Camping and Meaning of Life
Since today is Groundhog Day, let’s watch Bill Murray and think about the meaning of life.
About two weeks ago, I ran across some blog posts lauding the interview on British Channel 4 of Professor Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Throughout the entire interview (beginning with the first question), the lady doing the interview was picking at him and developed into a nasty onslaught. Despite it, Professor Peterson was the epitomy of Canadian courteous.
I became fascinated with this gentleman. I found his YouTube page and began devouring his lectures. I started on his 2015 lectures on personality.
In lecture number 14 of that series, he is discussing the meaning of life and its impact on the choices that people make (1:01 mark). In previous lectures, he questions whether the Existentialists like Dostoyevsky, Kirkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus were right that the meaning of life is to suffer. If life is suffering, the Existentialists thought that the only solution was to live a truthful and moral life, thereby limiting the spread of suffering. Some were atheists, some were Christians (Kirkegaard and Dostoyevky). So Peterson picks up on this idea of suffering as part of the key component of living.
Peterson points that a resentful person is mad at the world. He is likely seeking to punish the source of the suffering, the person or group of people. The resentful person in suffering wishes to spread suffering as his revenge. Peterson uses this process of vengence as a strong rationale for good and moral behavior. Peterson suggests that each person makes contact with easily 1000 other people over the course of his life (since this is a scouting blog with a primarily male membership for the next few months, we will stick with “he”). Those 1000 people touch a 1000 people. Those 1000 touch another 1000. If each of these contacts is unique persons, that is over 1 billion people that are only 3 touches away. If we use more conservative mathematics, it is still easy to see that tens of millions of people are only 3 touches away; hundreds of millions are 4 touches away.
Peterson suggests that spreading suffering through vengence-seeking behavior has the ability to spread ill feelings and will quickly. It is the effort of the individual to spread friendliness, curtesy, kindness, and cheerfulness that can help break this spread of suffering.
How do we teach a scout to spread friendliness, curtesy, kindness, and cheerfulness? What about putting them in the woods in less than ideal weather? What will happen? Inexperienced scouts will be cranky, angry, and difficult. Yet if they go out in these conditions and experience friendship, comraderie, joy, silliness, and adventure, they learn that hard conditions do not necessarily make a hard person. They learn to see the glass as half-full when the rest of the world wants to ignore the glass exists.
A couple of years ago, we took our troop to the requisite Pokegon State Park tobogan run. We camped out at the edge of the park. The weather was cold that February, and the wind blew over the snow. The scouts were having so much fun sledding, making snow forts, having snowball fights, cooking in the cold, and all the other aspects of troop campout. They didn’t see the cold as a cause of suffering. The cold created the opportunity to enjoy the snow. Cold created the cheerfulness and joy.
Another several campouts all had the same experience. We arrive. The heavens open with a downpour. We spend much of the rest of the campout under shelters playing card games and telling stories. The weather created the chance for patience and mutual interaction.
This is where scouting shines through as the best means of developing character and citizenship in our scouts. They don’t learn to seek joy; they learn to experience joy.
Compare this to the many teenagers who spend most of their time bored and seeking out stimulation and excitement. They don’t have joy so they believe that they need to seek excitement or connection. They seek out dangerous activities or risky behaviors to have an experience of joy. Their daredevil behavior or chemical abuse provides a short buzz, then boredom returns. What stories do they have to share? Daredevils always have the “you’ll never believe what we did” story. Chemical abusers only have “we were so wasted” stories.
Scouts have stories like, “On our fifth day in the Boundary Waters, the rain set in, so we heard thunder. We quickly paddle for shore. As we sat on shore in raingear, we told stupid stories and laughed the hardest we had the whole trip.” (Ask my son about it. It is amazing how waiting on shore can lead to such involved stories.) At the end of the stories, though is an accomplishment: they paddle 50 miles for a week under some rough weather. That lesson is more than a momentary daredevil fix. It is a lesson in finding joy where suffering is possible.
On another canoeing trip, I saw an adult upset that the group was not doing what he wanted. He became resentful. He spent the next day pouting, complaining, and seeking to make everyone else suffer. The rest of the group ignored his antics and kept laughing.
That is Peterson’s lesson on suffering. Spreading suffering is an individual choice that has a significant impact on the individuals around you. A scout learns in the wilderness how to cope with rough situations or dramatic personalities that have the potential to spread suffering. If he can cope with suffering, he is more likely to find joy.
You don’t have to see the world like Kirkegaard in finding God through the suffering and mysteries of life to see the value of using a campout to find joy amidst the suffering of inclement weather.
Don’t treat bad weather as an excuse not to camp. Use bad weather as opportunity to accelerate the citizenship and character building opportunities that are unique to scouting. Your scouts will grow. Your unit will grow.
