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What it was like to find a way out of a conflict in a creative and compassionate way

April 4, 2013, 9:00 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 968

By markandreas_1

The Wall

(A story from Sweet Fruit from the Bitter Tree)

I was co-leading a backpacking expedition of eight adolescent boys in a wilderness therapy program in Colorado. It was the middle of our trip in Rocky Mountain National Park and they had just finished a weekend of therapy. The therapists had left the field that morning and we started out on our six-mile hike to our next camp. The morning sun slanted through the thinning pines, illuminating the steep slopes of the valley as we ascended through the cliffs onto the plateau above tree line.

We had only been underway ten minutes when one of the guys started lagging behind.

“Hold on up there!” I shouted to the kids in front, and they waited for Travis to catch up.

“We need to keep the group together,” I said when Travis had arrived with the rest of the bunch.

One of the other boys came back to talk to him. Jordan was a super athlete—a competitive skier with the strong muscular build of a wrestler. Frustration showed in his eyes to be slowed down this early in the day. “Hey Travis,” Jordan said. “Will you walk up front so we can keep the group together? I don’t like stopping and starting all the time.”

Travis looked at the ground, also frustrated. He didn’t respond.

“Travis, will you go to the front?!”

“Travis,” I asked, “Will you respond to Jordan’s request?”

He just shook his head.

“Can you at least tell Jordan you need space right now?”

Nothing.

“God damn it!” Jordan cursed.

After a bit more trying it was clear that Travis wasn’t going to engage.

“Jordan, he’s obviously not in a space to talk about it right now. I appreciate you asking him respectfully and I wish he could respect you by responding. That’s clearly not going to happen right now so let’s keep hiking.”

“F**k! Why won’t you just go to the f**ng front?!” Jordan stormed to the front of the trail. “It’s bitches like you that make this take all day. I just want to get to f**ng camp!”

In minutes, the group was spread out again and we had to stop for Travis a second time. Tensions were rising with Jordan and some of the other boys, and the cursing and angry comments increased.

My co-leader Molly said, “Jordan, I agree with you that Travis is acting inappropriately right now, and that’s no reason for you to do the same by calling him names behind his back.”

But when we got going again the sideways remarks continued.

“It looks to me like you guys want to have Group.” I said.  A ‘Group’ is any time the ten of us sit down together to talk about what’s up for any of us. We might talk about frustrations or problems, new learnings, things we appreciate, or things we want to improve upon.

“No, you’ve gotta be kidding,” Jordan said.

“Well, you obviously have a lot to say, so let’s have a group. What do you think Molly? How about up on the plateau behind those rocks.”

“I think that sounds like an excellent plan.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding.” Jordan repeated, shaking his head. “I’m not having Group.”

At the top of the plateau the rest of the kids stopped, but Jordan kept powering ahead.

“Have a nice Group,” he said. “I’ll see you in camp.”

Molly stayed with the seven kids while I dropped my pack and ran after Jordan as he disappeared over a hill. I jogged past him and stood in front of him, blocking his way forward on the trail. My heart was pounding from more than just the jog. I remembered back to a few weeks earlier when he destroyed several aspen saplings in a rage because of what he saw as an unjust consequence.

“We need to keep the group together, Jordan.” I said.

“I’m not going back there. I’ll see you at f**ng camp.”

He took one step off the path and I mirrored his movement to block his way forward. Then he stepped off in the other direction and I mirrored him again.

“We can’t let you go on alone, Jordan. If something happens to you we’re responsible.”

“Nothing will happen.”

“We can’t know that.”

“Will you restrain me?”

“Maybe.” I said. What he didn’t know was that we weren’t allowed to restrain a kid unless two people were present, and with a kid his build we probably wouldn’t even try a two-person take down.

“Jordan, I don’t want to get into a struggle with you.”  I kept talking, hoping to keep him from trying to solve his problem physically. “I just want to keep the group together and safe. Let’s go back, you can leave your pack here and we’ll pick it up when we continue hiking.”

“If I go back there now I’ll look like an idiot.”

“I think the group might appreciate you coming back.”

Jordan shook his head.

“You’re kind of stuck, aren’t you? Go forward and you have to deal with me, go back and you’ll feel like you lost.”

“Yep.” He bit off the word sharply, still paused in indecision with one foot off the trail. I waited for a bit, but nothing changed, so I decided to try a different tack.

“I can see you’re pretty upset.” I said. “What’s going on for you right now?”

“I want to get to f**ng camp.”

“Jordan, I know you want to get to camp, but there’s more to it than that. What’s triggering you so much about this.”

He just shook his head.

“I’d really like to know what’s going on, but I feel like you’ve got this big wall up.”

“Yep,” he said with a defiant glint in his eye. “I’m balancing on that wall right now and I don’t know which way I’ll fall.”

“Which way would you like to fall?

“I think I’ll just keep walking until it gets thinner and thinner and I’ll be forced to fall.”

I took a breath. Jordan was a smart kid. We could trade metaphors all day without making any progress. Our conversation lapsed into silence as we stood there in a standoff. I was out of ideas.

I glanced down at the gold cross hanging on a chain around his neck. Well, if we were going to stand here for a while I might as well learn something.

“Where’d you get that cross?” I asked.

“My uncle gave it to me. He got it on a trip to Spain. It’s real gold.”

“That’s cool. My dad used to bring me back old coins when he went traveling.”

“Were they gold?”

“He found a gold coin on an airplane once. It was about that big,” I indicate a circle with my finger and thumb. “But he found the owner. It was probably worth about fifty bucks. The ones he brought back to me were silver though. They were old Greek coins. One has the Pegasus on it. They’re not even round; they were made so long ago they’re all lopsided, and sometimes the printed circle goes off the edge of the coin. They’re pretty neat.”

Jordan shifted his weight. “Alright, I’ll go back but I’m not saying anything.”

“That’s fine. You can leave your backpack here if you want.”

“I’ll just leave it on.”

“OK.”

Jordan turned back down the trail and I followed him back to the group.

It wasn’t any clever strategy that worked. By simply connecting with him in a different realm I was no longer in opposition to him. Instead I was another person who had received something special from a family member. That connection invited him away from the wall where there were no good solutions.

This story is excerpted from Sweet Fruit from the Bitter Tree: 61 stories of creative and compassionate ways out of conflict, by Mark Andreas

Copyright ©2011 Real People Press.

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