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On "Shoulds" and Camping in a Heat Wave

By Stephanie Barca, MSW

It was July, and I was feeling antsy. I grew up with summer vacations – it was the one time a year when we, as a family, all agreed to relax. This year, however, we’d taken a huge, grueling trip to Disney World in the spring; like ten-hours-in-the-car-on-the-way-back grueling. We were not up for another big trip.

But that didn’t keep me from feeling the pull to get out of the house. So, we went camping at home. In a heat wave.

It didn’t sound so crazy at first. The low temperatures at night had been in the 70s, plenty cool enough for a backyard campout. I’d put up the tent many times during COVID quarantine so I knew how magical it could be to wake up to the birds singing first thing in the morning. I got excited, and I told my oldest and got him psyched too.

It was this mindset that crashed into the heat advisory warning on Monday. Highs were going to feel like 105 degrees, and the lows were going to be in the 80s. We’d camped in similar conditions before, in Disney World, so I decided to just go for it.

The sweating began while putting the tent up that morning in the early sun, cementing my decision to begin any and all tent activities closer to dark. When evening fell and it was time for bed, I laid out the two-person sleeping bag and decided this was shaping out to be easy. No blankets, no books, no frills.

My husband was incredulous and let me know he’d be available via text. I soon texted him for the fans I forgot. My youngest was stoked to be out of the house; he gave me the biggest smile and hug before spreading out on the shiny, slippery fabric of the sleeping bag. He was soon asleep, and I pointed one of the fans toward him, close to his little spread-eagle form.

My oldest son, however, got hot.

Just like me, my oldest had discounted the weather and thought he could power through. He had begun the evening in his favorite PJs to mark his excitement and was quite irritated when I told him fleece wasn’t going to work. Now resting in his lighter clothes, the tent’s atmosphere was humid and still. He read for a while. I worked on settling into the ground.

“I can’t sleep,” he finally said.

“I hear you, bud,” I replied. “Why don’t you go inside?”

This was obviously impossible because I and his brother would still be outside, “winning.” He should be able to “take it” like we can, and besides, some people don’t even have a choice. How could he not stand this one hot, humid night when people are living in tents every day?

That seemed like a pretty wild leap. But I have my own “shoulds,” and I can get wrapped up in the way I think myself and others must comport ourselves. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy - based on turning your “musts” into personal preferences and goals - is a simple concept that takes constant practice in a society that measures “winners,” “losers,” “quitters,” and “best under 40s.”[1]

Letting go of ill-fitting goals is hard. You wanted that goal for a reason. That goal came from somewhere, and now things are not looking as you expected. Maybe you told people what you were doing, and they’re asking about it as caring friends do. But the asks now bring shame instead of excitement.

Loving yourself means being honest with yourself and letting go of things that no longer work for you. We are not “all or nothing” creatures; success is wider than just getting the trophy. Emilie Wampnick,[2] author and multipotentialite, might posit that you’ve gotten what you needed out of what you were doing. You’ve learned from your experience, it shaped you. At the bare minimum, you learned what didn’t work.

In the tent, my oldest and I kept looking for a solution and decided that he’d go inside on the condition that we would donate to Habitat for Humanity the next day. A new goal to satisfy both his big heart and his sweaty forehead.

“Besides,” he added. “I can try again tomorrow.”

I texted my husband to let him know that our oldest was going inside like a person with good sense. Finally quiet, I turned his fan on his brother and laid down, feeling the air settle on my face. I slept as well as I usually do in a tent, up for every weird noise.

But in the morning, my skin was the very definition of dewy. The birds were singing as the buzzing of the night waned. And my little one gave me another big hug. He loves that tent, and he slept like a rock. We stretched, said goodbye to the birds, and took the sleeping bag and fans back inside on our way to breakfast.

And, remembering what my son had said about trying again, I took the tent down.

Stephanie Barca is an MSW excited to join Benjamin Holmes Counseling this Fall.

[1] Thank God that pressure is off! [2] Her book, How to be Everything, A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up, was part of my Self-Help Summer of 2022. It is a fantastic read.

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