Two school buses pulled in to the large dirt parking area. Jon Dery, our charismatic program director, climbed on one of them. A few minutes later the buses were gone and 60 to 100 sixth grade graders formed a circle around him, joined by 10 instructors. I was a recent graduate, as were several others. A couple more were taking time off from college. For the time we were outdoor instructors at Otter Lake Conservation School in Greenfield, New Hampshire. It was the most formative experience of my life.
School groups came to stay at camp for the week. Except for a month around the Holidays, we operated throughout the school year. The snow, like the rest of nature, became an object for our instruction and experience. The kids were quickly divided into groups and assigned to one instructor for the week. With as few words as possible, I took my group into the woods. I wound my way around until I found a familiar opening, so we could create our first circle and review the few simple rules. Stay together. No throwing rocks. No swinging sticks. I had to get to the rules quickly, because otherwise the boys would inevitably begin throwing and swinging.
At the end of the week, we had our final circle. I told each in turn how I saw their role in the group, how well I thought they did, and something I thought they could work on. Then I asked them to give me their thoughts about the group and their instructor. Someone would always speak for the group and confess that when they first saw the instructors, they had hoped for a different one. Once we were in the woods, though, playing match-my-steps, or doing trust activities, or facing team challenges, they were really glad for how things worked out. I wasn’t serious, or stand-offish, or boring, like they thought at first glance. Actually, I really got into stuff.
That’s what happened. I challenged my group to go a little further, push a little harder, and take any hardship as an opportunity. And they challenged me. I paid attention to personalities, negotiated, prompted, and facilitated. I tried to give them the minimum input I thought was required so that they could take the initiative, and therefore the ownership, of success at whatever task we had given them. Most, but not all, of the tasks we had contrived as part of the program. One of the culminating activities had the group prepare and eat lunch on their own. We provided the raw ingredients, a pot, and 1 match. The group had to choose a private place in the woods on the opposite side of the lake, and when they were done, leave absolutely no trace. On the next day, we hiked to the summit of Crotched Mountain – whatever the weather.
If it rained or snowed, we dressed for it. DeWayne, the director, taught us a diddy to pass on to our kids: “Whether the weather be sunny, or whether the weather be not, whether the weather be cold, or whether the weather be hot, we’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether we like it or not.”
We liberated our middle school students, not just by going outdoors, but by constraining the options available to them. We defined the groups and instructors. We gave them a fixed set of supplies with which to accomplish challenges. We were determined to do our activities, no matter what.
People often confuse freedom with freedom of choice. Choices are not inherently liberating. We are either led to make the best choice (a matter of calculation) or we stubbornly make a bad choice (and do worse than those who are smarter). If we made calculated, rational choices, these could be bought by the highest bidder. That’s not the kind of freedom I want. It is a central paradox of human experience that we are most free when we give ourselves the least latitude to change our minds. We make ourselves resistant to the temptation of a bidder who would like to influence our behavior. We also make our behavior independent of circumstances more broadly. These can be called “environmental conditions,” or in a word, the weather.
When I woke up this morning, I burrowed more deeply under my covers on the futon. I could hear the wind blowing outside. Rain was spattered against the window. My workout for this morning was 70 minutes with four 2-minute surges. I put on my running clothes, and stood at the window. I allowed myself to imagine cold water pelting my warm skin, with my head hunkered down against the wind, while I struggled to extend my stride for an honest two minutes. I thought of lessons learned from Otter Lake Conservation School and I proceeded to… eat breakfast. Yes, I delayed my run because of the weather. What about my freedom, my resistance to outside influence? Even as I write, I recall the moniker given me by my friend Kristin Duncan in high school. She called me “the stone pillar.” I was unwavering.
I injured my knee playing indoor soccer during the winter of my senior year. I had to wear a cast that immobilized the knee joint for 6 weeks. I “crutched” my afternoon runs. I could actually cover some serious ground with a 3-legged hop-skip-crutch pattern. I gave myself a destination in another neighborhood – frequently it was Kristin’s house. I was attracted to Kristin because she was, in many ways, indifferent. She was interested to have conversations, and she loved to laugh. But she didn’t need to convince me of anything. I was wary of girls – especially the ones well equipped to lure boys. I suppose I perceived any temptation as a threat to my autonomy. I didn’t often go to parties, and I certainly never drank. I went to bed (as I still do) at 9:15.
Have I grown soft, now that I allowed a little sprinkle to delay my workout? Have I lost a little of my freedom? I want to say no, and you can call me out if you think I’m rationalizing, but here’s why. All freedom is measured. We are mistaken when we imagine freedom to be something floating above the physical world – as if it is a set of choices not influenced by natural forces. Our behavior can only be caused by natural forces. Forces can be harnessed in opposition to predictable temptations. This is manifest, for example, by the “whatever the weather” mantra. If the rule against yielding, however, is absolute – like the stone pillar – it is no more liberating than succumbing to the original temptation.
I like to think I can be reasoned with. My schedule in Colorado Springs is flexible. I can eat first, then run, as easily as I can run, then eat. In fact, I want practice eating then running because I will have to run with food on my stomach in order to complete a 100 mile race. There are things we should be determined to do, no matter what. Right now it doesn’t have to be to run first thing in the morning – in nasty weather.