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Prep Magazine: Seeing the Unseen

Prep Magazine: Seeing the Unseen

Above: Charlie Young '50

Seeing the Unseen

The world as experienced by a particular animal—its distinctive, perceived universe—is what behavioral scientists call that animal’s umwelt. The theory dictates that every animal and every human simply accepts that its own individual perception is, in fact, objective reality. The life and times of Charlie Young defy this world view. Charlie Young seems to have umwelten. Meaning, more than one.

Though our brains are wired to detect only a tiny fraction of our surrounding reality, Young’s intellectual humility allows him to appreciate the expanse of all that is unseen. Now 90, he’s also had the benefit of actually seeing a lot of our shared environment. That’s what happens when you’ve lived six lifetimes in one. In order, those would be priest, pilot, human resources director, corporate manager, professional mediator, and author/teacher.

Young’s gift for reshaping his own umwelt as he interacts with the world probably began at night six decades ago inside a mud hut in the southernmost region of Mexico. The village, Altamirano, was tucked into mountainous terrain with unpaved roads that were passable by vehicle only four months a year. It was 1968 and Young, a fledgling pastor from the Diocese of Baker, Oregon, found himself shining a flashlight beam on the pages of a field manual he was holding open as a nun from South Dakota, who happened to be a nurse, stitched the tendons of a Tzeltal laborer’s left hand back together following a machete accident.

It’s a story worth retelling in more detail. But then, most of Young’s adventures are. Like the time he took off near the Guatemalan border in a Cessna Skylark with a wonky radio and a balky engine, and flew all the way to Oakland, California, with the door held shut by a leather strap. Or, on a more macro level, his decision to leave the priesthood, his career in corporate America, the Prep’s outsized role in setting him up for success, and any number of the
1,500 civil cases he’s successfully mediated.

But, there are two he always returns to: first, learning to fly, and second, those eight months he spent at the foot of Mexico in the late ’60s living with indigenous peoples descended from the Mayans.

“About a year after my ordination, I learned how to fly,” recalls the Quincy native, who boarded at the Prep with his late brother, John Young ’52. “That really changed my attitude toward learning because I felt a true sense of personal accomplishment. The other thing that really changed my life was Mexico. Those people had nothing. I mean, nothing. But they were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met in my life. Because it was all about relationships. It wasn’t about things. It was about people.”

Soy Christiano

In the letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians, the apostle urges believers to “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” That kind of grace is at the core of Young’s faith.

The caption under Young’s senior yearbook photo reads, ‘One always admired for his adaptability to circumstances ... thinking always for the good of others ...’

In point of fact, a framed black and white photo hangs on the wall behind Young’s office desk. It depicts several men aboard the schooner, Seguin, sometime in the late 1930’s. His uncle, Tom Elcock, owned the vessel when he was commodore of the Boston Yacht Club from 1938 to 1940, and moored it near the family’s summer cottage in Hull Bay. Young remembers an incident when the ship’s captain frantically rowed ashore to call Elcock.

“This is 1938 or ’39. I’m sitting at the cottage’s kitchen table and I’m maybe five years old,” recalls Young. “Captain Gray was supposed to fire the onboard cannon at sunrise and sunset, only that day, it malfunctioned and blew the stern off. Now, this is a schooner where you could see your face in the polished brass and all that. But when the captain hung up, he said, ‘Do you know what Mr. Elcock said? The hell with the boat. How are you?’ You never forget something so human like that. That level of compassion.”

Young’s like-mindedness led him to the priesthood. “I enjoyed every year as a priest (1958-77). But clerical life was too restraining for me. I’m too open of a person. I like to share things. I believe in the Church, but it needs to be expressed differently, so people can clearly recognize that our purpose is to help people. They need to see it impacting their lives rather than just as a belief system. It’s a way of life, not a bunch of beliefs.”

Young bore witness to that way of life nearly every day in that dusty village all those years ago. A sense of community. Supporting one another. A life centered on family, simple food, and meager resources.

“I’m not saying they were perfect or that they didn’t have problems, but family and community were the key,” he says. “A good example: One day, I’m standing by the little medical clinic we had there, and a guy arrived after a day and a half carrying a sick person on a chair strapped to his back. I said, ‘Why did you do that?’ He said, ‘Soy Christiano.’ I am a Christian. Simple as that.”

