One of the challenges of dating the second time around is being a grown-up about your baggage. Sure, there are still some people who seem to think that they have gotten this far in life and are still all perfectly shiny and unscathed, but I think most of us can acknowledge that we’re carting around some stuff that gets in our way from time to time. It may be the same stuff that undid our marriages, or it may be scars incurred by the nastiness of a relationship coming apart, or it may predate either of those events. Whatever, it’s still clutter that obscures the truth and mangles our feelings and messes with our heads.
In talking with people, I am sometimes astonished at how comfortable some are with their personal baggage. They can discuss it honestly and dispassionately, with acknowledgment but no self-judgment. They are not defensive, nor do they offer it as an excuse for their bad behavior. It simply is. Nothing more, and nothing less. I sense that, for these people, their baggage is like having a small bank balance — something you have to work around, but not a complete obstruction to getting what you want. That is what I am striving for: not the elimination of my baggage, but the better management of it and the feelings it engenders.
Circumstances of late have reminded me that baggage only comes into play when the feelings are deep enough to unlock the trunk and spill out its contents. When feelings are more superficial, baggage is easily managed because it really doesn’t show up all that much. Those relationships are placid and easy, with little risk taken and few opportunities for our deepest fears or insecurities to emerge.
I used to think that the goal was to find someone who wouldn’t spill my baggage. Someone who wouldn’t trigger any of my insecurities or fears. Someone who was safe and consistent. But I don’t think that anymore. I think that we are spiritual beings having a human experience in order to learn and grow. And I don’t think that the safe road is the road to growth. I think if we want to grow, we must seek out the people who challenge us and our beliefs, the ones who love us while pushing us to face the things we most fear and the challenges we most dread, so that we may push past our fears or failings and reach our full potential.
I think that human nature intuitively knows this to be true. Even people who never take the road less traveled nod along quietly with the Robert Frost poem. And people who constantly hug the edges of safety were moved by Robin Williams’ “Carpe Diem!” cry in Dead Poets’ Society. Deep down, we all know that we have to test ourselves and push ourselves in order to truly experience all the richness of life, but it is so much easier to play it safe, isn’t it?
I realized recently that the men I have loved most deeply made me feel truly alive — radiant, vibrating with life and love and with the whole world in front of me. Granted, they also generally made me completely crazy sometimes, and I told every single one of them that I never wanted to see them again at least once. Those relationships scared me and they challenged me and they forced me to grow.
I’ll be honest — I don’t like pain. Emotional, physical, whatever. I don’t like it. And I have the same strong inclination to avoid it as anyone else. But what I have that’s stronger is the drive to love deeply and fully. And that sometimes requires plowing through some pain, even if the only pain I encounter is that which springs from my own baggage.
Because here’s the thing: if I love someone deeply, my baggage shows up. If I don’t, it doesn’t. I can be the most easy, breezy, self-assured modern woman of the millennium if my feelings for a guy are only superficial. But if I really love him? Well, then I get scared. Scared of losing him. Scared of him not loving me back. Scared that he will just disappear and forget about me and I will feel foolish and duped and lost. Every bit of abandonment issue that I have comes roaring out of the trunk to devour the reasonable and logical and intuitive parts of me.
So I have a simple choice: I can choose the safe route. I can pick someone who is very nice and very kind and treats me well and does not challenge me too strongly. I can have a safe relationship with no baggage. And, in doing so, I can make little to no progress in overcoming my baggage.
Or, I can choose the rocky route. I can choose to love deeply in spite of my fears. I can face those fears and acknowledge them and know that my baggage is waiting there to undermine me, and I can decide to push through it anyway with someone I love so deeply it terrifies me. I can acknowledge that to have the love I want, I will have to first master the work-arounds necessary to accommodate my baggage. I can accept that I get no guarantees and that the experience itself may be the only trophy gained. And I can accept that pain will likely be part of this process.
Because here’s the thing: even though we commonly refer to it as “baggage,” this junk we all carry around isn’t nearly that neat and tidy. Nor is it a static thing that just happened once and scarred us. The solution is not in avoiding the triggers — because those triggers are our own deep feelings. My abandonment issues may stem from circumstances of my infancy, but the real problem is the patterns I’ve reinforced over the years because of that fear. The choices I’ve made that set me up to feel lost, the times I’ve associated being rejected or left with being abandoned, the circumstances I have misconstrued to fit my own fearful construct, etc., etc., etc. It’s not about just suddenly seeing that this situation or this relationship does not represent something from our past and then magically shrugging off the yoke that has held us back in past relationships — it’s about learning how to respond differently and how to emotionally frame things differently so that we do not continue to allow our baggage to get in our way. It’s creating the work-arounds that allow us to co-exist with our baggage without giving it so much power.
Now, some people are reading this and thinking rather smugly, “I don’t think I have anything like that to work on.” Really? What about control issues? What about defensiveness? What about being overly critical? What about being condescending? What about anger? What about being selfish? What about being fearful? All of these things can undermine a relationship. And whatever you have, you can choose to work on it or you can choose not to. But it won’t just go away. That much I know.
So, before you judge that person with the crazy relationship too harshly, take a moment and wonder if, just maybe, they’re learning a whole lot and growing a whole lot and living a whole lot through that experience. They just might emerge on the other side with a more intact spirit and a deeper understanding of themselves, which might not have been possible in a safe, easy relationship.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it, and to love deeply, we must risk greatly.
Good luck to all of you facing your demons and trying to do better. I wish you success, whatever that happens to look like.