Observations on Place, Perception, and Troubled Teens

 By Dr. Daniel Sanderson, Clinical Director, RedCliff Ascent

One of the most common laments that is voiced by students participating in the program is that “I can’t prove to my parents that I have changed while I am here!” or “I can’t be the person that I need to be as long as I am here.”  I am frequently confronted by troubled teens who have their entire understanding of themselves completely determined by their external circumstances.  When they encounter a situation such as RedCliff, in which absolutely none of the familiar circumstances are present, they become lost. They immediately begin to make any futile attempt that they can to retain the external entities and dependencies upon which they previously relied to give them a sense of self and a sense of well-being.

With these students clamoring their discontent, I am frequently reminded of a quote by the stoic Greek philosopher, Epictetus, that

 “Circumstance does not make a man; it only reveals him to himself.” This seems to be a tough concept for troubled teens that are clinging to their respective developmental vacations.  They have every expectation that their influence in the world lies in their capacity to alter the circumstance in which they find themselves.  Indeed, most of these struggling teens have become highly skilled in managing those individuals and situations around them such that they continue to believe that their ability to be “OK” or even “happy” is completely determined by their individual ability to control external events and entities.  At that point in which they find their previous competencies stymied by their residence in the high desert of southern Utah, a crisis of identity ensues and their attempts to recapture a familiar modicum of stasis in their lives truly reveals to them the actual person which they have become.  As can be expected, this revelation tends to bear a painful message. But at the same time, these students also struggle with the concept that RedCliff after all is only a place—one of many thousands of places that they will encounter in the course of their lives.  Each one of those places reveals each one of us many times each day.  And, as the poet David Wagoner reminds us, “Wherever you are is called Here”.

The place that is RedCliff quickly sorts through the insulating properties of the places of our daily lives.  Our dependencies and immature coping strategies can easily be camouflaged by the intricacies of our society or community.  Our family system obscures many destructive interactional patterns.  The continual drone of the Sturm und Drang, or “storm and stress,” of our daily existence allows us to easily delude ourselves that we are in control of many more aspects of our lives than is actually the case.  We become proficient with rationalization and intellectualization, attributing far greater influence to ourselves than we have earned.  The place of RedCliff shows us that we are not really all that powerful.  The place of RedCliff humbles us with the reality of the humans that we are.  The place of RedCliff allows us to practice becoming the humans that we actually are destined to become.  The place of RedCliff reminds us that any place we encounter can continue to reveal that same human that we discovered here.  The place of RedCliff illustrates to those who listen that the place does not define us as humans; we must do that for ourselves.

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