Camp Kairos

Real tears, false intimacy

written and illustrated by Nick Morales

I still have my Kairos necklace. I don’t wear it anymore, like I used to back when I still believed in it. I keep it in a box of old mementos, not as a symbol of a life-changing event, but as a reminder of the lie that it represents.

“Kairos,” derived from the Greek word—wait for it—Kairos, means the right or opportune moment. It is also the title of a very cult-y retreat put on by Jesuit Catholic schools around the nation. It is sort of based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (the OG Jesuit, if you’re not familiar with the history of the Jesuits) and thus has vaguely religious overtones. One of which is the adaptation of a beautiful Greek word to mean something stupid like “The Lord’s Time.”

At my Seattle high school we ran a fairly secular version of this retreat. That is to say, we didn’t read too many bible verses and there was only one religious mass. There were three Kairos-es offered per year and, regardless of your faith, attendance was mandatory. You only had to go once, so the entire junior class was split into thirds and carted off to Camp Brotherhood (actually what it was called) to experience this event at various times throughout the year. 

When we got to the campgrounds, excited seniors wearing colored bandanas greeted us by banging on the windows of our school bus. They were jumping around and screaming, trying to get us stoked about the next four days we would be spending together. We exited the bus and played some sort of ninja game to pass the time while they prepared whatever it was that they were preparing. When we went inside of the main lodge, we found out.

They presented us with what they called, in the lamest Harry Potter spoof that has ever existed, “The Sorting Hat.” We were to have the hat placed on our heads and be “sorted” into our predetermined groups, or “families.” Each was headed by a senior and faculty leader. I was placed into the Love “family,” the other options being something like Peace, Courage, Faith, Trust, Hope, and some other virtuous attribute that I can’t quite remember. Each family had an assigned color bandana that made up the entire rainbow (plus white). As a member of Love, mine was red. We were instructed to wear these bandanas at all times.

After the sorting, we followed our senior leaders up to their “safe-places,” a term they used to christen areas where we would have group meetings, where the seniors had treated the space with comfy things like pillows and ambient lighting. Oh yeah, and there was a talking stick. You would think that at the age of 16, we would have learned how to not interrupt people while they are speaking.  

We would meet regularly throughout the day in the large group and sit at our family tables, each one bearing a candle the color of the family: red for love, orange for trust, yellow for faith, green for courage, blue for something else, purple for trust and white for faith. Together, we would illuminate the Kairos candle—a different group heading the responsibility each meeting. After the candle was lit, we would sit and meditate for a bit until a song was eventually played. We were asked to take notes in our journals when a song came on to introduce a senior or faculty leader, who would then come up to the mic and share his or her story.  Some of them were seemingly life-changing. Others seemed more like conceited memoirs of a senior trying to make some juniors think that he or she is really cool and has been through a lot.  “I’ve seen some things, man… And some stuff.”

One of the main points we were supposed to leave with was, “Everyone has a story. Listen to it!” And I still take that to heart.  

On the first day we arrived at camp brotherhood, we were asked to illustrate our “story” on a large piece of butcher paper, mainly focusing on paradigm shifts in our lives. I drew my timeline, my birth, entrance into the education system, realization that I am gay, my uncle’s funeral, my admittance to high school, when my grandfather cut off three of his fingers on a table saw… etc. I don’t know why I was so fucking foolish, but I didn’t realize that they were going to ask us to explain our various illustrations to our families. While I wasn’t too uncomfortable explaining the illustration of three severed, bleeding fingers, the epiphany of my sexuality seemed a bit too personal to share. I had drawn a triangle and filled it with the various colors that we had been given in markers—not quite a rainbow.  

When it came to my turn to expostulate on my life story, I spoke nervously.  What was I supposed to say when I got to the inevitable realization? I realized that I had an unusual attraction to the male anatomy sometime in my fifth grade year, but I had only told one other person ever.  

In my freshman year, my friend Dillon asked me straight up whether or not I was gay. Caught off-guard by the question, I answered him honestly. He said something like, “Oh, that’s cool,” then spent the rest of the academic year avoiding my presence.  

It was almost worse than just laughing at me and calling me a fag. He would be nice to me—well, not overtly mean—but he wouldn’t talk to me. All I wanted in the world was for someone who I felt understood me listen to the confusion running rampant through my brain. I don’t think he did so on purpose, but he denied me that.

In that cushioned room with the ambient lighting, I arrived at my poorly rendered rainbow triangle. I opened my mouth to declare “and this was when I realized that I am gay” but instead I heard my voice feebly squeak “and… this is when… I, uh… I realized how much I love art… yeah, the color and the shape and stuff… that’s artsy right?”

I don’t know if they believed me. A rainbow triangle isn’t that inconspicuous of a symbol for the LGBTQIA movement. I remember them looking up at me as I made claims to my lie. I didn’t really believe me; I have no reason to believe that they believed me. But even with the heart pounding and awkward glances, I knew that they wouldn’t press the issue.

