If you’ve ever returned from the shops with a rucksack on your back, full of food and other purchases, you’ll know how heavy it can feel, chafing on your shoulders and neck, and how glad you are to empty it out onto the kitchen work top on arriving home.
It normally takes wisdom in middle age, or some kind of sudden bad health experience, to realise that we’re carrying other baggage around in life which is not so easy to unload.
One of our delusions as humans is that we are free. Free to make our own choices, free to make our own decisions, free to choose our own path. On closer inspection we’re all carrying around certain extra stuff which can make life very heavy going.
Jesus knew this when he said ‘Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Matt. 28:11).
Understanding what baggage we’re carrying is a life long process but helped by mindfulness and having an accountable friendship with someone who can question our motivation. In the Church we’re encouraged to have a spiritual director who can discern, in regular conversation, why certain actions were taken, or thoughts seriously struggled with. A good spiritual director picks up hints of baggage before we do.
Every time I hear of a clergy person leaving the church through burn out or exhaustion, or hear of someone who’s publicly doing a good job but privately dying inside, I wonder about the heavy loads they might have been carrying around in their emotional baggage rucksack.
Last summer I had a less than successful summer holiday which left me feeling anxious, tired and quite unwell. You know – the sort of holiday where you’re beat before you leave, and in need of a rest when you return. Holidays should be a highlight of the year but this was a case of ‘what just happened to my life?’ How is it I can negotiate work, but not rest?
On unpicking the experience I realised that others’ expectations and my own complicity in them had led to some poor decisions that impacted my health and wellbeing, such as not being properly aware of my tiredness, not recognising what proper rest feels like, feeling I had to prove myself constantly and not listening to my gut feelings.
Gut feelings may be your body trying to tell you that something has to change, something has to give. If it doesn’t, our health goes. With every occasion, be it work or a tricky relationship, the bare facts happening to you are never the whole story. The whole story is how you react to what is happening. An over reaction or feeling of compulsion probably indicates you’re feeling the weight of baggage that could, with some help, be unloaded.
Self care is me looking inside my emotional baggage rucksack and saying ‘I don’t need that, I can do without that and, oh, let’s definitely get rid of that’. What needs to be unloaded will depend on your unique personality and experiences, but it’s often fear of others’ reactions; reacting to other’s unreasonable expectations; and a desire to keep up with the Joneses, even the spiritual Joneses (actually the ‘spiritual’ Joneses are the worst).
Going through the rucksack prayerfully and jettisoning things that are unhealthy leaves me free to receive God’s blessing and healing, without fear of coming up short. Because others’ ‘agendas’ (including mine) are heavy, like bringing back 8 pints of milk on your back on a hot day. God’s agenda is light and manageable.
Taking off the heavy rucksack leaves me properly free to take the next exciting stage of the journey, walking free, breathing the air, feeling the ground slope gently upwards towards the sky, sensing the glorious spaciousness around me, unworried by where everyone else seems to be travelling. Following in His footsteps alone.