We all have baggage, things we use to hold our “stuff," stuff that we have persuaded ourselves we need to hold on to. As much as we hate to admit it, we all have a love/hate relationship with our baggage. On the one hand, we’re exhausted from lugging it around, from unpacking and repacking ruminations like so much dirty underwear.
On the other hand, most of us have carried our baggage around for so long that we don’t know what to do without it. It completes the ensemble of “self” that we have constructed, tying our whole outfit together. Or perhaps we’ve done a great job packing our bag—efficient, effective, able to fit in the overhead bin. It’s a minor inconvenience to drag around, but it has those cool 360-degree wheels which helps. And we secretly pity those who have overpacked, needing those big, red “OVERSIZED” stickers on the front of their luggage and paying exorbitant fees that we’ve avoided with our carefully packed carryon of issues. But we’re also secretly sweating our walk through security—one slip of a zipper could result in utter catastrophe.
This is how my relationship with my baggage has been. It is, at times, grueling to carry. But I’ve been carrying it for so long, I don’t know who I am without it. I use it as an excuse, a hiding place, a comforter, a tool, even a weapon. Sometimes it is a cumbersome load. Other times, a bag of tricks.
Speaking with a friend recently made me realize there is one item in my baggage that takes up more room than anything else. It can be summed up in one word:
Unpacking this word, for me, causes a whole lot of other things to spill over the side of the suitcase. Just reading it on the page triggers some kind of vocabulary-related PTSD, if there is such a thing.
I heard that word a lot growing up. If the stories are to believed, I was an intelligent child and a good student, at least up to a point. Sometime around 3rd or 4th grade I saw less and less importance in things like “homework” and “paying attention” or “studying.” I didn’t have any problem absorbing and assimilating information in class and could recall it when needed, which made homework seem like busywork. The main reasons I progressed through school as I did were because of grades buoyed by test scores and arts classes. It drove my parents and teachers crazy because,
“Brian just has so much potential…”
That was the mantra that my parents heard from almost every teacher at every Parent/Teacher conference they attended from grade school through high school. That was the mantra they repeated to me upon returning home. I heard it from piano teachers, band and choir directors, writing teachers, professors, colleagues, bosses, friends…
I’ve heard it a lot.
But I didn’t just hear those words. Underneath the phrase I could hear the subtext echo in my head—“You’re not doing enough.” As a result, my default reaction was to do just enough—just enough to keep my teachers off my back, just enough to keep my parents satisfied with my performance, just enough to graduate, just enough to not mess up during the recitals and concerts, just enough to get in to college, to get a job, to get a date, to keep a girlfriend, to get married. “C’s Get Degrees” wasn’t just a pithy, school-slacker axiom—for me, it was a way of life.
Deep down, I think I probably believed I could do better. The ability was there, but the drive wasn’t. And, enabling my just enough campaign was the fact that it was working—for whatever reason, my “C” work was often perceived or accepted as “A” work. I’m certainly not bragging. There’s a lot about this that I’m not proud of in any way. But more often than not, my Hail Mary passes resulted in last-second touchdowns, half-court buzzer beaters, overtime shootout victories…pick your sports metaphor. Eventually, my subconscious started asking me, “Why would you put in all the effort to awe everyone with your best when they’re already impressed with your mediocrity? Just enough is good enough!”
Unfortunately, that’s a lie. It’s a lie you can live off of for a while, but it’s a lie nonetheless. At the risk of mixing metaphors (or are these analogies?), its like driving around in a car that has just enough gas all the time. It’s risky, but 9 times out of 10 it’ll get you from point A to point B with no problems at all. In fact, its kind of a rush. The problem is, that time you do run out of gas you might find your self in a dicey part of town or 20 miles from a gas station. And while 1 out of 10 doesn’t sound too bad, 10 times out of 100 will damage your engine (according to Google…I know nothing about cars).
Doing “just enough” in relationships is deadly. Doing it professionally is exhausting. And the damage that never running on a full tank does to your soul, while not irreparable, is costly and time consuming to fix. My reticence to live up to my supposed “potential” has had a profoundly negative effect on nearly every aspect of my life—personally, professionally, spiritually. The number of relationships left in the wake of my inability to fully connect is astounding. When it comes to my career in ministry, my struggle with potential leads to the following cycle—enchantment (they’re enamored with me and I with them), enthusiasm (together we can do anything!), the plateau (the space where they have bought in to my little ruse and are happy the way things are), and disenchantment (I fall out of love and look to move on to something more satisfying, and realizing too late that the dissatisfaction has mostly to do with my own inability to rise to my potential).
Spiritually, I find myself seeing God the way I remember my dad when I was in high school: sitting across from me at the dining room table, that “look” on his face (a mixture of disappointment and confusion), shaking his head saying, “You just have so much potential. What’s it going to take for you to read you bible more? What’s it going to take for you to drink less? Why can’t you just be happier, more joyful, and shine my light in the world around you? If only you would live up to your Christian potential.” (I should note that my Dad loves me very much and he and I have a good relationship. I don’t blame him or hold him responsible for my skewed view of God—I didn’t need a lot of help screwing that up. I love you, Dad…)
What I think I need is to find a word to replace the word “potential” in my vocabulary. Potential is so latent, based somewhat in scarcity. The implication that I am somehow lacking something is, ultimately, defeating. That’s why I think it messes me up so much. What do I do with bible verses that remind me that “I have everything I need for life and godliness”? (2 Peter 1:3) What about the reminder that Jesus came that I “might have life and have it more abundantly”? (John 10:10) Why would I continue to carry this baggage when Jesus invites us to “live freely and lightly” and promises to not “put anything heavy or ill-fitting on [me]”? (Matthew 11:28-30, MES) Why not start in that place—godliness, abundance, and lightness—instead of under the weight of potential?
Now, the word “abundance” has its own space in my baggage, as well. But if I can just trust that God’s presence is satisfying to my soul, maybe that’s one less drink. If I can find myself believing that I am Godly simply because I am an adopted child of God, not because of anything I have or haven’t done, any good or bad behaviors that I have or haven’t participated in, I’ll find myself living out of abundance, freely and lightly, trading my baggage for Jesus’.
Getting to that place is easier said than done. Letting go of baggage isn’t exactly like checking bags at the airport—there’s no way I could get it all there in one trip, anyway. But I think at least knowing that there is more to me than what I carry is a good start. And knowing there is freedom, lightness, and abundance available to me—not just the potential for freedom and abundance—is enough for me to continue this journey of trust and let go of my baggage, one piece at a time.