was drawn to this one because WordPress recently listed the original post as having been read for the first time in quite a while. I became curious to reread as a result.
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Those boys probably learnt a valuable lesson to. That you can make decisions for yourself and not everyone is going to belt you over the back of the head. Everyone needs free agency and it’s important to realise that what is best for you isn’t always best for someone else. People need space to make their own decisions without judging them all the time.
Well, Claire, their action was innocent enough and no one got hurt. I wouldn’t advocate it as a model for everyone to follow. The fraught teachers, parents, babysitters, and camp counselors of the world wouldn’t be pleased. The USA is a place where personal freedom of action is especially highly valued. Responsibilities to the group are sometimes, in my judgement, too easily set aside. Non-western countries often have the balanced reversed, which creates its own set of positives and negatives.
This is a timely piece on two fronts. Yesterday I stumbled across a NYT piece from 2009 that is all about waiting. You might enjoy reading it: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/fashion/02love.html
I thought the author of that piece was extraordinarily wise.
On a more personal note, as I think I have referenced before, in June I retired from public education after a long and mostly satisfying career. I find myself now, however, very lost. I am also recovering from bilateral total knee replacement and that means my mobility is still seriously limited. So November has opened her door and I am so antsy. Antsy for what? I don’t know what to do with myself as this is the first time in my entire life when I have not been spinning with work and/or school of my own. People say “Wait, doors will open.” I am having a hard time with this waiting stuff but your piece as well as the piece I referenced above, offer me a little hope and inspiration. Thanks for that.
Thank you for the link, JT. A remarkable story. The moral: don’t underestimate a woman who can use a chain saw! 😉 Sorry, I couldn’t resist. You are welcome for whatever hope my post offered. Life is full of surprises. Sometimes we make them, but mostly they are out of our control. The randomness of life I touched on in the last essay means that things will break right for us as often as they break wrong, at least most of the time.
“Sometimes problems work themselves out if you don’t interfere. If you stop chasing someone, he stops running from you. You can drive people away in pursuing them, whether by your ardor or anger.”
~ Thanks for that much-needed, valuable bit of advice, Dr. Stein. Patience needed.
You are welcome, Rosaliene.
Seems you modeled something valuable for this kids!
Thank you. I suspect they needed repeated modeling, as they were on the wrong side of the tracks. That said, we all do our part.
“Slow down. Be patient. Try to live with uncertainty. Don’t act impulsively. Master your temper and anxiety. Wait, wait, and take a breath.”
All the things I struggle with. But we’re working on it.
I’ve learned that some of the best lessons happen during trying or difficult times.
“I’ve learned that some of the best lessons happen during trying or difficult times.” Indeed.