Saturday, October 10, 2009

Surviving a Law & Order Episode

It reads like a TV drama.  Sixty people are at a spiritual retreat.  The organizer promises a journey of the spirit, but has participants sign a lengthy release of liability.  The participants are inside a so-called "sweatbox," an imitation of a Native American ritual, when more than 20 fall ill and two die.  Who is to blame?  A criminal investigation begins.  Were the participants fasting?  In ill health?  Who is this organizer?  Did he know what he was doing?  But it isn't a Law & Order episode.  It's an AP news story.  This actually happened last night at a resort near Sedona, Arizona.

So let's try reframing this drama, shall we?  You have been working to better yourself and explore your spiritual side.  You sign up for a retreat where they will be doing hiking, swimming, wilderness survival, and a sweatbox ritual of some kind.  You've read enough to know that things like the sweat lodge can be very powerful in people's personal and spiritual development.  So there you are, in the sweatbox, when people start passing out.  You don't feel so well yourself.  You go out of the lodge and the paramedics arrive.  You see people being brought out.  More than 20 are taken to the hospital.  Two of the people you've been sharing this important life experience with are dead.  No one knows what happened, the press are crawling all over the place, and the police are taking statements.  This is not the life-changing event you had in mind.

I've written a lot in this space about the natural tendency to look for someone to blame when things go wrong.  I've also written about how things seem more traumatic and get more media attention when they are unusual.  Certainly, in this case, the lack of a clear cause makes people hunger for someone to blame, and the circumstances are unusual enough to get everyone's attention.  But there is also a voyeuristic quality to the press coverage.

This isn't Law & Order.  This was not ripped from the headlines, it is the headlines.  Real people died.  Real people saw them die.  Real families are traumatized and grieving.  So are real survivors.  For those who chose to be at that resort this week, who chose this retreat and this way of bettering themselves, the scrutiny and attention being paid to the "this is weird" aspect of the story has to be complicating their processing.  It's hard enough to question what you could have done or should have known, and to come to peace with the fact that others died while you watched and you lived, without also having to worry about whether the rest of the world thinks you're nuts.

I'm not suggesting in any way that it's not important to investigate this incident.  Knowing what happened is important in helping the survivors cope and in preventing it from happening again.  If someone is criminally negligent here, they should be held accountable.  But in our rush to place blame, let's not lose sight of the real lives lost, and the difficult journey still ahead for those they left behind.


Anonymous said...

Some people are idiots - my highly educated ( one bachelor's and two masters degrees ) sister went to a sweat lodge a couple of years ago at a spa in New Mexico, and hated it - at least she came out alive! She has more money than she knows what to do with - although the tragedy of this incident is undeniable the bottom line is - some people are just plain stupid! They should have spent their money on world hunger, ending war and stopping genocide. They would probably till be alive. . .

Anonymous said...

I am thinking some possibilities:

1.) The tent was new, and the fabric made in china, and had toxic materials or chemicals that seeped into the air that caused some kind of reaction from lungs or skin to blood.

2.) The water used to steam the stones had some kind of nonoderous toxin or even a poison?

3.) If everyone drank a specific tea or detox beverage then that would be my first thought...a little too much Hemloch and Peyote!!

This reads to be much more of a poisoning of some kind, whether through intent or accident....looking forward to reading the details as they leak them.

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

I think calling people "idiots" is exactly the kind of hurtful rhetoric we should be trying to avoid. Sweat lodge rituals have been in use in some cultures for a very long time. Has every member of that culture been an idiot? Obviously something went wrong here, but I don't think judging the people who were there without knowing what the cause was helps anyone.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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