Life Lessons I Learned on SEARCH

Thursday, November 12, 2015

This weekend will mark the second anniversary of my SEARCH retreat experience, a weekend that stands out in my heart and mind as one of the best from my years at the University of San Diego.  I am feeling especially nostalgic this year because this is the first time I am not in San Diego to send the retreatants off, or to welcome them home at Mass on Sunday night.  In some ways, I feel I am so far away from this community, even though, according to Google Maps, the distance to USD from where I am writing this in Loveland, Colorado, is only 1120 miles (or 16 hours and 29 minutes by car, if you care to know).

In other ways, I wear this community and the memory of SEARCH as close to my heart as the cross necklace I received that weekend.  The retreat itself may have lasted only 48 hours, but the lessons I took away from it continue to impact and inspire me, and to shape my life in countless ways.  Without spoiling any of its wonderful surprises for those who may choose to make this retreat in the future, I share below some life lessons I credit to SEARCH, as a tribute to this transformative experience.

Be present.

Retreats make it especially easy to do this, because when we take the time to devote ourselves to a weekend of spiritual exploration free from the constraints of homework and technology and busy schedules, we understand that we aren't obligated to do anything else except be exactly where we are.  So we welcome the unique value of each moment, and want to immerse ourselves in the experience.

But it's not so easy to do this when we are hounded by stresses and distractions.  When our worries stretch out their legs and make themselves comfortable in our minds, so there doesn't seem to be room for anything else.  And sometimes we hear "be present" and believe we have to make time for meditation, which, in spite of its intentions to relax us, becomes just one more thing to add to our to do lists.

But being present doesn't mean we have to do anything; on the contrary, when we're asked to be present, we're asked to just be.  To accept.  To listen attentively to a friend rather than planning what we're going to say next.  To savor the brownie that's warm from the oven by taking small bites and letting each one linger a moment on the tongue.  To notice the sights and scents and sounds around us on a daily walk -- the sound of giggling child hanging upside down from the monkey bars, the trees donning their brilliant orange and red fall wardrobe, the smell of a barbecue two houses down.  To feel, without thinking of something else, the burst of joy that comes with petting a puppy or laughing at some silly YouTube video, or singing along to the car radio.

There are enriching opportunities to be present in whatever we do, and SEARCH taught me to actively look for them.  SEARCH taught me to listen, to savor, and to look for signs of God's presence in everything we did -- from witness reflections to small group discussions to the meals we shared and the hike we took to the top of a small mountain.  And it taught me that God speaks to us in all of these things.  All we have to do is listen.

Always expect good things to happen.

Before I went on SEARCH, I heard a lot of talk about how it was "amazing," but no one really offered any specifics on how, exactly, it was amazing, or what the amazing thing was.  It was all very secretive.

This meant that I approached the weekend with an intense wondering of what the amazing thing was.  Was this the amazing thing?  Was that?  The icebreaker games we played?  Amazing.  And it was pretty beautiful when we reached the top of that mountain -- was the hike the amazing thing?  How about the French toast we had for breakfast that one morning?  It was pretty fancy and delicious for a retreat -- was that the amazing thing?

In case you're wondering, yes, I found pretty much everything about that weekend amazing, although the reason everyone gushes about SEARCH eventually became clear to me in its own time.

There's something to be learned from this attitude, which is that if we expect amazing and wonderful things to happen, we will find them.  In abundance.

So SEARCH cultivated a new kind of optimism in me, a desire to look for the good things that are or soon will be happening.  To treat the ordinary as extraordinary, because this life is a gift, and the mere fact that we're living it is pretty amazing in itself.

...And now I feel like I've used the word "amazing" more times than a Bachelor contestant... so I'll stop.  But you get the idea.  Expect good, receive good.

Vulnerability is sacred.

Okay, folks.  This is it.  The big kahuna.  You know it's really important because I saved it for last.

One of life's greatest mysteries, in my opinion, revolves around something common to the retreat experience: how is it that people can find the courage to share deeply personal stories and struggles with others they've only just met?  And yet, retreat leaders bravely tell of trials and confusion and anger and heartbreak and acceptance in their witness talks, and retreatants welcome the opportunity to share stories that relate to their own questions about their relationships with God, with community, and with themselves.

In other words, they are vulnerable.  And it is maybe the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

BrenĂ© Brown, Ph.D., defines vulnerability as "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure," and I think this is as apt a definition as any for what I describe here.  Retreatants and leaders who bravely submit themselves to emotional exposure by opening their hearts with sincerity are uncertain of how their stories will be received, and they risk potential rejection.  It's scary to bare our souls.

But I believe the honesty that accompanies vulnerability is both a prayer and an invitation.  When we own our stories, when we stand in the face of all we've done and seen and are, regardless of how we might still tremble and fear, we're saying, "This is who I am.  I am living the story that God has written for me, and I am completely and beautifully the fragile, imperfect creature that He has designed, that he 'formed' and 'knit in my mother's womb' (Psalm 139, NAB) with intentionality."  To be vulnerable is to say a prayer of thanksgiving for the life God has created for us, rather than hide behind the shame of something we aren't, but wish we were.

And it's only when we don't shy away from the truth of ourselves that we can invite others to love us authentically, for everything we both are and aren't.  It's true that we risk something when we let ourselves be seen, but the rewards are so much greater than our fear.

With all that said, vulnerability is still something I struggle with, especially in a new city where I'm trying to make friends.  I'm someone who's really comfortable spending time by myself, and it's often easier to spend a night at home alone with a good book or some shows on the DVR than to put myself out there and join a Meetup group, or invite a coworker to lunch.  Potential rejection hovers dark and scary above my head and heart; I don't want to get hurt or feel awkward or embarrassed or anything else that comes with trying something new.

But my SEARCH experience reminds me that I have to try.  That I should keep taking baby steps, and risk vulnerability daily.  Making the decision to go on that retreat two years ago was, in itself, a vulnerable risk of sorts, but the crazy thing is that I never for a moment feared rejection or hurt or loss of any sort in going.  I just knew that it would offer me an opportunity to explore and deepen my relationship with God, with community, and with myself, and that excited me.

And you know what I've realized since?  That every other situation I've feared that presents a possibility of vulnerability similarly offers those chances: to grow in a sense of community with others, to grow in relationship with God, and to more fully become the person I am supposed to be.  And SEARCH is still teaching me, slowly, to welcome those opportunities as I did two years ago, rather than run from them.  Because the best is yet to come.

Pretty mind-blowing, right?

It pays to be vulnerable.  To love and to let yourself be loved.  To SEARCH, always.

So much love and prayers to this semester's retreatants, to those who have gone in the past, and to those who will go in the future.  Thinking of you always!  

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