The Block Game

Young lives with his wife, Donna, in Bend, Oregon. He’s been a professional mediator for more than a quarter century, and now assists in the training of new mediators. Mind you, he’s been a de facto teacher since the early 1970s.

As a pastor and later the Director of Baker’s Diocesan Office of Religious Education from 1971-77, Young and his team emphasized adult education and developed a series of learning modules on Catholicism’s beliefs, communication skills, and how people learn. When the Vatican granted his request to become a layperson, he worked as a flight instructor and flew as both an air-taxi and corporate pilot from 1977-81. Again, his work required a heavy emphasis on communication.

One of his flying students brought Young in as his firm’s corporate pilot and put him in charge of employee relations. Eventually, a series of related jobs in other companies allowed him to become the head trainer for a Total Quality Management program.

Upon his retirement in 1997, the transition to professional mediation was more than a natural progression. It was an instinctive call. Yes, achieving common understanding amongst people through communication is important, but how Young perceives his universe goes a step further. It’s about seeing the unseen. He wants the resolution of the disputes he reconciles to include transformation.

Young’s book, “Constructive Communication: A Path forChallenging Situations” (2020), is structured as a text for high schools and a guide for families and businesses that wish to foster civil dialogue. To complement the book, he’s developed a Civil Dialogue Program kit with 12 videos, commentary, and lesson plans. He’s currently working on a video entitled, “The Art of Civil Dialogue” as a proactive approach to resolving differences.

“I’d say 80 to 90 percent of mediations arise due to a lack of good communication and can end with an agreement once you help people come to a common understanding of what each other is thinking,” says Young, who was an auxiliary chaplain for the Air Force and a chaplain for the Naval Reserve throughout much of the Vietnam War. “I also try to be transformative. I’m not always successful, but that’s what I want: for both parties to feel like it’s a win. Transformative means they shake hands and say, ‘Let’s be friends.’ I’ve heard that many times.”

In addition to working as a professional mediator and a facilitator for the Oregon Foreclosure Avoidance program, Young has served as a volunteer mediator for both Central Oregon Community Solutions and in the Deschutes County judicial system. Believe it or not, the fulcrum of his interest and success in the field can be traced back to a simple, tabletop game he employed. It’s what Young calls “the block game.”

He first used the tool back in his Office of Religious Education days. But he’s called upon it hundreds of times since in the course of revising and adapting the game. The precept is simple: Two parties sit opposite one another and arrange blocks so they match up a preselected pattern. The problem is the patterns are mirror images and a high barrier sits between the participants.

Accordingly, participants have to use words, collaboration, negotiation, anticipation, and empathy to make their patterns sync. It was at a juvenile detention center (and later at an alternative school) where Young marveled at how participants gradually grasped the power and importance of such an exercise.

“I was mentoring at a place where the kids were very tough customers,” recalls Young. “And as you walked them through the game, you could see them start to understand that it wasn’t about breaking down literal or figurative barriers, it was about being proactive about creating a relationship. ‘I get to understand you, and you get to understand me.’ That’s what it’s all about.”

But how does a common understanding help solve a tricky puzzle while the players are essentially blindfolded?

“It takes some mentoring,” says Young. “You give prompts like, ‘What could you do here to help them understand you better?’ It’s all positive, nothing negative. You say, ‘Maybe there’s a different way to approach this—let’s talk about it.’ It sounds simple, but it works. The manner in which people interact is embedded depending on their backgrounds and perceptions. You act based on what you’ve come to believe. The block game teaches the opposite. It’s proactive about building relationships rather than reactive based on perceptions.”

There’s that word again. Perception. And as divergent as two umwelten can be, Young’s use of the block game changed lives. He says about 30 percent of the kids he worked with pulled themselves out of the penal system, and the block game played a key role in pivoting their mindsets.

Now a member of the Central Oregon Mediation Mediator Hall of Fame, Young is still working to foster common understanding. It’s been 55 years since the flashlight, the field manual, and the mud hut, but Charlie Young is still trying to help stitch people together. Still trying to mete out win-wins. Still trying to be transformative.

After all, that’s his umwelt.