Shortly after my 36th birthday, I experienced a break-up that took years to recover from. A wise older friend said to me, “You need to know that you’ve gotten to the age where you won’t find someone without a little baggage. It’s up to you to figure out how much baggage you can handle.”
She was all too familiar with this situation: Newly-separated after a 21-year marriage, an estranged son and her not-yet-ex-husband already in a new relationship. She was speaking from experience, that much was clear.
It took me a few years to figure out just what baggage actually means to me. Most people might define it as responsibilities or commitments to others, such as ex spouses, in-laws or to children after a divorce. But these things don’t count in my definition.
We all come to our present situations with our past experiences accumulated. These experiences inform our thinking and our behavior. But there should be a limit to just how much our past informs us. To me, baggage indicates an attachment to the past.
At some point or another, I’ll ask people I’m getting to know what they learned from their previous relationships. Their answer reveals a lot about how much baggage they’re carrying. For instance, I once asked a very polite, well-mannered gentleman this question. His answer: “I learned that women can’t be trusted.” It wasn’t long before I ended that conversation!
Certainly, many of us have had unfortunate experiences. But if we allow those experiences to keep our hearts closed and our minds stuck in the same patterns of thinking, it’s time to let go.
I often wonder if people use the terms baggage and responsibilities as synonyms. In my mind, they are two completely different terms. Being responsible is an admirable trait, but having baggage is a red flag.
Consider this: A single parent is raising kids alone. Or perhaps someone cares for elderly parents. He or she is showing a tremendous commitment to family and community by taking responsibility for others. It is a positive sign that this person takes active participation in the world beyond the self. It is, in fact, a clear indication that this person is living out the tenets of our faith.
In terms of dating or as a potential mate, their time constraints and hectic lifestyle don’t have to be hindrances. It obviously requires a lot of patience on both parties’ sides, but it may be worth it in the end!
Now consider this: A single person lives alone and has no responsibilities to anyone, other than the ordinary things we all should take care of: ourselves, perhaps a pet, and being a good friend and family member. However, this person is constantly harping on an ex, or how a parent was hurtful in childhood, or complaining about a former friend. This is the kind of baggage that will hinder development in a relationship.
That’s not to say that every last person with an attachment to the past is loaded down with baggage and should be avoided completely. Rather, it’s a consideration to keep in mind while discerning a relationship.
As I’ve mentioned before, I declared 2012 the Year of Forgiveness. While none of us can force anyone else to forgive someone or something from their past, it might be worth mentioning. Someone with excess baggage might need to hear that message, and hadn’t thought about it before.
There’s a popular idiom circulating around: “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” This is a perfect encapsulation of what it means to let go of baggage.
If you are considering a relationship with someone, but are worried about his or her attachment to the past, don’t give up completely; just let that person know forgiveness is the first step in the process of letting go.