Retreat to move forward


For almost 25 years, I’ve helped put on spiritual retreats (the Walk to Emmaus) that focus on renewal – building up leaders and potential leaders, rekindling passion for their values and beliefs. I recently participated in a different kind of retreat. WCPR‘s goal is to help first responders find their way again in the aftermath of high-stress events or careers.

The starting point for attendees at these retreats are different – Emmaus retreats are for building people up from a foundation, while WCPR is focused on healing after psychological injury. WCPR is run by public safety peers and therapists, often with a chaplain present; Emmaus retreats are run by lay people and ordained clergy.

The activities are more similar than I might have expected. Not surprisingly, both kinds of retreat feature great food and fellowship.  There’s a lot of education – Emmaus is essentially a short course in Christianity, with a lot of kindness and love; WCPR is a short course on living with post-traumatic stress, also with much kindness and love. Both give the attendees a safe place to talk about the toughest parts of their lives, along with symbolic steps to let go of old hurts and habits.  In both cases, some of the weekend’s safety and support come from being among strangers who have been through similar circumstances.

Betrayal and forgiveness are common themes of injury and healing at both retreats. Betrayal is a deeply spiritual issue, I realized at WCPR.  A Darwinist view – survival of the fittest, no room for spiritual issues – says that there’s nothing wrong with betraying others if you can get away with it. Nothing personal, just competition! Or, to use a more popular reference – in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Mr. Spock, basing his decision on Vulcan logic, had no problem betraying Captain Kirk to volunteer the crew for a peace mission to the Klingons. (Okay, no more Star Trek; back to forgiveness.)

At WCPR, I was introduced to Dr. Fred Luskin’s excellent book, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. Luskin describes how we can lose ourselves in shoulds and should nots (my words) – things that should not have happened, but did, or things that should have happened, but did not. When these things are beyond our control, Luskin calls them “unenforceable rules.” They have the power to make us miserable. For example, one of my unenforceable rules was that rescuers should not make mistakes that kill the people they are supposed to be rescuing. Yet that happened right in front of me once and it haunted me for a long time. A common one, not just for responders, is “children should not suffer or die.”

One of Luskin’s guidelines is to separate what is personal from what is not. Rescuers make mistakes every day and some of them are fatal – it’s not personal when it happens on your shift. Children die every day; in that sense, it’s not personal when your child dies. When another person betrays your trust, it feels terribly personal, yet in reality such behavior is almost entirely their issue (they treat everyone that way) rather than about you. That difficult co-worker may have had a rough upbringing – “If they were raised by wolves, they’re going to bite” is a reminder not to take others’ bad behavior personally.

Luskin presents the idea of a “grievance story,,” which I found enlightening because I’ve always believed in the power of stories to transform and redefine experiences, lives and even entire communities. Narrative is powerful – but Luskin points out that we can become stuck in a negative one, which he calls a grievance story. His methods for processing a grievance story – forgiveness – are relatively simple. Sometimes telling your story doesn’t bring healing or growth.

He argues that forgiveness is something we do entirely for our own well-being, not for the sake of the person who hurt us. He separates the idea of forgiveness from any requirement to repair a relationship that has been broken by abuse or other betrayal. This is food for thought relative to the central role that forgiveness plays in Christian theology. “Forgive us as we forgive others,” is perhaps the most challenging line in Christianity’s most central prayer.

I don’t think that Luskin is talking about exactly the same thing as the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer is entirely in a plural voice, while Luskin’s approach focuses entirely on individuals. At the same time, Luskin expresses great hope that his methods will bring about greater peace in troubled communities – he has developed and tested his approach with people deeply impacted by violence in Northern Ireland.

The Lord’s Prayer is often translated as “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Luskin is a psychologist, not a theologian or pastor, so sin isn’t his topic. It is a loaded word, sometimes referring to particular actions, but its deeper meaning is to be disconnected from God, to be outside of God’s will. Forgiveness then is re-connection. Applying that thinking to Luskin’s work, I find myself wondering what kind of re-connection is happening in his process. The trivially easy answer is that Luskin is talking about re-connection to life. When we are consumed by how we were wronged by parents, lovers, business partners or others who have the power to betray our trust, we’re often stuck, unable to enjoy much of anything. Christianity at its best is an invitation to life – not the moral code it is often misrepresented to be. Luskin, though secular, clearly recognizes that we are not fully living when as long as we are carrying a grievance story.

Forgiving is a letting go, always a kind of surrender. Retreats can create a safe place in which to let go, to surrender the need to be in control of everything, to see others and be seen for who we really are, warts and all. In that safe place, people often gain great insights into themselves. The best retreats also help them figure out what actions to take in response to the new insights – how to move forward from the retreat.