“I am protected”

The summer camp that our homework club kids are attending is winding up for the year (today is their last day, actually), and as part of the program the kids were given cameras to take pictures of their experiences. Yesterday was the first showing of these photos at the Deaverview Community Center for the Deaverview Homework Club kids. Today is the bigger showing at Pisgah View (the club I served at). I don’t actually know these kids much (I’ve only seen the DVHC in action a few times), but I helped set up the photos and attended the event itself. It was really cool. The kids took some great photos.

But the most powerful moment of the night for me wasn’t a photo at all. As part of the exhibit, there were also some stories written by the kids about their experiences, to go along with some of the photos. A lot of them touched on how cool it was to learn and do new things and see new places, which is pretty neat by itself. But one student’s comments really hit me hard.

The student wrote about how at summer camp, no one made fun of you, even if you got scared halfway up a rock and cried for your mother. They talked about how this environment taught them that even if you lose a game, it could still be fun. And the kicker comment for me was that in summer camp, they wrote, “I am protected.”

Yeah. Big throat lump time.

When I was a kid, I wasn’t protected. I grew up abused at home and bullied at school. I did get some reprieve at Girl Scouts and at my grandparents. But mostly, not so much.

So even if I wasn’t at summer camp and I didn’t work with this kid directly, to know that I was a part of a program that was able to do that for a kid is an extremely powerful and healing for me. At that moment, reading that line, everything that happened this year was worth it.

Not that I was unhappy with my service year before that, not at all. We did a lot of good work, of which this is just one more piece. But that comment made it concretely clear that I did what I set out to do when I signed up for this gig – to make life better for these kids, to give them the security and support that I didn’t have, to give back what those few people who had tried to protect and support me had given me. To heal for someone else, to whatever extent I could, the wounds I received.

To some people that may sound weird, but the reality is sometimes the best (or only) way to heal or get closure on a past hurt is to figuratively bandage someone else’s hurt. When someone hurts you, especially as a child, they take away some of your power by taking away your sense of safety, your sense of security and your sense of sanity (of things making sense and being predictable and workable). They make the world an capricious, dangerous place to live and they twist the natural, inborn trust and reliance we have for others who are supposed to love us and take care of us into cynicism and mistrust. That loss of power can stick with you for a long time, leaving you to grow up insecure, anxious, fearful, feeling helpless or dependent on others for approval, permission and self-worth.

Changing this dynamic for someone else allows you to take back the power your abuser or situation took from you. By recreating the situation, stepping into your abuser’s position and then changing the outcome to something positive, you take back that power. You take away their power to hurt you by putting yourself on equal footing with them (being in a position to affect the life of someone) and then using that power for good, rather than harm.

And it’s also healing because it’s like overwriting a bad file (what happened) with a new one (the better outcome). In the same way you can begin to believe a lie if you repeat it enough times, you can also begin to believe a truth (kids can rely on adults to keep them safe and support them, adults won’t betray your trust) the same way.

And that might seem like a lot of stuff to come from one short statement. But those three words released a lifetime of hurt and powerlessness.

So while it’s true that a picture may be worth a thousand words, sometimes just a few words can hold the power to change the world.

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