If we could learn to like ourselves, even a little, maybe our cruelties and angers might melt away. – John Steinbeck
Mary Beth and I enjoyed a movie night recently. With dinner simmering, we surfed the On Demand channel to find a movie that would have mutual appeal. Our standing compromise calls for no overly hyped-up action movies and no chick flicks. We narrowed our choices to three before deciding on Up in the Air with George Clooney.
The movie caught me by surprise. The acting was good and the script even better. The plot has George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, traveling across the country firing people. Bingham works for a company that specializes in this task.
When Ryan Bingham is not firing the unexpected, he has a side job as a motivational speaker. His central message of “What’s in your backpack?” explores the excess baggage we sometimes carry. He believes a person’s possessions and commitments can weigh them down to the point it can become impossible to move. Bingham believes we should “set our backpacks on fire” to relieve ourselves of the burden.
With no spouse, no real place to call home, and no relationship with his siblings, Clooney’s character carries a very empty backpack. No doubt he speaks about what he knows.
While I don’t agree with Ryan Bingham’s assertion we should carry the lightest backpack possible, I do agree with the notion of acknowledging what we put into our backpacks, and then recognizing what needs to come out, can be a productive one.
The contents of my backpack change as my life changes. When I do experience change, it’s healthy to look inside to see what’s no longer useful and what new items might be needed next.
My college backpack
My college backpack was full of ambition. College was my ticket to a better place. I understood to taste the success I craved, I had to bear down, earn good grades and finish in four years. My life was out there waiting and a college education was the way there.
Prior to graduating, I realized my backpack had accumulated certain things that was making it difficult to carry. Between studying, going to class and holding down a full-time job, there was little time to build relationships. I had become isolated and emotionally unreachable. I was alone.
Ironically, it was on graduation day when I unpacked the loneliness, but kept the ambition, before heading to what was next.
My marriage backpack
Mary Beth came to my college graduation. With only one date behind us, I invited her and she accepted. My wife and I fell in love during the summer of 1984. We were married a year later.
Mary Beth saved me from the loneliness; but I couldn’t save myself from the blinding ambition. My backpack was becoming stuffed with selfishness. Building my career was more important than raising my family. My backpack had become increasingly heavy from the long hours spent working. In a cruel twist of fate, ambition, my salvation during college, became my destruction.
In the spring of 2002, with our marriage on the brink of collapse, it was time to look inside my backpack.
What I saw was disturbing.
My breakthrough backpack
On the weekend of my 17th wedding anniversary I attended a personal formation seminar, Breakthrough. My reason for attending was to convince my wife I was capable of changing so our marriage could be restored. After the first day my reason for staying became more personal. I wanted to see if I could get rid of some old baggage. If my marriage survived the purging, then so be it.
The flap of my backpack was pulled wide open. The trainers invited me to look inside to see what had settled at the bottom and between the seams. I saw poor self esteem and unworthiness. I sifted through shame. I felt the unhappiness. It was time to throw this baggage away.
Resting the backpack between my legs, I leaned over and starting pulling out the things that were no longer serving me. Insecurity was the first to go. Guilt for not being a better son was next. Anger was more difficult. It was heavy and hard to grasp. After struggling for a few moments, the anger slipped between my fingers and fell back inside. I zipped the flap and dropped the backpack to the floor.
I leaned back and closed my eyes. Memories of witnessing my brother’s accident; waiting for my mother to prepare a Thanksgiving meal that never saw the table and hearing the insults from the playground bullies filled my mind. These memories were still with me – and so was the anger.
However, the opportunity to release the anger was within my reach. All I had to do was to remove it from my backpack.
A divine rage swelled inside of me. I pulled back the flap, plunged my hand inside, took firm hold of the anger and made certain it saw the light of day. It was time to throw it away and replace the anger with love – with self-love.
My open backpack
It’s been seven years since the Breakthrough seminar. I still have my backpack, but the flap has been permanently removed. This feels more comfortable because now I can see what things are taking up space and what things are providing value.
I can see forgiveness – both given and received. I can rummage through the backpack and come out with what’s good in life and then celebrate that.
It’s amazing how much space anger can take. With it removed, I have more space in my heart for passion, happiness and love. I pack these things everyday and take them with me everywhere I go. They seem to be taking on a life of their own – all I have to do is to make sure the backpack remains open so they have the room to grow.
What’s in my backpack?
I have faith I will continue to pack the right things for the rest of the journey. I have faith I will realize when something is no longer serving me and I will replace it with something better. I have faith the remnants of anger will be easier to grasp as I get better at recognizing its signs.
What’s in your backpack?