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.