Welcome to Eclectic: Unencumbered

Ain’t nobody messin’ with you, but you . . .
— from “Althea” by The Grateful Dead

It was the last lines in the Gospel reading from June 26 – Luke 9:62 – that spoke to me: “. . . Jesus said, ‘No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.'” We had been at the lake and, though I hadn’t planned on it, I decided to come back to Montgomery with my daughter who wanted to go to Sunday evening Mass. My habit, when I arrive at Mass, is to kneel and pray for a few moments, then read the scriptures beforehand. That week’s Old Testament reading from 1 Kings made little sense to me, so I focused on the latter two, which were excerpts from Galatians and Luke. And I noticed those last lines right away.

The work of putting one’s past in the past is daunting. The Christian religion is chock-full of admonitions about forgiveness and living unencumbered, but here on Earth, our memories, judgments, and preparations are useful parts of our survival instincts. They’re also heavy burdens to bear in daily life— we try in the present to assess the future by using the past. By a worldly standard, only a fool would wander willy-nilly into tomorrow. On the other hand, tomorrow is not yesterday.

Five and a half years ago, in February 2017, I wrote a post here on the blog titled “Things.” about being attached to my belongings, not because they have material value but because so many of them connect to old experiences and memories. My wife and I had watched a feel-good documentary called The Minimalists, and I was contrasting these guys’ ideas with Mark Doty’s book Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. I have long kept books, tapes, trinkets . . . because of my experiences that were tied to them. My office is littered with all manner of ephemera, an eclectic array of things that no one but me would see any reason to keep. I also wrote, a year later in January 2018, about my habit of clinging to old keepsakes in “The Boxes in the Attic: A Love Story.” When I look at any of it, I remember the story: where I was, what I was doing, who was around.

That was before the pandemic. I can’t speak for other people, but nothing has been the same for me after experiencing and witnessing what the years 2020 and 2021 brought. While most of us did survive it, those memories and revelations are not so easily put in the past. We “put hand to plow” to get through those hardships, but looking to “what was left behind” seems necessary to harvest the lessons from that suffering. So, recently, in considering that Bible verse from Luke’s Gospel, I had an idea: what if I just got rid of all the negative stuff— the things that hold the ugly reminders of past pain? And I threw out a garbage bag full: music, mementos, notes, photos, clippings. It felt good, and I haven’t missed any of things that I scrapped. In short, that small act felt like a step in the right direction, a shift toward something better.

I’m not one of those people who focuses on the positive, because some of the best lessons I’ve ever learned came from bad situations. I also saw a Thich Nhat Hanh quote on Instagram (on the left) that encapsulates why I feel that way. We got to misstep, fall down, and err in judgment in order to learn— and to be willing to! I struggle with this idea of not looking back, and sometimes intentionally remind myself of bad situations in the past so I can be aware and not repeat them. The trick, however, might be to remember and use those bad experiences without allowing them to usurp the present and the future. It’s a tightrope-walking kind of distinction, but one that seems important to embrace.

To read more from Foster Dickson’s blog Welcome to Eclectic, click here.

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