One Novel Coronavirus, Two Afflictions

Bob Ditter
July 2020
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As I write this article, the summer is just beginning. From my current vantage point, whatever knowledge we may have gleaned from the summer is still unknown to me. Whatever the various state opening plans currently are, I have no idea how they may impact new cases of COVID-19, or the hospitalizations and deaths related to it. In other words, I don’t know what shape “the curve” will be in by September 2020. I don’t know how things will go for the camps that did decide to open, in whatever fashion that may have been. I don’t know what will work, what problems will creep up that were planned for and how they’ll be handled, and what challenges will present themselves that couldn’t have been seen ahead of time. I do know there will be a lot of valuable stuff to learn! And learning is exactly what all of us need to do these days — in so many ways. This is a truth I know is as valid now as it will be in September.

Courage Across the Board

What I do know now is that scores of children’s summer camps have concluded they cannot operate for the coming summer and keep their campers and staff safe. Others are still in the throes of what will likely be the single most difficult and important professional decision they will ever make as a camp director. Still others have made the decision to gather their wits, their (enhanced) medical teams, and their courage to offer some version of camp.

When I say that those directors who decided to open camp had to grab their wits and their courage, I am not suggesting that those who closed were any less courageous or wise. Indeed, directors who decided to close were as diligent in their decision-making process, as committed to their mission, and as passionate about their campers as those camp directors who decided to open. They tried as hard and were as tough and thorough in their deliberations as the camps that opened. Indeed, all these considerations are exactly what made the decision to close so courageous in the first place. It is a courage that does not negate the courage of the directors who did decide to open. The directors who opted to open were not any more committed to their clientele, did not work harder at their decisions, and were not somehow “tougher” than other camp directors. It was not like the “openers” were somehow so blinded by the economic consequences of not opening that they put money or their ego over the safety of their camp community. What they did was take the risk that fit their particular circumstances. Every camp’s circumstances are different enough that each camp director ended up making a decision that differed from their peers’.

Isn’t this exactly what good camp professionals teach their campers? That everyone needs to be true to themselves and make the decision that is right for them, which may not be the one their peers make. It is clear to me that every decision made by every camp director was carefully and painstakingly considered and was made with tremendous courage. Yet, for many camp directors, their colleagues’ courage has not been so easy to see. What arose in many camp circles was judgment and finger-pointing, with even longtime friends and colleagues turning on one another. Unfortunately, this “schism,” or split, was entirely predictable, even if it was not inevitable. It is a split we can and will need to heal if we want to rebuild the collective camp community and make its presence stronger than ever.

Your Reality and Your Choice Does Not Negate Mine

We have not in our lifetimes faced an existential threat exactly like this novel coronavirus. Most of us never directly experienced the fear, horrors, and sacrifices of either World War I or II. We did not live through the 1918 flu pandemic that infected more than a third of the world’s population at the time and killed about 10 percent of those infected (Kessler, 2020). As a result, we have forgotten that when we humans are faced with a potential threat to our existence — something that can kill us, the people we love, our livelihoods, or our way of life — we do something that people in the field of mental health call splitting: we negate each other’s realities. We turn on one another.

Every individual’s experience, which is unique to us, is “real.” In that sense it can’t be made “wrong” (invalidated). Our experiences define us. They hold great meaning for us, and we derive our identity from them. It follows that depending on our individual real-world circumstances, we can have vastly different experiences and thus vastly different identities. I see examples of this phenomenon in my clinical practice all the time: two adult children from the same family have entirely different memories of the same event and can “hold” that memory (give it a different significance) in very different ways. It is as if they weren’t in the same family at all.

In the case of camp professionals, every one of whom had to make a once-in-a-lifetime decision about whether to open or not, it was as if one camp director’s courageous decision somehow negated another camp director’s different, but equally courageous decision. This is a dangerous illusion because it divides us when we most need to learn from one another to move forward. Remember, no camp professional had the final say as to whether any single camper went to camp in the summer of 2020. The final word came from parents, because just because a camp was open didn’t mean a parent was forced to send their child. Everyone shares in the risk.

At ACA, All Together Has Never Meant “All the Same”

From the time I first started working with camp professionals as a trainer and consultant in 1981, it was clear to me that ACA was an organization whose umbrella hung over a highly diverse group of characters. Although all camps have one thing in common — to provide experiences in a safe community setting that promote the development of character and life skills in young people of all ages — that is where it ends. I have been to more than 600 camps in the United States and Canada. Many of the songs, prayers, traditions, activities, and camp sayings are the same, yet no two camps are alike. Beyond day and resident; for profit and nonprofit; single sex, coed, or nonbinary; religious and secular; privately held or agency run; family operated or board run; recently founded or a century old; conference centered or one season — no two camps have the same business model, physical layout, leadership, clientele, or resources. Why would we expect that one camp’s on-the-ground reality and the decision they made based on that reality regarding whether to open or not would be the same as another camp’s? Indeed, though we are in this together, at ACA that has never meant “one size fits all.”

The Underlying Issue: Helplessness

One of the pervasive underlying feelings that has persisted throughout this pandemic is helplessness. Behind all the uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loss is helplessness. We are rendered helpless in the face of the biology of a virus for which we have no defenses, and the economic and spiritual devastation that come with trying to contain it.

