I’ve never been the same since that bonfire on the 4th of July. An angel gave me a precious gift — really. Then I learned such a good lesson that I sent an email about it to my friends. Like all good lessons, this one kept on teaching. It still is.
I accepted an offer from a New England camp and conference center to co-direct their first Recovery Camp for adults. The center had hosted a series of one-week summer camp experiences for young people and adults for many years, always keeping abreast of the needs of the times. This week presented adults who were recovering from abuse, addiction, alcoholic parents and traumas of all kinds, a chance to finally have a wonderful time at summer camp.
My co-leader had had a reputation as a dynamic, innovative leader. I knew going in that it was really his baby with me serving more as an assistant. It sounded good when I signed on. I figured I’d learn a lot. We did not get along. Even though we both meant well, we strongly disagreed on important issues. It got harder and harder to find a way through our conflicting thoughts and feelings as the week went along. When I spoke up, our conflict escalated. He was furious with me. When I kept quiet, I felt like a hypocrite and a coward. The daily schedule was demanding. The format was new. Our campers brought deep and intense material with them. What a bunch of challenges for us all.
I am not wild about admitting this. After over decades working on my own emotional independence, I lost the vision. Though I wrote two books on the subject, “Emotional Options” and “Travelling Free: How to Recover From the Past by Changing Your Beliefs” and had taught countless seminars on inner freedom, I was melting down. My whole body hurt. I knew a little kid who used to say to his daddy, “You hurt all my feelings!” I knew what he meant. Most of my feelings hurt.
As I approached the morning staff meeting my most fervent desire was to make it though without crying. One of our last events was a big 4th of July bonfire and talent show. I suggested that a Personal Declaration of Independence would be apt for our 65 campers as they reclaimed their lives from all sorts of troubled pasts. To my surprise, the man agreed. We decided that each camper who wanted to. would make a declaration and add a stick to the fire as a symbol of new freedom.
I’m not sure how I would have made it to the bonfire without my guardian angel — really. One of the delightful features at the Recovery Camp was our guardian angels. At the beginning of the week, we each drew a name. We became that person’s secret guardian angel for the duration of camp. The craft room buzzed with folks making treasures for the person they “guarded”. My angel was truly heaven-sent. Each day she left special messages or flowers or some other imaginative surprise in my camp cubby.
On the morning of the bonfire a large bunch of tied-together sticks rested on the floor below my cubby, much too large to fit in the cubicle. Someone had attached a note to it. A chill passed though me. My first thoughts were of “sticks and stones” and “switches and ashes” my grandfather said his brother got one Christmas morning. Was the staff conflict even worse than I thought? Hoping it wasn’t for me, I bent down and picked it up. The note said “These sticks are so I can see your beautiful face glow even more brightly at the campfire tonight when you declare your independence.” Surely the best angel a mortal ever had watched over me that week.
Night falls. As we file along the dark woodsy path, the bonfire lights up the clearing ahead. A staff member hands each of us a small twig, about six inches long, to throw on the fire as we make our declarations. I, of course, have brought my own wood, thank you. Not one piece, but a bundle. Not small, but large no-fooling-around firewood.
The show proceeds with a rich assortment of sublime and absurd performances. As it comes to an end with roaring applause, two desires dwell in my heart; I want to be somewhere else and I want to fit in, just like a million shy campers before me. Neither choice seems available. My bundle rests beside me. My big bunch of big branches. One by one people stand up. They step forward. They make heart touching declarations of independence and add their small twigs to the fire. The moment is magical.
Across the campfire, the leader and the loyal staff beam at the campers. They really like this guy. He, really does not like me. In staff meetings, he has by now, accused me of undermining him and of betraying him like no other person in all of his long life. I feel icily alone. But I know that somewhere in the circle a guardian angel who gathered branches for tonight waits. Person after person adds a twig to the blaze. The last call comes. One or two stragglers summon the courage to share their declarations and burn their twigs. A silent pause follows.
I stand up. My voice trembles, “I have something to say.” The co-director and several of the staff members roll their eyes and make big “Oh, damn, now what?” faces. The director frowns at me and moves his hand in quick circles with that speed-it-up gesture. Gathering courage from the campers who went before me, I say, “I have always dreaded standing out in an inappropriate way.” I hear a murmur of recognition, of ‘me too.’ “But I have the most wonderful guardian angel in the world who gave me this big bunch of sticks to burn at the fire tonight.” I raise my bundle high and say, with tears in my voice, but loudly, “So I’m declaring my independence from fear of your judgments and I’m burning my big bunch of sticks that aren’t like anybody else’s. Thank you Guardian Angel!”
Cheers rang out from my fellow campers.
It was a good lesson for me. And like all good lessons, it kept on teaching. I’ve thought of my angel and that day often. Last year I sent a short version of this story out with the following suggestion: “As we approach this Independence Day celebration I encourage you to throw a declaration on the barbie or write one down and burn it with a candle, or just take a moment to consider freedom and independence. What do you declare your independence from?”
A surprising number of people, almost everyone, responded. Some were touched, some inspired, but just as many people wrote to say they couldn’t do it. They told me about things they knew they wanted to be free from. Then they explained what prevented them from doing it.
Remembering that night and my own fear, I wondered what the big deal was. It was just a campfire gathering at a wonderful place in the Berkshires. But my own inner tyrant had tied me up in knots, inflicted my muscles with tension and pain, filled my heart with dread and pretty much paralyzed me. I looked at my own fear again. I asked myself the breakout questions I use in my work.
What about those judgments was scary? It wasn’t just any old judgments. The thought of impending ridicule and scorn sent those shivers down my spine.”What about ridicule and scorn involves fear?” I asked myself. The sound of my mother’s voice came to mind and a scathing kind of irritation she expressed when I “got in her way.” The way I seemed to be in the way that summer in the mountains. “What about that sound?” I asked. I followed that fear to see where it led. Then I knew; I dreaded total demoralization, succumbing to jeers and taunts and giving up. In order to avoid that final defeat, I had skirted many issues and pulled many a creative punch. I was afraid I would lose my will to live.
I had felt so unwanted as a child, so perpetually in the way that my desire for life was very weak for a long time. I dreaded a return to that feeling. I guarded against it in many, ways, most of them unconscious, all of them limiting.
If it were not for my guardian angel and that bonfire, indeed were it not for my co-director and every single person there that night would I have had the courage to declare my independence from that particular tyrant within, even for one moment? I don’t think so.
Our founding fathers did not know what it would take or how to gain independence from the British Empire. They eloquently and oh, so powerfully declared their independence from an oppressive tyrant and began. Then they fought for years to win their freedom and ours.
Imagine the courage! Today we celebrate the declaration, not the victory which came 7 long years later. We celebrate the vision and enjoy the freedom.
What is your Declaration of Independence today? Do you need to win your freedom from an oppressive employer, an addictive substance, an abusive relationship? Or is yours a tyrant within? Does a critical voice in your mind nag at you continually? Does explosive anger destroy important relationships?
As we celebrate our country’s Declaration of Independence please take some time to reflect on the state of your personal independence. Choose something to tackle and write it down. Toss a twig on the barbie with the burgers and send it into the cosmos. Or frame it to read every day. Keep it to yourself or share it with everyone you know.
I imagine a world filled with people independent and free from hate, violence, revenge and war. And I know I have more work to do on that scorn stuff because I just caught myself wondering if you’ll think this is too mushy.