When we were growing up, camping was the highlight of the summer. We’d load up the station wagon, squabble over who was crossing the line, sweat dribbling down our backs and sealing our legs to the seats. You’d pick up one thigh, then the other, put your hands balled up into fists under each and hold them there as long as you could stand before giving up and settling back into the pool of your own sweat. We might pull into a parking lot and have a “car picnic” something I never minded, but my brother still to this day seems to have a distaste for, bologna or Carl Budding turkey, pringles and an apple and then back on the road.
Finally, we’d reach Smith Mountain Lake or Lake Norris and pour out of the car into puddles in the parking lot. Dad would go around to the back of the car and then do something and go somewhere and I would be underfoot or leaning out over the water swearing I can make duck calls and wildly screaming “HONK! QUUUUUACK! HOOOONK!” Then the suitcases were on the boat and we pushed off and headed to our spot.
We knew our peninsula, jutting out into the lake with the cove that my brothers swore was full of catfish that would sting me if I didn’t stop following them around. We’d pull up and then up the hill with all our belongings, up went the biggest burnt sienna tent you’ve ever seen and a smaller green one for the boys. Setting up was tedious, pole, pole, slide, pole and the ever famous line “Sarah, the best way you can help is to just stay out of the way.” But without a place to change no swimming could be done until the tents were up.
At last, camp was set and we were in the water, on the water, or near the water with lines cast. Our vacation had begun and all the effort was worth it. We spent weeks on those shores and when I think of peace its often like Lake Norris in the morning, quiet, damp and cool, blue with an orange glow, all of nature rustling to life and my mom cooking pancakes on the green campstove.
After a week or two of true relaxation it would be time to return home, and every time I heard the same hard and fast rule. If you ask any real camper they’ll know and tell you it the same, leave the campsite nicer than you found it. You sweep all the dirt and spiders out of the tent, straighten up the fire circle and pour out the rest of your melted ice over any left embers. You sweep the bench and the table and check to be sure no soda can was left behind, gather up all the trash and load every bit you came in with back on the boat. Push off and then we were headed back to the dock and to the sweet sweaty insides of the wagon, for a quieter, sleepy ride back home.
A few days ago I was contemplating my childhood camping experiences and this piece came to mind, whether we were at Lake Norris or Smith Mountain Lake, or camping on the Chesapeake Bay or anywhere we stopped along the way across the country and back in our Club Wagon, this was always constant. Leave it nicer than you found it.
I started to think, wouldn’t it be amazing if this was a principle people adopted in their everyday life and applied it to their speech?
There is a story I’ve heard recently the Woodrow Wilson told and later confirmed to a journalist to be truth and not legend. I have found the story told by President Wilson, as follows,
“I was in a very plebeian place. I was in a barber’s shop, sitting in a chair, when I became aware that a personality had entered the room. A man had come quietly in upon the same errand as myself and sat in the next chair to me. Every word he uttered, though it was not in the least didactic, showed a personal and vital interest in the man who was serving him ; and before I got through with what was being done to me, I was aware that I had attended an evangelistic service, because Mr. Moody was in the next chair. I purposely lingered in the room after he left and noted the singular effect his visit had upon the barbers in that shop. They talked in undertones. They did not know his name, but they knew that something had elevated their thought. And I felt that I left that place as I should have left a place of worship.”
Woodrow Wilson later learned it was the evangelist Dwight L. Moody who had been next to him and his admiration of the man only grew from that day on.
We should make it our goal that any conversation we enter, we leave it like D. L. Moody, and like a campsite, better than we found it. The people around us are far more important than a piece of earth, important as our planet is. In the Bible, in the book of James, we read that all sorts of beasts of the land and birds in the sky are being tamed, but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of poison.
If you think for a moment to the most recent moment of strife in your life, I would be happy to make a bet that at the center of the drama, at the juiciest morsel of shame or hurt of it all was someone with a big nasty gossip filled mouth eager to eat that meal and share it with others. And at times, if you’re truly honest, you’d admit that YOU were the one with that mouth causing trouble. I’m not afraid to admit I’ve been the one who’s mouth has gotten her in trouble. I’d even go so far as to say, if you won’t admit it, you’re filling your mouth with lies and proving my point. Yet, with that same mouth we sing our children to sleep and comfort our friends in hard times. We cheer on our favorite team and even pray with the same mouth that we use to spew such vileness.
We have to make a conscious choice to do what Moody did, to go into every conversation with the goal of elevating it. We have to make a conscious choice, even when we’re tired and all we want to do is stay another hour focused on our vacation, on our own happiness, and get up, pick up the broom, and leave that campsite nicer than we found it.
It will be a joy to push back from the beach then and set our eyes out over the shore, pleased with our time there, pleased with how we left things, and ready to move on to the next place.