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How To Learn From A Troubled Child's Stunning Metamorphosis To Use Empathy

Do you feel bewildered by other people's actions?

Do you find yourself cursing another's stupidity for obviously failing to see the truth?

Do you ever shake your head in disbelief at someone with opposing views?

Maybe you hear about someone’s criminal behavior and decry “throw away the key”?

I know I have.

I have been blessed with a life path of teaching to develop an innate ability to see things at a higher level that are perhaps connected in a way that others don’t see. My brain loves patterns (which is maybe why I was born into a family that’s surname is PATTERsoN).

I’ve been on a 43-year journey to understand suffering, growth, transformation, and love. As a youngster, I believed I had the solutions to so many challenges being faced in the world. I’m grateful for that deep desire to see pain and wish to support others and remove it.

I’m also grateful that I was naive. That no matter what, I also followed my heart being spoken to by my soul to go on the hero’s journey to understand better how to communicate what I’ve learned.

Today is one of those days that a magical awareness to share happened.

Why Cancel Culture is toxic

For the past year, I have been in the dirt, learning to work with kids in Wilderness Therapy. SUWS of the Carolinas was a program dedicated to giving to that otherwise had been given up on - another shot at redemption. Today I’m going to share the full circle of one of our many success stories.

To maintain privacy, certain elements have been tweaked and names changed. I choose to use the plural pronouns they/them/their because this story represents each and every student that’s gone through the program.

The student in question is *Malcolm.

Today Malcolm graduated from their second wilderness program after SUWS was shut down 56 days into their stay. They arrived because of a court order following felony charges.

After another 55 days in their second program - today, they graduated having completed 111 days of wilderness therapy. A truly remarkable feat.

Here’s the thing - they didn’t just graduate. They’ve used their opportunity to work on their anger, poor coping mechanisms, lack of emotional control, and disobedience. Instead of going to jail, their actions at both programs have seen the court drop the charges. When all boarding schools rejected any notion of enrolling them - they now had options to choose from to continue working and get back to school.

To say I’m proud is like admiring the most beautiful vista Earth has to offer and saying “that’s nice.”

Embodying Forgiveness & Providing Support.

I’d love to say Malcolm simply arrived and breezed through every aspect of therapy and wilderness. But change takes time. If you’ve been angry for years, a couple of days of therapy don’t just erase those emotional responses triggered when threatened.

Even with the knowledge they were facing jail time, they had two incidents with peers and my co-staff that almost got them kicked out and straight into the 6x8 cell. In one case, they physically attacked another student, and when staff intervened - attacked them too.

I can go into their personal traumas that, now having the ability to separate actions from the person, give you perspective into where their anger comes from. How long its been brewing within them. How embedded in their physiology, it was that it became second nature. Take my word - they are things people shouldn’t endure, and let's keep going.

At SUWS, there was their therapist Julia, two field directors, a program director, three logistics staff, a nurse, a psychiatrist, the CEO, and between 15 to 20 field staff living with them in the wilderness, working daily to provide guidance, support, love, compassion, hold boundaries, and facilitating debriefings after flare-ups.

I want to interject here that the goal was never to create “good” little boys and girls. The objective was to provide a safe space for them to have their natural reactions, allow time to cool down, discuss what happened, plan for the next time, and then practice getting better and using grounding techniques and coping skills. Slowly but surely, chipping away at the layers of marble around them to reveal their inner David.

Each one of those people you read above had all the students central to everything we did. It took a village to help this child reconnect to their true essence and let go of destructive behaviors and patterns led by an outstanding therapist.

After the second incident, though, our CEO had enough and wanted to kick them out. Enter our rockstar therapist, who believed wholeheartedly there was progress and that Malcolm deserved another chance and desperately wanted to keep them out of jail.

Malcolm turned a corner, and with some truly magnificent pieces of instructing that I was privileged to witness, Malcolm started realizing the magnitude of the consequences and listened to all of us to change the trajectory of their life. Needing to be separated from the group, Malcolm had a dedicated Master Instructor, Lee-Ann supporting them, and the corner was turned.

The Power of Ubuntu In Action

I was with Malcolm, too, when we shared the news of SUWS closing down, which they took extremely well, especially considering it directly affected their treatment plan to avoid jail, and was immediately more worried about us — the staff — and that we’d be out of a job.

Just before hearing the news that SUWS was being closed down, my friend Scott gave me a book, Everyday Ubuntu: Living Better Together, The African Way by Mungi Ngubane. Knowing I only had two shifts left, something stirred in my soul to bring it with me to work and share with the students.

I had the privilege of working both those shifts with Malcolm, the last of which I both requested the group to work specifically with Malcolm and requested my co-staff, too, to really go out by being the Buffalo. My co-staff Kayla was the one attacked by Malcolm. Again, something inside me spurred to do this, knowing we had the chance to face a potentially challenging situation and turn it into an opportunity for healing and transformation.

Armed with my book, a phenomenal conversation with the therapist on what to focus on, and honest conversations about how Kayla felt about my request — we headed into the lion's den.

I had an opportunity to facilitate healing between Malcolm and Kayla and a safe space to discuss what happened the last time they’d worked together. They both showed courage and humility to listen and express themselves clearly. Most importantly, Malcolm had an opportunity to show them with their actions. Talk is cheap. I’ve heard more promises broken than a campaign trail. I watch actions.

Without hesitation, Malcolm expressed regret about what they’d done last time and, looking Kayla in the eyes, said, “I’ve changed since then, and I want to show you with my actions that I’ve learned from that and can be better.”

