“I think many people love their problems.
Gives them all sorts of excuses for not growing up and getting on with life.”
– Louise Penny, Still Life –
Anyone remember “back in the day” when suitcases didn’t have wheels? We used to have to pick up our luggage and muscle it from place to place. Some of us still do that with emotional baggage that we carry from past negative experiences. At the end of my previous post, I suggested that we could rearrange that emotional backpack and lighten the load. How? Here’s what has helped me.
Admitting that I was carrying the weight. I was taught to be quick to forgive. And it’s true that forgiveness is important, but the form of “forgiveness” I learned was, “That’s okay. No harm done.” Meanwhile, I absorbed the harm, even to the point of taking the blame myself, while trying to persuade myself that I hadn’t been hurt. I believed I shouldn’t feel hurt, that I should take the hit and let it go. Instead of forgiving people, I was making excuses for them. I was able to begin to lighten the weight only after admitting that what was done was not all right, and it did hurt.
Revising the situation. Some people call this reframing, setting the event into a frame that distances it from us so that we can see it in a new light. I prefer to call it revision. One of the secrets of being a writer is that most of writing is revision. Another handy skill of a good writer is understanding character motivation – which I can use in real life revision. I can revise the way I see my baggage, for example, by seeing that someone lashed out at me because they were hurting. Or that someone betrayed me because they wanted so badly to get ahead.
This may sound like making excuses for people, but it’s not. Excuses try to take what’s wrong and say it was all right in the first place, because (insert excuse here). If we’re the keep-the-peace-at-all-costs type, excuses are a way to avoid confrontation. Instead of grappling with true forgiveness, excuses relieve the wrongdoer of responsibility. Revising, on the other hand, requires us to admit we were wronged. We let the responsibility lie with the one who wronged us, and we revise the scene to try to understand each person’s point of view.
We also revise by looking for the positive outcome of the event(s) that became such a weight for us. If the wrong done to us did not shut us down, then we can take stock of where we are in the journey. Not only was it possible to find a path ahead in spite of what happened but perhaps because of what happened. As painful and embarrassing as it was, misunderstanding and being misunderstood inspired me to try to communicate clearly, to simplify complex concepts. Being raised in a rigid, exclusive belief system led me to explore and discover how people growing up in a community of faith leave taken-for-granted beliefs and come into a faith of their own. Revision is not an effort to deny the negatives of the past; it’s an effort to declaw them.
Telling someone. Emotional baggage often gains weight when it’s hidden. So when it’s shared, the load gets lighter. It’s important, though, who we share the weight with. It’s worth finding someone who respects us enough to practice nonjudgmental listening, a person who won’t offer up canned answers, a person who, however well intentioned, won’t use “let’s pray about it” as an evasive maneuver. Yes, prayer is good, but when we’re unburdening ourselves, it’s the listening ear we need, the open hands, the open heart, the presence of someone who simply sits with us in our sadness.
Grieving the stones left behind. We may need to grieve for two reasons. First, if we’ve only just admitted we were wronged and that it did indeed hurt us, we may need to mourn that wound. Second, when we’ve been carrying baggage, setting that weight aside can leave us feeling clean but also empty. We’d grown comfortable with the weight. It was familiar. Maybe we even felt was our cross to bear so that we could either take on the role of martyr or feel sorry for ourselves and perhaps get others to feel sorry for us as well. When we do leave the weight behind, we may feel uncomfortable or even empty in its absence. If we held our hurts especially close, we may need to grieve the loss. And then get on with life.
Grabbing onto the good. We can realize that we’ve survived every wrong done to us – maybe not unscathed, but we survived, and that’s good. We can now intentionally open our senses to all the good and beautiful in the present moment, which often gets overshadowed when negative memories insist on popping up. But the bounty of the present moment can fill the emptiness.
A friend recently gave me a pot of shamrocks. I always thought of shamrocks as Ireland-green, but these are red-violet, and the leaves are triangle-shaped. They’re fascinating, because during the day, the leaves open fully open to the sun, but when the sun goes down, the leaves fold toward each other and end up looking like origami on a stem. We humans, in our natural state, open our very centers to whatever warms and enlightens us emotionally. We close to whatever chills and darkens our deepest selves. It’s only when we trust people, our world, and our selves that we open again.
Our life journeys may be unmapped, but one thing we know: Life is guaranteed to take us through a full range of experiences and feelings – pleasure and pain, love and hatred, joy and grief, excitement and dread. Becoming whole means opening our arms, hearts, and eyes to life’s shifting patterns, the play of light and shadow that’s not only around us but within us as well. Wholeness implies releasing what’s stale, receiving what’s fresh, and being generous to self and others. It means opening our eyes to what has come before and to what exists now.
“I am now the sum of everything I have been before,” said writer Isabel Allende. And when I set aside the weight of what’s come before, I can look toward the possibilities that lie ahead.
Up next – thinking about religion: roadblock or oasis? Until then, I wish you well – and Happy Thanksgiving!
(If you want me to send these posts and any updates to your email, simply sign up on the right.)
If you want to me to send you a calming inspirational thought for the week each Sunday morning, you can sign up at Carry the Calm.
Text and shamrock photo © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.
Other photos courtesy morguefile.com.