I've been reading a book that may seem a bit unusual for a pastor's reading list, On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Combat in War and in Peace by Lt. Col. (retired) Dave Grossman. The book was a gift from a friend in the U.S. Army, who is working with soldiers to prevent and treat PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My friend thought that I might benefit from the book's insights in my work with those in law enforcement. I want to share a very brief summary, and then jump to one insight of many that has deep implications for the spiritual life as well.
Grossman's primary thesis in the book is that, "we never rise to the occasion, we default to our training." So, if we train in increasingly realistic ways, and if we train with increasingly better information, we will have better results. In military or law enforcement terms, our warriors will be successful in combat, come home safely, and be better equipped to process the traumatic experiences they have endured.
Toward the end of the book, Grossman mentions an odd bit of the history of warfare. With few exceptions, up until World War I wartime battles were largely fought during the day. Combatants would meet on the field of battle during the daylight hours, and hostilities would cease with the coming of darkness. What would the warriors do during those evening hours? They would gather around the fire, and review the stories of the day. That all changed with the first World War, as combat continued, day and night, for weeks or months on end. Soldiers never had the opportunity to gather together and process the battles. According to the author, many of our current challenges with PTSD are in part due to the loss of this ritual.
Today, experts in critical incident stress recommend debriefing as part of a healthy response to traumatic experiences. Firefighters, on 24 hour shifts, will gather together around a meal when they return to a station. Soldiers may engage in some form of after-incident reporting. Police departments may offer a critical incident stress debriefing.
For me, the connection with the journey of spiritual formation is in the importance of community. If we live in a culture in which we are over-worked, stressed out, and disconnected, we are less likely to have meaningful interactions with others. We lose the opportunity to "train" one another in the journey of life and faith. So, of course, when we face moments of trauma or anxiety, we default to our training, or our lack of it! We react rather than respond. We have few or no healthy options. We don't have significant relationships, so we have nowhere to turn. Or, our connections are superficial, or even toxic, and offer little help at all. As a result, everything seems more stressful, and we feel less able to manage life. Little events trigger a larger-than-necessary reaction. Disagreements become raging conflicts. Gracious dialogue and listening become impossible. Does any of this sound familiar?
You've heard me say before, "Your faith is individual and personal, but you cannot do it alone." Another way of saying that is to ask, "Where is your campfire?" Where do you go to unpack the battles of the day? Who brings wisdom and experience to your processing? Who trains you for the journey and experiences ahead?
In a rapidly changing society, followers of Jesus must discover the timeless practices of the spirit if we are to thrive, love, and serve. We are followers-disciples in training, called to train other disciples. We are called to community- the intentional gathering of those who daily face the world praying, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."
Looking for a campfire? Our small groups at New Springs offer one expression. We are always looking for opportunities to start new groups as well. Contact me for more information.