When Trouble Comes

Posted on July 1st, 2017 by

It is never a matter of if.  It is always a matter of when.  Trouble will visit our minds and our lives.  If we know this, we do not have to be afraid.  We can face it without saying “Why me?” and say instead, as Arthur Ashe said when he contracted AIDS through an unscreened blood transfusion, “Why not me?”

This is not fatalistic, and it is not pessimistic.  It is realistic.

Here is the difference between facing trouble with compassion and not facing it.  If we try to shut the door on Trouble, it will blow our house down.  If we invite Trouble to a seat at our table, it will lose its tornadic power and become manageable, and eventually a friend, from the lessons we learn.

This happened the other day at a junior camp.

We had a camper who has had challenges in life many of us would not survive, and who took it out on mostly himself by refusing to participate.  It was painfully difficult, because he did not know he was impacting many people around him.  Some campers lost precious time with instructors because we had to follow and work with him.  And some staff members were taken from their regular duties to attend to a child who was obviously hurting, but also behaving in maddening ways.

Then, the second full day of camp, when we were prepared to send him home because it was too much for all parties, he turned a corner.   He agreed to participate fully in the drills and off court sessions.  He smiled wide and caught the spirit of what we were doing.

But the last morning, something caused him to withdraw again.  When it came to start the final morning reflections , where we begin each day examining our lives on and off the court and how we are going to treat others, he refused to go to breakfast, then when a staff member had to drive him to the classroom, he would not make eye contact and said “I’m done.”  I reminded him of our agreement and he said, “I don’t care”.  This child had been burned so many times in his life by experiences growing up, trust was not even close to being his reflex option.  Suspicion and lashing out were his first reflexes when he felt most vulnerable.  I don’t know what triggered it that last morning, but something did.

I knew this, yet even knowing this did not prevent me from making my own mistake.

I was trying to get the reflection session started on time, but he refused to go into the classroom.  I was in a hurry.  And my patience was wearing thin.  I did not invite Trouble to the table, I tried to strong arm it.

I tried to take a shortcut, out of my own frustration.  I told him that he was 16 and needed to stop this and lead by example.  I told him I was angry.  I did not raise my voice but I let him know that had I known this would happen after our agreement,  we would have sent him home.  “Now it’s time to get in the classroom with the rest of the kids,” I said.  My words had the opposite effect from what I intended.  His eyes flashed back anger and shame.  He said he would never go in now.

I stood there literally wondering what to do.  What I wanted to do was to explode, because that would feel good on one level.  But I knew on a deeper level it would further damage an already damaged child.

What I did was stand in silence with him for 15-30 seconds as we had our stand off.  Then I said, quietly, “Jon, I’m sorry I was sharp with you.  I need you.  I need you to join me in the classroom.  I know you do not want to go in.  But will you?  You are important to me.  Without you, we are not a complete camp.  I have been so impressed by how you have decided to be a part of TLC since yesterday and the positive impact you are making on others.  And I need you now.  You do not have to come in.  But will you?”

He looked at me a long time.  I was prepared for him to say no and for me to go in by myself.

He said, “Ok, but I don’t have to like it.”  I said, “No, you don’t.   And, thank you.”

When camp was over and the kids were leaving, someone tapped my shoulder.  I turned to look and there he was.  He looked me in the eye and apologized.  I told him again how much he meant to me and to us at TLC.  Then he went on his way.

I want to stress that Trouble in this case was not a person, it was the difficult work of untangling a child’s difficult life and letting him know that he is loved.  It is hard sometimes.  It is painful.  And it is exasperating.

But the volatile situation did not change until I invited Trouble to the table with compassion, the way I had seen my staff do all camp long.

Trouble will visit us.  We can escalate it by shutting it out, or we can invite it in for a seat at the table, where it can see that it is safe, and it can let its guard down and be respected, loved, and have the choice to change.

It is hard.  And it is possible.

As we reach nearly the halfway point of the summer, every camp I learn something new.  This time it was that Trouble always has something to teach me.  If I let it in and listen to it.

Have a safe 4th.  I hope it is trouble-free for you, but if it is not, I hope you can invite it to sit down.  I hope you can listen to it, and learn that it is not your enemy, but your friend.

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  1. Greg Emerson says:

    Neal I love your stories and writings! You always find the good in all the Trouble that passes through your doors. You are an amazing mentor, teacher, and leader. Your positivity ignites those around you especially on the 4th:) I am so excited to attend your camp in July with my family. I can’t wait to see you, David and the other instructors. Thank you for all you do and the positive impact you have on everyone.


  2. Wally Schaeffer says:

    Wally Schaeffer here with the soul of Winston Alnot who passed some five years ago. Just listened to leandra sing Greg browns wash my eyes. Think of you so often and the special moments… we shared. Listened to your service at steve’s memorial so many times. At the end of my first camp I said to him… it’s not about the tennis, is it ! Just keep on doing what you are doing. We all need it…both the giver and the receiver. My love to you and all the staff… voices of the heavens!

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Wally and Winston, the dynamic duo! I miss seeing you at camp. You were a light to us all. Thanks for the lovely note. Perfect timing regarding Leandra singing. We retired completely from concerts almost five years ago after 25 fabulous years. Tennis camp became the focus of carrying on and expanding Steve and Barb’s legacy. But Leandra and I are going to record again this fall. I have a bunch of new songs waiting to get out there into the atmosphere. Happy 4th and I hope I see you somewhere down the road!

  3. Barbara Lewis says:

    Neal…it’s not only the kids that you have helped. It’s adults like me who needed your guidance and compassion and songs to get me through each year. Thank you for all you have done and continue to do.

  4. Tierney says:

    Again your words impel me to write a comment. (I am not a comment writer AT ALL.)

    Thank you for sharing your troubles! Not only do you have very wise ways of confronting your “troubles”, you write in a crystal clear and informative way about them so we all can learn from them.

    I appreciate your blog posts because you describe real situations you are experiencing and you don’t use platitudes and trite phrases to demonstrate how you solved your situation. I strive to find the truth and authenticity you are. People are drawn to you for those qualities and then you can do the MOST GOOD in the world, and you do! Apologizing is VERY HARD and that boy’s apology to you is the result of the mutual respect and caring environment you, and the other big-hearted counselors, created for him. That’s huge.

    Thank you Real-Neal for sharing.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      You made me laugh at the end! I know it bugs some people that I share my mistakes, but I know no other way to get the message across. If I can make mistakes and acknowledge them, maybe other people won’t give up because they know we are all – including myself as the writer – trying to figure out the mess of life together. Thanks, Tierney.

  5. Thue Rasmussen says:

    As difficult and–at times–exasperating it is, your patience and compassion sets the valuable example for us all and certainly leaves a redeeming emotional message for those few persons whose vulnerability results in confrontational encounters for which we have to muster the resilience to resolve respectfully. Thank you, Neal.

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thanks, Thue. Coming from a counselor whose very being exudes patience and compassion, I appreciate it.

  6. Scott Link says:

    Great story, Neal. No doubt he will reflect on that moment in the future as a turning point in his life. Thanks for sharing!


    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thank you, Scott, so good to hear from you! I was just thinking of you and the boys!

  7. Anne Arden says:

    I bet he will remember camp (and your kind words) for the REST of his life! You do great work at TLC!


    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Thanks, Anne, I know I’ll remember it for the lesson it gave me 🙂