I recently reflected on the likelihood that my adult life has been profoundly affected by events that occurred in my childhood. I was severely and mercilessly bullied – physically and psychologically – by my older brother, who for whatever reason seemed to possess superior bullying skills. When I reviewed some recent research on the topic of bullying, I learned that childhood bullying results in both psychological and physical problems in adulthood; for me, the most damaging and long-lasting effect was anxiety disorder – fear.
As part of my reflection I wrote a long essay about bullying and its effects on my adult life, which I shared with my partner and a few friends as well as with a psychologist in the education department at a local university. At the same time I became aware of a series of summer courses held at the Sorrento Centre, a retreat centre located in the Southern Interior region of British Columbia and run by the Anglican Church of Canada. Browsing through the Centre’s summer program brochure, I came across a course entitled Life Review: Discovering Your Own Story, offered by Dr. Marvin Westwood, an internationally recognized expert in group therapy, and three of his colleagues from the University of British Columbia. As soon as I read the course overview, I called the Centre and registered.
The course overview describes Life Review as follows: “Through a series of writing, reading, interactive and listening experiences, participants will be guided to expand and/or deepen their life story…. The life review method is an educational process of bringing one’s understanding of the past into the present. The focus is on how we can move ahead to integrate personal, social, and spiritual parts of ourselves.”
Life Review appeared to be the perfect next step in the process of dealing with those childhood events that had been holding me back from becoming a fully formed adult.
The course, which attracted sixteen participants, consisted of three hours of meeting in small groups in the morning and one hour reconnecting with the large group after lunch. I was fortunate to be placed in the group facilitated by Dr. Westwood. Before beginning the course, the participants were asked to write two pages on each of the four themes that were to be discussed in the small-group sessions. The themes were A Significant or Major Branching Point in My Life, My Family, Death and Dying, and The Meaning of My Life: My Aspirations and Life Goals Going Forward.
Over the past many years I have done a great deal of work on discovering who I really am, which meant doing the work of chipping away the illusions that caused me to be someone other than who I truly am. My own process involved journaling, blogging, reading, and talking with close friends and occasionally clergy. I knew that I had come a long way through the work that I had done, but I felt that I had hit a wall, that the techniques I had been relying on had exhausted their usefulness. I began meditation but did not have the patience and perseverance to stick with it for very long. I had never been involved in group work.
Writing on the four themes was an interesting exercise but one that I did not find particularly challenging because I had done so much writing over the years. When I read my first “story” to the rest of my small group on the first day of Life Review, I was stunned at the difference between writing something about myself and “putting it out there” by reading or “telling” the story to a small group of trusted people.
My small group consisted of a clergy person, a college instructor, a woman of 80 years, a diocesan program director, myself, and Marv Westwood. While the participants are given the “rules of engagement,” including confidentiality, respect, and “no judgment” prior to moving into their small groups, I discovered that the miracle of small group – of this one at least – was that I instantly trusted every member of my cohort and was ready to share the deepest parts of myself with them. Moreover, Marv is a highly skilled and deeply empathetic facilitator who welcomes emotional expression as a critical part of the process of self-discovery, encourages reflection on the life events or circumstances that cause the emotion, gently maintains the focus of the group, and is utterly and personally engaged in the process. On several occasions he revealed events in his own life by which he had been traumatized, and he was at times visibly moved by spiritual insights he gained from members of the group.
Each morning the group members read the story they had prepared on the theme for that day. When one person had finished reading his or her story, the other members reflected on the story one by one. The reflections were not to be critical; rather, we were encouraged to indicate how we were touched by the story – what we noticed, what resonated with us, how we were affected by it. Marv was always the last person to provide input; naturally, his reflections were a mix of empathy, observation, and suggestion, based on his knowledge and experience in counselling, as well as on his deep humanity.
Due to the promise of confidentiality, I cannot relate the stories and experiences and reactions of others in the group, but I can talk about my own experience as a participant in Life Review, which was profound and which will, I suspect, be life-changing.
For me, the great benefit of participating in Life Review was the deep insights about myself that I gained. On the first day, as others in the group reflected on the stories told, including my own story, it struck me how profoundly empathetic each of them was. I shared with them my concern that I lacked empathy, that my silent but often otherwise obvious advice to the suffering of others was “Get over it,” and that I worried that whatever I said to members of the group about their suffering might not be genuine. I was quickly told that this was not the impression I had made; both Marv and the clergy person remarked that they had immediately seen in me an authentically loving person.
The second day, when we told the story of our family, revealed the startling difference between writing about trauma and about deep love and communicating them orally to a trusted group. It was difficult to get through the part of the story relating to my father’s cool distance and my brother’s bullying without breaking down; in fact, I did break down several times. Interestingly, I also broke down when I talked about my partner and my Korean “grandchildren,” whom I love so much.
Again, the process produced insight. Of course, I knew that I had been significantly affected by the trauma I experienced as a child and adolescent, but the powerful emotion that welled up in the relating of it, and the comments of the others in the group, showed me that little Rossie had truly suffered and that I had diminished the degree of suffering and suppressed the memory of it for fifty years. The “get over it” attitude to the suffering of others was really a reflection of the advice I had unconsciously applied to myself. After all, only sissies cry over being bullied.
The third day, for which the topic was “Death and Dying,” was a rather “light” day for me as I had not experienced the loss of anyone I dearly loved. Others in the group had suffered profound loss, so I listened carefully to their stories and responded as authentically and empathetically as I could.
The final theme produced a shattering insight for me. Much of the discussion on the fourth day centered on spirituality, and in the conversation I learned that every other member of the group had experienced the holy – the comforting presence of the divine – throughout his or her life. The group members knew, but did not know how they knew, that they were the beloved children of God (we are all Christians – Anglicans, actually), and in two cases at least, that the divine presence would see them through the considerable trauma they had suffered from childhood well into their adult years.
During these conversations, it became clear to me that I was the only person in the group who had not experienced this divine presence, and when I tried to tell everyone about this realization, I broke down completely. I had been seeking the experience of God in my heart for many years, and I was aware that I had not yet discovered the divine within me, but the sense of loss and emptiness I felt at that moment revealed to me the depth of my desire for this holiness in my life. Again, the group was encouraging and supportive, but I knew what I knew. Yet despite the shock and the hurt of the moment, I did not feel hopelessness; on the contrary, I experienced a renewed sense of purpose in my quest for holiness.
Individuals who have never experienced group work such as is featured in Life Review may consciously or unconsciously expect to undergo a sudden and radical transformation. This does not happen. The participants are urged to take the insights they have gained in the five days of the program and “move ahead” toward the integration of these insights into the development of the whole person.
Work needs to be done and time needs to be spent, but for me the fire has been stoked. On the first day the participants were told, “This week is all about you,” and because it was indeed all about me, I was able explore myself more deeply and to identify and focus on my issues more keenly than I had been able to do in many years of working alone. Moreover, I received guidance and affirmation and encouragement that no book, no self-help video series could ever provide. That I was offered this experience in such a loving and trusting environment is a testament to the devotion, commitment, and expertise of the Life Review team. I am immensely grateful.
“The Only Journey” by Celestine Chua. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Recent Ross Lonergan Articles:
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Four
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Three
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part One
- Bullying, Fear, And The Full Moon (Part Four)