Training through adaptation to stress
Have you ever had one of those experiences in life where you’re studying or working on something completely different and you start seeing logical connections with everything else you’re doing? That is happening to me. Recently I finally made the commitment to do weightlifting in training while my son was preparing for high school sports. I was trying to make sure I kept up with the teenager. (It has not been easy for me. Aches and pains. Blah blah blah.)
The goal was to help him get stronger. I needed to learn more about barbell training to help him. University of Tennessee Law School Professor Glenn Reynolds had been praising a gentleman by the name of Mark Rippetoe. The professor had talked about how much Mark’s strength training methods had helped the professor improve his back troubles. I have found the professor interesting about other things, so I took an interest in what he said about this.
I listened to a podcast where Mark was the interviewee. I was instantly hooked. It was passionate, logical, and well informed. I bought Mark’s book Starting Strength. I started to listen to his podcast. I watched his YouTube videos. I bought his app. The more I listened to Mark, the more I learned.
One of Mark’s running themes is the importance of training as a process. Training, as opposed to exercise, is the process of applying repeated stresses to a biological system to create predictable and programmable results. If the technique is properly used, for example in weightlifting by increasing weights in a predictable manner, the body adapts to the stress of greater weight by becoming stronger. The strength comes from the body creating more muscle.
Principles Learned Applied to Scouting
As I have looked at Scouting, I have learned more about Green Bar Bill Harcourt and his theories of the patrol system. I have read Baden Powell’s literature on the patrol system and the intentions of Scouting.
Both of these gentlemen would have seen the logic of Mark’s weight training system. These gentlemen would’ve gone further and suggested that the same principles apply to developing and promoting character in young men and women.
Scouting is a system of intentional stresses placed on boys at strategic moments to create predictable results. If you take a tiger cub into the woods, he will be stressed that he is not in his home environment. He will have fears that he has to overcome with the new noises and smells. The presence of animals may give him trepidation. Yet he walks out of the woods having experienced a game that promotes curiosity and a desire to cooperate. While he may have been yelling at his peers, the den leader offers him the opportunity to be quiet to listen for animals.
As the same boy grows in Webelos, he goes back into the same woods to learn how to work in a small group of boys with one of his peers as the leader. The stresses are more focused on the social aspects. The boys become each others’ teachers. One boy may have taken a great interest in raccoon behavior. Another one may be more interested in trees and leaves. Yet another may be fascinated with mushrooms. Each one of them offers the others some lessons. All of them have to learn how to work together under stress. All the stresses are not necessarily self created. There may be rain or cooler weather than expected. They have to learn to adapt. They have to learn how to put up dining flies or tarps as walls.
As they move into Scouting, they take some of these lessons working together and start to work toward the future. They take a greater part in planning and developing what they want to do. They become more involved with teaching each other the basic skills they need to do camping and cooking in the field. Many of the other scouts will be reluctant students. The teacher must learn patience and creativity in trying to teach his ideas.
Each one of these stresses of working in the field together and teaching one another is a part of the character building system. Each boy will suffer his own stresses. Each one will grow stronger for having faced the stress and adapted to it. Just like a weightlifter must put his body under the stress of increasing weight. He pulls the weight off of the floor in the hope that the additional stress on his muscles will create new muscle fiber; so, too, the scout will face mental stresses and challenges of character that the scoutmaster, the teacher of scouts, hopes will grow the scout’s ability to withstand pressure and stresses in the future while still making moral choices.
So what are the stresses that the scout faces that create character? It is not strict organization and military discipline. The troop that does not suffer chaos and conflict is not doing scouting. A troop that does not take advantage of the chaos to teach lessons of life in the scoutmaster minute or impromptu patrol leader council meetings, does not teach the lessons that are available. The chaos and conflict are our teachable moments. They are what we are waiting for — not trying to avoid.
You know you have run into a masterful scoutmaster if he is both quiet and is keenly observing his troop. He is studying what is going on for his next opportunity to give a scoutmaster minute that is full of lessons of the moment. He is watching to see if there is a vision that he can draw from his senior patrol leader and patrol leaders. He is the master of the Socratic method. He asks strategic questions at strategic moments. In this way he is like the strength coach. He is present and offering tidbits of information. As a coach and teacher, he is not undergoing the stress of lifting the weights. He is offering ways to improve his student’s efforts in the moment. He helps the student articulate his own thoughts about what feelings the student has and what lessons he can learn from those feelings.
So when you see a scout under stress, be aware and think about when you might have a strategic moment to offer a coach’s thought.
Do not remove the stress for the sake of being stress-free. You may be removing the lesson that the Scout needs to grow into the man of character that you seek.