I also had the chance to choose our adventure that week, and I chose an arduous 12-mile hike over three days — which, between only four people meant extra weight on our backs to carry. The hikes themselves were a challenge alone, but on day one, we faced an awful day of rain as we hiked over a mountain to get to our campsite… drenched. After six hours, we made it to camp, but there was no complaining. No passive-aggressive behavior. No snide remarks. When you overcome challenges together, you build bonds that become unspoken. The trust developed because we all know what we just went through, climbs any wall or barrier ahead. Instead, we huddled around a fire to get dry and share stories, and laugh.

My favorite moment at that campsite was watching Malcolm get help from a peer that expressed safety concerns with Malcolm — and offer to help them carry water from the creek.

My heart almost burst open, as they arrived back laughing together.

Full Circle… Becoming the Buffalo.

At the end of 56 days and at SUWS’s final graduation ceremony, Malcolm’s mother came up to me to thank me for my part in helping them. I was promptly blown away when she said to me, “and I bought that Ubuntu Book. I’ve started reading it and I’ve already rea

d some really powerful stories.”

Malcolm had written letters about learning about Ubuntu, and she’d bought it for the family. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the mom brought it with her to give to Malcolm on the way to the second treatment program. Not only did Malcolm finish reading the whole book — but they started reading it to their peers.

They learned a valuable lesson too, as the peers seemed disinterested time after time when they read to them. Sharing this with their therapist, they wanted to stop reading to them. They were encouraged to keep trying, and guess what, that night, the students asked, “when are you going to read to us from your Ubuntu Book?”

I’ve always wanted to help people. But who knew this little insecure boy from Johannesburg, 13’346km away (8’341.2 mi), would later be able to teach African culture to troubled kids in the wilderness of North Carolina, and actually help them in their cocoon of transformation and begin the arduous journey to break free, spread their wings…..and fly.

When SUWS closed, Malcolm explored therapeutic boarding schools — only to be declined because of the history of violence. Fast forward 55 days — and they had options and were able to control their future by choosing their next step. THAT, is becoming the Buffalo. Facing the hard truths, knowing the road is difficult, accepting where they were, and having the courage to face their storm and get through it.

Now I’d like you to go back to the start and read my initial questions to you, having just read this.

I want you to picture the Republican if you’re a Democrat (or visa versa), Christian if you’re Islam or Jewish (or any combination of that), vaxxed or unvaxxed, any person that is “different” to you in appearance, faith, criminals, state, country, politics — or beliefs for that matter — and think about what you’ve just read about in terms of one of the greatest transformations I’ve been privileged to witness and experience in 111 days.

Do you still think we should dismiss them as “less than”? Or do you think we’ve missed the point of taking time to get to know them?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you want peace, speak with your enemies – not your friends.”

It’s time we start living the universal values of forgiveness and love and step out of fear — just because someone thinks differently doesn’t mean they should be feared. The answer to all challenges is not silencing, canceling, de-platforming, shunning, shaming, blocking. It’s a deeper connection, greater awareness, compassion, understanding, love, and communication — action words.

Watch how easily you find yourself dismissing someone or something you hear in the news or from friends. The real test of courage going forward, though — will be speaking up when a loved one, friend, or colleague is dismissive.

As I’ve learned, sometimes a simple question can shift someone’s awareness. That’s all it takes. Planting seeds of love in the minds of those living in fear will begin to sprout when more people start to water that seed with more love, instead of staying hidden under their own layers of dirt.

Jessie told me a beautiful quote recently, “Sometimes when you're in a dark place you think you've been buried, but you've actually been planted.” ~ Christine Caine

Let’s plant some seeds.

If Talk Is Cheap, What Can I DO Next?

Firstly, be kind to yourself, and give yourself some grace to practice a new way of sharing compassion abundantly. Understand that with Love & Intention - Anything is possible.

Here are some recommendations on what you can do to become a beacon of light, creating waves of change in our communities and helping others like Malcolm change the trajectory of their lives:

  1. Recognize that we don’t know everything, and we certainly don’t know what we don’t know. It’s okay to be wrong today too, because with knowledge gained today, we are better prepared for tomorrow.

  2. Learn to Separate the behavior from the person. I highly recommend watching “I am a killer” to practice

  3. When something is different from your way of thinking, investigate and ask questions why someone thinks differently to you? Watch how quick and easy it is to judge, dismiss, and mock others.

  4. Register to take this course from Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, with his Constructive Dialogue Institute. It has incredibly well-done questions ranging from gun control to abortion that help give context and perspective to see the other side.

  5. Seek out people who differ in opinions from you and ask if they would like to discuss their side

  6. Learn to Active Listen - repeat back to someone what they've said so you can see if you heard (and understand them) correctly.

Be honest about what you know, and be curious to learn more about why someone thinks the way they think instead of being hyper-focused on WHAT they think. Learn to get context by understanding someone else’s life experience that's shaped their worldview.

In 111 days, Malcolm went from potentially spending 35 years in jail, receiving wilderness therapy as a lifeline, almost throwing away that opportunity twice, being rejected by all boarding schools even after completing 56 days at SUWS, becoming appreciative to learn about another cultures way of building community, teaching that to other students, and finally graduating and being able to pick their next therapeutic school to continue their transformation. Yes, Malcolm has done amazing work, but they need to continue with their momentum to fully escape the bonds of anger and make it all the way through the next storm.

What could you do in 111 days with compassion, love, forgiveness, perseverance, dedication, and courage?

You could change someone’s life. Including yours.

That’s what.

For anyone in the USA reading this and wishing to chat with Julia about how she and Trails can help them and their child - please reach out by clicking HERE

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