Helplessness is one of the two most difficult emotions for human beings to tolerate. (The other is loneliness.) This is especially true for camp directors who are, by nature, doers. Camp directors solve problems and put out fires. If the kids in cabin 14 are not getting along; if the cook suddenly quits; if “kid-sick” parents are overreacting to their child’s homesickness; if some counselor makes a poor decision, camp directors figure it out. Along comes COVID-19, a physical absolute of the universe, and suddenly we are all summarily and unkindly reminded of our limitations as people, including our own mortality. There are some things none of us can figure our way out of. The ensuing helplessness is excruciating.

Every one of us struggles with helplessness. One way to recover a semblance of control and some sense of power is to “be right.” Being right is a way to replace the paralysis of helplessness with certainty. To achieve the certainty of being right, we make other people’s choices, decisions, or thinking “wrong.” This is the basis of splitting. Once we make ourselves right, we then set about to (selectively) collect evidence to shore up our position. It gives us a sense of power, even as it divides us. This tendency to split and get into an either-or way of thinking is the second disease this virus has inflicted on us.It does not have to be this way. We are not fated to turn against one another or to compare our decisions or thinking to those whose circumstances may be very different than ours, even in ways we may not be readily able to see. To make the leap to our better selves, however, takes awareness, self-compassion, and the kind of leadership that cultivates and nourishes both. As Bonnie Henry, MD, MPH, FRCPC, British Columbia’s chief provincial health officer, says, “This is our time to be kind, to be calm, and to be safe” (Porter, 2020). Camp professionals will need all of that to figure out camp for 2021.

Moving Forward

Everyone agrees after having been stuck inside their homes without the social and emotional stimulation of school, children need what camp has to offer more than ever. My own bias is that school professionals would do well to take a big page from camp professionals and give all the children in the country an outdoor, physically active, fun, physically and emotionally safe recreational experience before they try to sit them down for any academic learning. Because if educators think children will be able to focus on academics after such a long time of little or no positive social or emotional stimulation, they don’t really understand children and the nature of growth.

The value of camp has never been more apparent to as many people as it is since this pandemic. This is good news — a silver lining amid all the mayhem, tragedy, and loss of this pandemic. The high value of camp goes well beyond the need for childcare that we have recently heard so much about as a requisite for parents being able to return to work. A solid and repeated camp experience is a powerful way to help children develop the kind of resilience they are going to need to face the challenges of whatever global warming, economic disparity, and racial injustice has in store for us as a human race in the near future. Some people think this pandemic is simply a dress rehearsal for what is to come. It seems to me that there will be pent-up demand for camp in 2021.

Healing

That said, significant challenges lie ahead. Many of the physical realities of the COVID-19 virus and the challenges of operating a camp safely given those realities will be the same in 2021 as they are now. We will have to learn from the experiences of the camps that are running in 2020 — but to do any of this learning will require healing first. How do we approach that healing? By starting with ourselves first. We each need to be more compassionate toward ourselves and be less judgmental about our own vulnerabilities to reduce our tendency to judge others. That means coming to peace with the decision you made about operating camp in 2020 that was right for you, even if it was not the decision that some of your colleagues made for themselves. We need to share our experiences, different as they may be, to learn more quickly how better to operate safely in a pandemic. In other words, we need to replace judgment with curiosity. Then, in whatever form camp conferences might take between camp seasons, we would all benefit from hearing from those directors who did run camp and learning from their experiences.

This level of collaboration has a precedence. One aspect of the pre-pandemic camp industry, after all, was the way camp professionals from very different backgrounds and business models openly shared information and supported one another. This model was the envy of other industries whose competitive nature restricts them from sharing. Collaborating is the way to figure out how to move beyond “abstinence,” because as we all know, we can’t sustain life by sheltering in place until there is a vaccine. As Julia Marcus, PhD, MPH, professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School says, “Public-health experts have known for decades that an abstinence-only message doesn’t work for sex, it doesn’t work for substance use, either. Likewise, asking Americans to abstain from nearly all in-person social contact will not hold the coronavirus at bay — at least not forever.

Instead of an all-or-nothing, either-or approach to risk prevention, Americans need a manual on how to have a life in a pandemic” (Marcus, 2020).

The camp industry will need a manual for how to have camp in a pandemic. It’s a manual that will need updating and revising and the input of many collaborators. It can only happen if camp professionals practice the kind of character building we teach our campers on their way to being their best selves.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy.

References

Kessler, R. (2020). Outbreak: Pandemic strikes. Eco Health Alliance. Retrieved from ecohealthalliance.org/2018/05/outbreak-pandemic-strikes?gclid=Cj0KCQjwoPL2BRDxARIsAEMm9y-ZnEqTb1-IiLYFxJCeFMWxMYBuLIoN8LGLqyF7tu1ybeDgVma1CDMaAreDEALw_wcB

Marcus, J. (2020, May 11). Quarantine fatigue is real. The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/quarantine-fatigue-real-and-shaming-people-wont-help/611482/

Porter, C. (2020, June 5). The top doctor who aced the coronavirus test. The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2020/06/05/world/canada/bonnie-henry-british-columbia-coronavirus.html

 


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