Baggage

I’ve made a commitment to travel lighter these days.  Take with me only what I will really use.  Still my suitcase is often heavier than it needs to be. Which means on most trips, I have to check a bag.  Which is what put me at baggage claim at the Sacramento Airport last month.  Gawking at a remarkable piece of public art:  An enormous pillar of baggage.

Lost Bags Sculpture in Sacramento Airport

Lost Bags Sculpture in Sacramento Airport

And as I stood in front of this massive thirty-foot high pillar of bags, I found myself thinking about all the baggage, of various kinds, that we insist on carrying with us--how many different kinds (just as in the picture) we insist on piling up in our own lives.

We often say of someone who behaves poorly in a meeting,  “He must be carrying some kind of baggage.” And probably all of us do.  Yet, it’s important to be aware of the impact of various kinds of “baggage” on our ability to live the life we want and to contribute in the way we wish to contribute.

So here are five kinds of baggage that I spot sometimes piling up in my own life.  Baggage that I want to set down.  I invite you to add your favorite bags to this list!  Things you might want to leave behind.

The baggage of anxiety and worry. For me, a big piece of baggage is unnecessary, pointless anxiety about things. A friend of mine says that beneath much anxiety is a belief that if we worry enough, the bad things we’re worrying about won’t happen.  We are warding off the possibility of disaster by worrying about it all the time. Now I’m not arguing against being aware and attentive, but constantly orienting to what can go wrong is exhausting.  (And I should add, flies in the face of the wisdom of almost every spiritual tradition.)

Mark Twain says, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”  

Another person pointed out to me that anxiety is willing the unwillable.  So I have to ask myself why I am agonizing about whether or not the flight will encounter turbulence.  My willing a smooth flight is willing the unwillable.   It will be smooth, or it won’t be.  Better I place my energies and attention on something more productive. Like writing you this note.

The Jottings Journal that we produce has a bit of my poetry that speaks to the baggage of anxiety, and my own efforts to set it down. Also appears in Simple Gifts.

Turning Points

She had spent

Most of life

Anxious and agonizing—

Unnecessarily,

As it turned out—

She even sensed

It at the time—

The senseless

Waste of all

That energy.

So she decided

She would stop.

And did.

That was

The turning point.

I think for each of us the question is how committed are we to turning that corner ourselves, every day.   To putting down the baggage of useless anxiety.

The baggage of plans. Sometimes the baggage comes from holding onto a plan even when it no longer makes sense.  Sometimes we are just too determined to do what we set out to do.  This morning as I was leaving a hotel, a colleague, who had planned to fly out at the same time, and straight into a colossal blizzard in the north east, came up looking very relaxed.  She said that at 4 a.m., with her bags already packed for the trip, she had declared a “snow day” for herself.  It dawned on her that her plans to fly made no sense, given the blizzard and the massive numbers of cancelled flights on the east coast.  She was sure to get stranded somewhere unpleasant. She had literally put her bags down.  And gone out to enjoy the west coast city in the sunshine.  

There are days for each of us when we need to declare an equivalent snow day.  And set down our plans.

The baggage of grudges.  Sometimes the bags are full of grudges.  Toward others, for things we think they have done to us. For things that they have kept us from doing.  But perhaps more destructive are grudges toward ourselves, for not having done what we promised ourselves we would do.  For having failed to be perfect.  Sometimes we carry that baggage around without even noticing we are doing it.  We get used to the weight.   It seems normal.

Before we can set the baggage of grudges down, we need to become aware of their weight, and that they don’t serve us.  How will we do that? Perhaps by listening to the internal dialogue and naming the grudges for what they are.  “Ah, it’s a grudge.  Against Joe.  Ah, another grudge, against me for being less than perfect.”  And then to practice compassion with ourselves about the grudges (that is not adding additional grudges for the grudges…)

The baggage of outmoded stories about ourselves. Sometimes the baggage is an old view of ourselves that no longer tracks with reality.   But we’ve told ourselves the story so often and for so long, that it seems a necessary part of ourselves, and we keep lugging it around.   It may be a story about what’s not possible because of who we are and where we are.  It may be a story about what the world expects of us. It may be a story we tell ourselves about things that people like us are supposed to like (opera, football, sailing, concerts) but the truth is we don’t seem to like those things. It may be like the story I told myself for years, that I was a serious person.  That story of me as a serious person became so dominant in my life that it nearly killed my sense of humor. 

But the sense of humor is back.  Which is the reason that the baggage picture so tickled me. 

You can fill in additional kinds of stories—no longer supported by the realities around you, yet baggage that you carry nonetheless. Ask yourself, “What’s an old story that I want to bag up and leave behind?”

The baggage of prized possessions: Sometimes the baggage is something that was useful for a voyage that has changed dramatically—and given changes in circumstances, the bags are weighing us down.  It’s time to travel light.   That’s my story above, about wanting to literally travel light. Anyone in the process of downsizing, recognizes this kind of baggage. Clothes that we might wear—someday.  The chair that is solid but miserably uncomfortable.  Always was.  The book that looked interesting, but we haven’t come close to reading.  Sometimes we find that one-time joys—material and immaterial—have turned to unnecessary ballast.   Perhaps that’s why we see self-storage units popping up like mushrooms across our landscape.

We can take a lesson about the baggage of prized possessions from history by watching “Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure,” a 41 minute movie about the effort of Sir Ernest Shackleton and 27 scientists and sailors to cross Antarctica on foot—in the years of 1915-1917.  It’s an expedition that goes from bad to worse.  Their ship becomes frozen in the ice pack, and eventually is crushed.  Realizing the ship is going down, Shackleton orders his men to abandon ship and to take only the essentials from the ship, leaving behind their most valued possessions.  Why?   Because the things they prized would weigh them down, and be of no value in the conditions they were facing.

Shackleton knew of other expeditions gone bad, which left a trail on the ice as people could no longer carry the things they’d insisted on bringing along—first piles of English bone China, and then a bit further on, silverware, and further yet British coins, and then, finally, bleached human bones. He knew if they were to survive their sudden change in circumstances, they had to travel light, and that it would be harder to give up prized possessions along the way.   You might be curious about what they saved:  Among the things they salvaged were their journals, the photographic equipment and the best of the photographic plates, the musical instrument, the 23rd Psalm from the Bible—the items that would allow them to keep their spirits up and to give meaning to their efforts to return, all safe, to England.  Which they did.

Which leaves me asking myself, what bags am I willing to set down, set aside, in order to travel more lightly and more easily, and more comfortably in my life.

To keep my spirits up.

What baggage am I willing to add, today, in a symbolic way, to the pile of baggage that makes up the art in the Sacramento airport’s baggage claim area?