It’s a new year, and there’s lots of talk (as usual) about fresh starts, clean slates, and starting over. The past, it seems, is just luggage weighing us down, and if we can leave it behind, we can move forward faster, lighter, and unencumbered.
My experience is that this is not only impossible, but also undesirable.
Besides, who really wants to get where they’re going without their luggage?
Sure, our suitcases can be heavy. Some of us have quite a bit of the past—even the immediate past (like…yesterday)—weighing us down: struggles with addiction, unresolved conflict with family, unfulfilling relationships, depression. Like suitcases without wheels, these experiences threaten to drag us down. And with the new year comes the intriguing possibility that we have arrived in a new land, and—if we choose—we can leave our luggage behind.
We imagine that in this new place we’ll be better people: folks who exercise regularly, eat and drink in moderation, never fight with our partners or friends, keep the house clean, remember everybody’s birthdays, and arrive on time for work every day. And maybe we even manage to do some of these things for a week or two.
But by February most of us find that our lives have not changed significantly, that we’ve returned to our old habits, and that we have not, actually, arrived in a new land at all. The luggage we thought we’d left behind is right by our side, like those stories you hear about pets who travel across the country to return home. Where did this suitcase come from? we wonder. I thought I left this behind.
What this illusion of lighter travel always misses is that wherever we go, we bring ourselves. We’re the common denominator of our lives, the one who can’t say no to a second helping, the one who refuses to see a doctor (or a therapist), the one who can’t just smile and let a snide comment pass unanswered.
What we think of as “luggage” is, I would suggest, our memories and history, the reminders of who we are in the world, the evidence of our humanity. Oh yes, here in my bag I find that moment I snapped at my mother and made her cry. How I would like to forget that I am that person who did that.
But just like that moment the airline tells you your luggage is lost, we find that without our bags of memory and history, we are adrift. I may not want to be the woman who made her mother cry, but who am I if not the woman who has been forgiven by her mother?
Change is possible, always, and I would suggest the key is not to leave your luggage behind, but to open up your bags and take inventory. Repack, if you need to. Buy a new bag for your things. But you need to know what’s in there because you’re not going anywhere without it.