This season, I’ve had the chance to go on three camping trips already. One of my favorite things about camping is the quality of conversations that happen sitting around a campfire under the stars. It’s quite different from what you get gathered around a television at home.
As a group of us basked in the fire’s warm glow, the conversation drifted into the challenges of parenting. Raising children can be isolating – so many of the difficult moments happen at home or, worse, in a public place surrounded only by strangers. It can be hard not to feel like I am doing it wrong, or that there is something wrong with my children, and that their defects were inherited or learned from me. It is not always easy to share from that vulnerable space.
One parent, whom I’ll call Terry, was concerned about throwing books. They said “I’d never hit my child, but sometimes I’ll take a book and throw it across the room.” The significance of the act is amplified by the value their family places on books. Terry told us about talking to the director of their child’s pre-school, who pointed out that this was a violent act, and in conflict with Terry’s commitment to breaking the cycle of abuse and violence. Terry went on, “I was hit as a child, by both my parents. When my child lashes out at me, especially physically, I still have that old reaction to want to hit back, which I would never do, but I could throw a book from here to the Bay Bridge, I get so mad.”
As the burning logs popped and cracked, I sensed the deep-felt sympathy in the circle.
The owner of another fire-lit face shared that they, too, had been abused as a child. They found children difficult to be around, and generally kept their distance. I, along with other parents in the circle, was able to say that they seemed totally appropriate with our kids on this trip.
It is priceless for people to share deeply about themselves from vulnerable places, and to have the chance to see themselves reflected back through the lens of another’s perspective and experience. This kind of conversation builds community, and changes lives. It has changed mine. I imagine it has changed some of yours, too, right?
This level of conversation doesn’t happen all the time, though I think most of us in this room come seeking something similar. What made that night’s sharing possible? Most of us hadn’t met before that weekend of pitching tents and sharing food together. Like an orchid, whose blooms need proper temperature, light, and water to thrive, a beautiful conversation blossoms under the right conditions. It is trust that grows the courage to have this type of conversation. That trust can be a fragile thing. Could that trust be built in a context of comments disparaging each other’s identities, visible or invisible? Some have argued that movements to encourage speech sensitive to race, gender, sexuality, disability, trauma, age, and other experiences, sometimes called “political correctness,” stifles free speech. Really, that kind of sensitivity helps make a space freer for speech that does so much to build thriving communities.