When we think of retreat, more often than not, two seemingly different things come to mind. A tired army, facing peril or defeat, fleeing from literal battle, or a relaxing spa getaway complete with fluffy robes and indulgent activities.
The [Cambridge] dictionary lays out both of these, more or less, as such.
a move back by soldiers or an army, either because they have been defeated or in order to avoid fighting:
a period of time used to pray and study quietly, or to think carefully, away from normal activities and duties./ a private and safe place.
Sure, these feel like two very different places but both nouns very logically come from the word’s verb form:
to go away from a place or person in order to escape from fighting or danger:
For most of us, the word in the two contexts of war and peace are clearly opposing ideas. But, when we read these definitions, it starts to become clear how similar these two things are.
A retreat, as in a place we go to reset and recharge, to pamper ourselves or indulge in nature, or yoga, or superfoods, or whatever we so choose… is a literal retreat from our own lives, battles, or challengers (enemies seems a little harsh in this context but I think we can all agree that challenges are constant). And so we need a break from the sheer speed of our lives and the events in them from time to time.
So, retreating is useful, and inevitable… but how does it make us feel?
I need to retreat - I am exhausted, I cannot keep moving forward in the way I am going and if I don’t regroup, I will not be able to progress but with a short break in a safe haven I will hopefully be able to continue…. Retreat is my only hope!
I will soon need to retreat - I am getting tired but can continue to charge on at the same pace if I know that I have a place to recover after I have worn myself into the ground… Retreat makes me feel safe to continue!
I am being forced to retreat - I have failed, this has beaten me, and I am left with no choice but to give up this fight, hand it over to someone more capable than me… Retreat proves my inadequacy!
And the ever so rare -
I have earned, and would benefit from a quick retreat - I have worked hard, am in a good place, and have time and space to take a well earned retreat… Retreat is my reward!
While option 4 sounds like the healthy empowered positive version, society tends to leave little room for anything other than the first three choices. As a group, we tend to push ourselves slightly (or significantly) past the point we should, on a regular basis. We treat work, relationships, socialising, sometimes just existing, as something of a battle we have to win or lose. With arbitrary timelines for when the war is over.
This does seem somewhat negative… and it probably is, reflecting a socio-cultural norm that life is hard. We do adorn our lives with metaphors chock-full of war-affiliated vocabulary.
“I am going to soldier on”
“It’s worth fighting for”
“Choose your battles”
“Don’t start a fight you can’t win”
“This is not the hill to die on”
“It’s okay, I already have a plan of attack”
And the list goes on. We don’t necessarily intend to frame our lives this way, but the reality is, we do. So, it makes sense that ‘Retreats’ in the spa getaway sense of the word, have become such a big part of these same lives – they’re really just our modern version of stepping backwards into the bunker and regrouping – with much nicer smells!
There is still a little part of most of us that views these as a bit self-indulgent, a luxury or even only for princesses, but if we are going to consistently look at our lives as battles, surely we need to retreat? Is the issue with retreating the shame of failure and admittance of defeat? Is it guilt that we haven’t completely collapsed yet when we take time for ourselves? Or is it because we haven’t realised yet that withdrawing from battle is no longer coming home at the end of the day– that our emails, and social media messages, and the 6 o’clock News report follow us home and keep us constantly in the struggle?
Because even the best soldiers in history leave the battle field and retreat to take stock. No one ‘soldiers on’ forever – the monuments and memorials around the world prove this un-true.
Maybe we should focus on this definition of retreat:
If a price retreats, it must go up before it goes down.
Because this makes more sense – for us to need to retreat – we have to have got somewhere first. Arrived to then decide to leave, so to speak. And our retreat does not need to be ‘two steps forward and three steps back’. It can be two steps, one step, or even sideways or on an angle. The view will be very different from there!
In the end, a retreat is simply an act to remove the stimuli around you (whether it be gun shots and dead bodies, yelling and accusations, or devastating information about the world you live in) so that you can think less about your environment (including how you do or don’t fit into it) and more about how you are doing and what you need to survive and thrive (your feelings, your physical state, your mental health). So anything that does that for long enough for you to hear yourself is a retreat…
it can be a 10 min meditation on the Calm app
a candle flame flickering in your bedroom
a walk in your favourite park
or a $10,000 retreat with endless organic shakes.
And before you start to feel guilty for wasting that 10 minutes or $10,000, remember that if you don’t know how you are doing and what you need right now, it doesn’t matter what you can see around you – your ability to exist within it or impact it is slowly but surely dropping to 0.
There is no wrong way to be in your own safe place. The only way you short-change yourself, is by not allowing yourself to have one.