The rest of the retreat progressed as normal. Leaders gave talks; we wrote in our journals, reflected on our families, and became more and more comfortable with each other. We had trust walks and received letters from our friends and real families. This was a big event. Our parents and friends gushed to us about what great human beings we were. “You’re such a sincere person, I’m blessed to have met you,” or “You’re so smart and it’s obvious to anyone around you,” or “You are such a thoughtful and kind person,” all that feel-good crap that’s supposed to make you feel safe and secure in your awkward teenage body. Everybody cried. On one hand, it was a really cool experience. On the other, it seemed kind of staged.  I have heard the retreat called “Cryros.” The year before a student named Ryan Kim composed a song called “I Only Cry on Kairos.” The Kairos leaders made a video of him performing this song and posted it on YouTube). Everyone in my year had seen the video. 

During Kairos, I managed to convince myself that it was the right thing to do.  Yes, I thought, I can finally feel safe enough around these people that I can cry and maybe even come out to them. I just ignored the voice telling me that people were mostly crying out of expectation rather than sincerity.

I didn’t want to come out to an entire third of my graduating class all at once.  That prospect seemed scary. Sure I had my family, and they would probably be considerate enough to not outright mock me, but what about the rest of them? I knew that the entire point was to make me feel safe around my peers, and that expectation made me think that maybe an opportunity would present itself, that at some point I would be with my “family” and it would feel right. I remember such a time coming and the words being on the tip of my tongue, but at the last moment I decided not to say anything. 

The retreat is designed with a militaristic sort of model in mind. The idea is to break you down and build you back up again.  Only, this is done with kindness and vulnerability rather than physical exhaustion and mental manipulation. There’s probably some well-modeled plan of what ego-breaking or character-building theme takes place on each day, but the most important day is the fourth and final.

On the last day, there’s a huge mass where everyone receives a little necklace with a pendant of a figure and a maze. It’s supposed to represent the winding journey of life, or some stupid shit like that. They gave us another gushy speech about how we’re all beautiful and unique individuals and told us to forever remember how we feel at that exact moment. They took us back to school, and marched us on to the stage of the auditorium. Sitting in the chairs and applauding for us were all of our friends and families. They then had us share our reactions to the retreat. Everyone went up to the mic and gave various speeches about how their lives have changed so much and how they finally felt comfortable with who they were.  Everyone who has gone on Kairos remembers some acronym concerning the “Fourth Day:” KT4DA was ours: Keep The Fourth Day Alive. I have heard LT4D, “Live The Fourth Day,” and variations on that hoo-hah. KT4DA became a thing that you could say to someone when he or she wasn’t being very nice or was feeling down or judging someone too harshly. The idea of it is a lovely sentiment: You’re so loved by everyone and comfortable around your peers; you should love them back. But the reality is very different.

When we got back to school, everyone sported their Kairos bandanas on their backpacks and wore their little necklaces, smiling and hugging and loving one another. People felt comfortable enough to even talk to other students with whom they wouldn’t normally interact.  It was all lovely sunshine, butterflies and rainbows for the junior class at Seattle Prep. This lasted about a week.

Later I discussed the impacts of Kairos with a faculty member. He told me that that’s usually how it goes.  Everyone feels so open and loved, but then comes back to awareness of their social standing. The lines that we worked to break down are redrawn. You will probably never talk to your Kairos family again—fuck, I can’t even remember who was in my Kairos family. That feeling of comfort and love that was once so prominent evaporates. People’s lives don’t change. People become uncomfortable in their awkward high-school-iness again. KT4DA returned to being a nonsensical arrangement of meaningless letters.

In the weeks to come, I would think back to that moment when I almost spilled my then-seemingly-important secret. I have since become comfortable with my identity as a gay man, but at the time it was frightening—as it usually is when one is in the closet. I felt glad that I had bit my tongue and held it in.  I wasn’t ready to tell the entire school. I wasn’t ready to have them gossip about and judge me. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t a particularly popular kid in high school. The other more popular kids tolerated my presence at parties, but they wouldn’t really invite me to them. They didn’t really care about me; I was some awkward nerd. I didn’t want to give them fuel to burn me with their mocking words.

I guess in my head I saw that the worst case scenario would be that everybody in the school would gossip about my sexual preference and call me a fag behind my back, or maybe even to my face. The reality would probably have been something like this:

“Hey, Jenny, did you know that Nick Morales is gay?”

“Oh wow, Julie, I really don’t care that much.”

“Yeah, neither do I really.  That kid’s kinda weird.”

Kairos takes a bunch of high school students who are at an difficult part of their lives and tricks them into thinking that they’re in a safe place. It might be a safe place in that moment, but the thing about secrets is that they don’t always stay safe. Once they’re out of your mouth you have to depend on others to keep them hidden. I was almost tricked into feeling safe enough around these assholes to tell them something that I would not be ready for everyone to know.

As things backslid into normalacy, as people reverted to their former selves, I felt betrayed. “It’s been five days, you guys. Did you seriously forget everything you had supposedly learned?” Apparently we had. We almost immeaditely broke the promise of love, compassion and unity we had laid out for ourselves. This has been one of the contributing factors to my increasingly bleak worldview. 

It’s easy to see flaws you want to correct in your own life, but making that change takes energy most people (myself included) would rather put toward something obligatory, or maybe even fun. I suppose that Kairos has the theoretical capacity to truly change someone’s life. Unfortunately, this theoretical situation charges the participants to make a conscious effort to change. This violates one of my postulates of humanity: Change is hard, and no one wants to try too hard. Admiral Akbar from “Star Wars” summarizes my feelings toward Kairos in his famous epiphany: “It’s a trap!”