Roses And Thorns

Ken Gorrell

by Ken Gorrell,
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

When I wrote my last essay I was preparing for a week-long camping trip with a Boy Scout troop. That trip has joined a long list of camping adventures I’ve enjoyed with this group of Scouts and adult leaders. Each event has been unique despite the similarities: Tenting, building camp fires, hiking and other outdoor activities, learning and developing leadership skills, and, of course, enjoying the camaraderie.
At the end of each trip we gather around for “roses and thorns,” a time when each person presents his high and low point of the event. No names, just experiences. Usual “roses” are the big events, which in this case included an overnight Mt. Washington hike and playing in the natural water slide off the Kancamagus Highway. Usual “thorns” are what you’d expect: meal clean up, lack of sleep, and rain.
I always focus more on the thorns, which provide greater insight into how these kids think. A recurring thorn from last week was rooted in the kids’ sense of “fairness.” Some complained that they had been asked to do more chores than other Scouts. I’m sure it’s a common refrain heard by parents and teachers, but we usually avoid it at camp, where the fun-to-drudgery ratio is high and the older Scouts nip it in the bud.
This time we had a younger group, and it seemed as if some them had spent the week thinking like accountants and referees. One Scout railed at the perceived injustice of being tasked to do more than others. At his age, justice and fairness are inextricably intertwined, and he couldn’t see how debilitating that mindset can be. Somewhere further along the path to adulthood he’ll learn that fairness ranks low on the justice continuum.
How do you explain to 12- or 14-year-olds that one of the secrets of life is “Life ain’t fair” – and that that’s not a bad thing? How do you help them see that life, in all its wondrous complexity, is too big to be constrained by such a small-minded, petty concept as “fairness”? Maybe there’s a celestial balance sheet or scoreboard maintained by beings more capable than us, but with our limited view, we can’t possible see and keep track of all the things done for us by others. By making good deeds transactional, you’re missing the point. Doing the right thing has a value all its own. That was my thorn for the week, but I’m not sure I got my point across.
I told the Scouts that I sometimes feel embarrassed thinking about all the things people have done for me – people I’ve known, others I’ve not known, doing things I’ve recognized (and, I hope, acknowledged), but also doing things on my behalf that I didn’t even know were done. I told them that I can only pray that in the end I’ve managed to do for others as they’ve done for me, but that there’s no way of keeping track. Treating life like a balance sheet means missing out on the joys and serendipity of life.
Nietzsche was wrong. Perhaps his Übermensch is strengthened by surviving near-fatal adversity, but for most of us humans, that which does not kill us usually just makes us surly and resentful. What makes us stronger and brings true happiness is making personal connections through the deeds we do, and weaving them tightly into the tapestry of our lives. A focus on fairness interferes with making those connections. Who wants to be in a relationship with someone who keeps score?
Moral character is developed by making a habit of doing the right thing, without regard to the immediate benefits it might bring or what others have done for us. Fairness has no place in that calculation. Setting the example lifts spirits and makes all but the most defiant better and happier. It’s not a contradiction to believe that by giving more than we get, we will get more than we give. That’s a lot for a young teen to learn. It’s part of Scouting’s mission to help them figure it out.
Part of our challenge was generational. It’s easy for kids to think that we old guys just don’t understand, especially when we clearly didn’t recognize the signs of withdrawal for kids losing access to their smart phones. Luckily, we had two Eagle Scouts with us, former Troop members and now college students, who were well-positioned to bridge the generational divide. Their counsel and example helped these young Scouts understand that keeping score is for sports. In life, it deadens the spirit and distracts from the mission. It’s also impossible.

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