Dazzling Surprises

By Chris Thurber and Jeb Roberts
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / SergeyNivens

In the world of quantum physics, there is a good chance that if I throw a pebble at a brick wall, the pebble will teleport through to the other side, leaving the wall intact. Many scientists have done this exercise with atomic nuclei and force fields. In fact, if you started throwing pebbles now from a camp sports field at a stone wall near the parking lot and stuck around for a trillion trillion trillion times the age of the universe, you might see one of your pebbles teleport through the wall! That’s physics.

It is interesting, as in the example above, that the world of the large and complicated hinges so profoundly on interactions within the world of the small. Even a pebble owes its existence to the harmony of its dancing atoms. That same pebble that I so callously deem a waste of time contains a world of such epic strangeness that one physicist famously said, “If you think you understand the quantum world, you don’t understand the quantum world.” Sometimes looking at the most simple things in the most unlikely places can reveal the most dazzling surprises.

Colliding With Experiences
We camp leaders are lucky. We don’t have to wait a trillion trillion trillion years for breakthroughs. No, we’re not chucking pebbles at stone walls waiting for miracles. Instead, we’re aggregating young people and witnessing predictable and scientifically validated development. We see breakthroughs in self-esteem, a sense of adventure, independence, and interdependence. The youngsters we work with are colliding with social, athletic, and artistic experiences that open their eyes, enhance their skills, and engender self-worth.

At 5:30 a.m. one Thursday in August, two cabin leaders brought their 10 boys down to the lake for an early-bird swim. The air was a comfortable 68 degrees, the water a balmy 78 degrees. Even with these ideal conditions, one camper did not want to jump in. (The mystery of the unpredictably behaving particle, right? Even a brilliant scientist couldn’t figure it out.)

A leader dealing with this I’d-rather-not-try-something-new scenario has several choices: Let it ride, push hard, or try a Jedi mind trick. These options correspond roughly to chaos, gravity, and quantum physics. One is unpredictable, one is nearly inescapable, and one is quite mysterious. In practice, these options sound like the following:

Let it ride (chaos): “It’s fine, Diego. If you don’t want to jump in the water, that’s OK. You decide.”

Push hard (gravity): “Diego, everyone else has gotten in. Stop standing here on the dock and get in.”

Jedi mind trick (quantum physics): “What would it be like, thinking back to this morning on a winter day, and regret you didn’t take the opportunity to get in the water one fine summer morning?”

Option #1 can work for children who are close to making a good decision on their own. Otherwise, this popular “challenge-by-choice” approach leaves a lot of room for backing down from taking a healthy risk without understanding the personal consequences of avoidance.

Option #2 forces or coerces the young person to perform the desired behavior, which is often done. This gives the outward appearance of success, but robbing a camper of his or her sense of control actually diminishes motivation and self-esteem. It can even create resentment and aversion to try something new. It’s a failure in the long term.

Option #3, which resembles the penetrating mysteries of quantum physics, works best because it relies on a collision between reason, self-determination, hypothetical thinking, and empathy. Best of all, this blend fuels what professional educators refer to as character building . There is something ineffable about it, but a skilled leader knows it when he or she sees it.

With the thoughtful encouragement of his leader, Diego eventually did jump in the water that morning. The broad smile on his face when he surfaced told the predictable story of a life fully lived. However, even if he hadn’t jumped in, he would have learned something about himself. And that is surely the most salient point of departure between youth development and quantum physics. No matter which way human interactions travel and spin, the support of an adult leader can reveal simple opportunities in the most unlikely places.

Jeb Roberts has been serving for three summers as a cabin leader at YMCA Camp Belknap, the camp where he grew up. He is majoring in physics at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Reach him at iseekthejoy@gmail.com .

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a psychologist, author, and father. He serves on the faculty of PhillipsExeterAcademy and is the director of content for Expert Online Training. To book a workshop, purchase DVDs, or access leadership resources, visit CampSpirit.com.