Out my window, rain droplets slip from the leaves of trees rising from the garden near Thomas Merton’s grave. I have journeyed up here to the Abbey of Gethsemani for a few years now, perhaps making some fifteen or more trips with my former professor and now good friend Richard Goode. With each trip, we ask the same question of each other: “So what are you bringing with you today?” The answer is always twofold: physical and spiritual. What books and burdens do you bring? This trip, I carried heavy concerns, as well as a few new reads. One such read is Pádraig Ó Tuama’s brilliant new work In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World. In it, he writes of guiding young students in a prayer exercise he calls an “imagination walk”: with closed eyes, they imagine themselves in a pleasant place and visualize a stranger approaching. This stranger, Pádraig tells them, is Jesus, and after a few minutes of silence, Pádraig asks about their conversations with the Christ of their imagination. One teenage boy said the Jesus he met in the woods asked him three questions: “How would you describe today? Have you seen anything interesting along the way? And: Is it working?” These questions struck Pádraig as an insightful “invitation to mindfulness.” Later, he observes that many have claimed three other questions as central to understanding life: Who am I? Where I am going? What am I supposed to do? When I read this a few weeks ago, though, I felt a question was missing to both sets of three, though I could not yet name it.
In a recent conversation with a friend, she revealed that a few years ago, she endured a devastating divorce. I learned this via text—through which many secrets are communicated in this age—and she ended her short story-synopsis with, “So there it is. That’s my baggage.” This language struck me, almost as a confession, an offering, something profound and personal. Though it contained no shame, the words seemed weighed with legitimate fear, the fear of rejection and judgment that accompany so many of our secrets. This was her “baggage,” and she revealed and extended it in vulnerability. Essentially, she answered the Gethsemani question without me even asking. “Here’s what I’m bringing with me,” she told me.
I realized this was the missing question to the triplets above: What are you bringing with you? This question directs us back to ourselves, inviting an awareness of our stories that can be both discomforting and disarming. So often what we bring are our wounds and woundings, the stories we tell of those, and the truths and untruths we feel about ourselves because of those stories.
Yet, though we share these stories with much fear and trepidation, it’s from our wounds that we humans come closer to each other. It’s the wounds that let us connect in the deepest ways; they are the cracks in the hard protective exteriors we build around ourselves. For me, I’m drawn in when I recognize and resonate with the pain of another. Whether in a conflict-zone, prison, therapy circle, Tenx9 storytelling event, or coffee shop, I have come to see wounds as opportunities for connection, rather than just scab marks on the flesh of our stories. These wounds and woundings burden us and baggage us, and in so doing, they might bless us as well, as they open us up to connection and community.
We tend to speak of “baggage” negatively, naming things unwelcome, unhelpful, and undefining. The word itself implies externality, something outside ourselves. But the experiences I’ve always named for myself as baggage are neither external nor necessarily negative. They are certainly painful, but in that pain, they’ve been (trans)formative, watershed experiences. They’ve added further to the definition of who I am and provided more opportunities to connect with others who have hurt and cried and longed and regretted and collapsed and recovered and been ashamed. My “baggage” still makes me nervous to fully open to someone. I fear their response: Will they pull away, judge, reject, run? But I keep finding that when I show up and share what I’m bringing with me—all my “dirt,” to borrow a different metaphor—the stories of others tend to mirror my own. We can’t be ashamed of our stories. We need to own them, because they often own us.
I dislike the way we use the word “dirt” in these contexts. Our degrading usage strikes me as only possible due to our alienation from the land. The Genesis creation story says humankind came to life from the dirt of the earth and the breath of God. It takes both soil and spirit for us to be. Nevertheless, we dishonor dirt and therefore assign its name to our dishonorable stories. And so we offer forth our “dirt” with vulnerability and anxiety. On the other side, when I am privileged enough to receive the “dirt” of another, my task seems simple: to hold and honor the story. Is there anything else to say but thank you; I’m sorry; you’re okay; and you are loved? When I receive this response, I breathe. I breathe from relief, I breathe with hope, I breathe with joy, I breathe the blessing of welcome. We offer our “dirt,” holding our breaths in hopes that the blessings of welcome and love may grow, and if they do, we breathe again. It is from this offering of dirt, and from the breath of welcomed relief, that the life of relationship often springs forth, for life is easier when shared with people who understand.
After all, dirt and breath are the genesis of life.
Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the founder and co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and an adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. In Fall 2015, he will spend three months writing in Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda as the Visiting Scholar for TCU’s new QEP project “Stories of Reconciliation.”