June has been dedicated to retreats for many of our partners both within the institutions (Board retreats, departmental retreats) and across the consortium. As we look backwards in order to look into the future, diverse groups have spent extensive time together this month “on retreat.”
“Retreat,” though, might not be the right word to capture this crucial thought work. According to the OED, a retreat is “An act of moving back or withdrawing”; 1.1 “An act of changing one’s mind or plans as a result of criticism or difficulty”; “A quiet or secluded place in which one can rest and relax.”
As Inigo Montoya, in “The Princess Bride” (film, 1987), says: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Instead, I would like to make a case for framing these as alignment exercises. If you will indulge me a metaphor, going to a chiropractor is different than enjoying a relaxation-based massage at a spa: chiropractic treatment focuses primarily on alignment. To apply the metaphor to many of the “retreats” I have attended this month, we have been able to spend dedicated time identifying pain points. Through discussions, debates, and brainstorming, we can – as chiropractors and therapeutic masseuses do so effectively – apply controlled pressure to an affected area in order to resolve the misalignments and tensions, which results in better holistic health.
This is not a new metaphor. Plato’s Republic provided one of its most influential formulations. The concept was connected to a politicized version of Aesop’s fable of “The Belly and the Members”. In early modern England the country was often understood through the metaphor of a physical body politic.
If our communities are a collective body, then when the body is healthy, all parts flourish. However, if one area is wounded or sick, all are affected. Therefore, these “retreats” are important alignment exercises to ensure we have the time for focused attention to tackle “wicked problems” and thorny issues that have no immediate solution.
After a therapeutic massage there is often more pain in the day or two following the treatment. However, when you hydrate and stretch through the discomfort, the longer-term effects are restorative and even transformative.
We need retreats – to rest, relax, and recover – just as we need strategic alignments to apply pressure and address misalignments. A healthy body politic is another way of imagining sustainable and resilient systems; when we are in alignment, we have time to tackle “to do” lists while also taking the space to imagine our “to be” lists.
— Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities