Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Review - Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen

I have been involved in helping youth at the local juvenile detention center for over eight years now.  I have spent a lot of time wondering about the best ways to approach the problems these wonderful youth face.  How can we help them?  How can we assist them to find solutions and healing?  What are the best resources for facilitating this progress?

I also spent several months living in the wilderness with troubled youth.  I despised the model that program used.  While "the mountain" had its healing powers, because it was far away from drugs and influences, completely distant from privileges and possessions; it could have been so much more.  This wilderness program made the mountain merely a tool for isolation.  They could have done that in a warehouse.  In Touching Spirit Bear, the wilderness, in this case the island, was so very much more.  That "more" was what was entirely lacking in the wilderness program and is hardly even sought in our current judicial system.

Ben Mikaelsen's book provided many of the answers I've been seeking.  There is wisdom here and great risk.  I think we will never see this kind of method commonly used because of the risk.  We don't take those kinds of chances with our youth and the consequence is, we don't get this kind of results.  I think life in general was designed by God to be just this risky, but lawyers and hand wringers have taken much of the potential out of life and consequently out of the lives of our youth.

Reality therapy is pretty simple, as one character, Garvey, tell his young friend Cole:
"Go ahead and try it.  Try manipulating a storm or lying to your hunger.  Try cheating the cold."
There is more to the process this book reveals.  It is not only about being exposed to reality.  It is also about being, exposed to love.  This is another ingredient that seems quite lacking in the institutional setting.  The powers that be, in an honest effort to protect, have even sheltered these kids from love.  Human contact is prohibited.  Perhaps that's risky too. This is not to say that the staff at these institutions lacks love for their charges.  Quite to the contrary, most are under paid and under appreciated and stay precisely because they love these kids.  But at the end of the day, if because of societal fears and institutional rules, these kids don't experience individually focused love, don't connect with others who deeply care about them, don't feel healthy, safe human contact, they won't be getting better and we'll continue to see many of them behind bars again and again.

So I hammer on about the details, while Mikaelsen just tells a story.  And what a wonderful, heart rending, uplifting and inspiring story it is.  Some kids will get the message vicariously through the story.  I did.  You see, I'm not appreciably healthier than they are.  It is clear though, that Cole's experience living it will be infinitely deeper than my experience reading about it.  And Cole's recovery will be correspondingly sturdier than mine has been.  As I note this, though, I realize that reality and love can be had right here where I am.  I don't have to isolate myself to an island or a mountain.  Reality and love are everywhere. The difference is that here I have access to the tools I use to avoid them.


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