All That We Need to Leave Behind

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver, The Journey

New Year’s Eve, 2023. This marks the edge of an ending and a beginning. A time to contemplate paths taken, progress made, stumblings and meanderings, failings, hopes, and myriad other introspective musings that seem apropos for such auspicious moments. Moments made so by the seeming arbitrariness of the calendar and our own penchant for the dramatic. Surely we’re standing on the edge of something momentous, aren’t we?

The annual breakpoint given to us on December 31 is a great time to pause, take stock, and prepare for what lies ahead. Some of us are ready to jump into a set of resolutions. Some of us are ready for a big party. Some of us need a turn of the page. Some of us hope to be in bed by 10pm and to awake, headache-free, on just another day. Wherever you find yourself, one thing is sure: you are embarking on a voyage.

Yes, tomorrow begins a 365 day voyage through your life. No, it’s not just a journey. It’s a long journey. It’s not just a trip, a getaway, or a holiday. January 1, 2024 marks the beginning of a real voyage. A 12 month excursion through time. You may or may not get very far physically, but, God-willing, you are assured a serious distance traveled through the span of your life. Today is a great time to consider what you should take with you on this voyage.

Actually, today is a great time to consider what you shouldn’t take with you on this leg of your journey. What do you really need to complete this voyage and what are you inclined to take with you that will only hold you back or slow you down?

When preparing for a journey, our mind first goes to the stuff: the clothes, the toiletries, the equipment, etc. Sure, the stuff is necessary to complete the voyage but we are prone to over-packing. Watching tourists trekking across Italy with suitcases so big that they could not lift them, reminded me of our attachment to the security blanket, what-if, items that get tossed into our trunks. Hiking for six weeks across northern Spain with nothing but a backpack affirmed the possibility of traveling with less.

The stuff we take with us makes the load heavier. It slows us down. It distracts us as we are forced to sift through it to find what we really need. It takes up extra space, physically and mentally. Over time, it can wear us down as we carry it on our back or drag it through train stations, airports, and city streets. Or, it may cost us more as we pay others to carry it for us. That extra stuff always has a cost.

But our primary voyage of 2024 isn’t one of physical distance. Remember, we are journeying through time. This 12 month voyage is mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical. It may not go very far in miles but it will cover a tremendous distance. The crazy thing is, you’re already packed for it. Did you notice? Oh yes, you have lots of baggage, loaded up and ready to roll. You have yet to take a single step into this voyage and the carts already strain under the weight of things being carried into the new year.

Let’s take an inventory.

  • Attachments. What are your idols? You know, the attachments that consume your time and money and energy. Food? Drink? Games? Gambling? TV? Social media? Sports? Stuff? The curious thing about many attachments, is that they are not inherently “bad” and are often necessary at some level. They become disordered desires as we give them power over us through obsessive and addictive behaviors. What may start as a “good” turns “bad” as we let it get in the way of who we’re called to be. They become baggage as they consume more and more of our attention and energy. They become heavy as we carry them, and they can derail our journey.
  • Hurts. The list of slights and injuries we heap on each other in the course of our waking days is staggering. Depending on our frame of mind, life can begin to look like one great conspiracy of injustice. From the drivers we encounter to the people at work to friends and family – there are no shortage of opportunities for hurt to enter into our life. Today is a great day to consider which ones we’re carrying with us into our 2024 voyage. Resentment runs rampant and is a serious lodestone when we carry it along on our journey. It’s easy to say “forgive,” but what does that mean? It doesn’t necessarily mean forget. It doesn’t necessarily mean blindly trust again. It doesn’t mean “be a doormat.” Forgiveness entails looking at the debt created when injustice is served and determining to release it. It means loving the other by willing his or her good through a change of heart, but it does not necessarily mean opening yourself to be injured again. Releasing it in this way lightens your load.
  • People. What people are you carrying into 2024 that are weighing you down? Who do you endure that you shouldn’t be enduring? Energy vampires. Toxic personalities. Negative Nellies. These may be by-products of job, organization, or some other social group. Where are you involved in this way that is a barrier to your voyage? I’m not talking about the commitments of duty: family, spouse, children. Our commitments demand something different and “cutting bait” is not the right approach. However, we are often prone to enduring drains on our humanity, and our energy, that are destructive, and hold us back from our best selves as well as our call to give our best to others.
  • Fears. What are you afraid of? A person? A situation? We carry fears, real and imagined, into so many aspects of our lives. Look closely at your fears, what are they telling you? What can you control? Where can you trust? Fear fixates on the future, the what-if. Often, we fly to the worst-case scenario. There are real things to fear, and at its best, fear is a warning. At its worst, fear is a demon bent on assaulting joy. If fear continues to grip, try focusing on the present. What is real in this moment? What do I know as fact right now? We often find that the fear we’re carrying centers on what we can’t control and the only antidote is to focus on what we can control: our effort, our choice, our state of mind.
  • Sloth. Some of us may be carrying a hesitancy into our voyage. A hesitancy to show up. A reluctance to do our duty. An aversion to the work needed to invest ourselves fully into our lives. Sloth captures us in chaos and distraction. We get lost in the noise and miss the opportunity, and responsibility, to show up and bring our best to bear. It can be very subtle. “I don’t wanna” or “I don’t feel like it” become callsigns to dereliction of duty and our eyes turn to other attachments when they should be centered on our critical priorities. The “noon day devil” is alive and well…and it will derail the voyage to our most treasured destinations as surely as never starting.
  • Self image. Who do you see in the mirror? Are you missing the you from the past or happy to greet the person of the present? The great mistake is to believe our best work is behind us or that a better version of our self has sailed into the sunset. Our own becoming is the voyage and carrying the baggage of what was, what might have been, or what isn’t, are all sure to burden our journey. Part of the antidote to dissatisfaction with self is gratitude: for all that was and is. The second part of the antidote is planning for and anticipating a successful voyage. Hope is a powerful elixir for a marred self-image.
  • Old notions of success and happiness. What really matters? We often carry the baggage of unreasonable, unrealistic, or disordered expectations. What is a good life? Where do you spend your time? Are the things you’re chasing bringing joy? Chances are good that many of the attachments you identified earlier are mixed up in a confused sense of success. Real sources of joy are not finite, don’t sit in a bank account or a garage, and don’t depreciate. In fact, they tend to create more joy the more you give them away or the more time you give to them. If you need a jumpstart on this one, watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” as the first step on your voyage into 2024.

Our Need for Pruning

The voyage is ahead; 2024 is calling. The calendar is not arbitrary. It is a gift. The next 12 months are a window in time – a passing of time. A construct that allows us to get our head around this part of our life’s journey. A day is a place to focus and we can imagine ourselves within 365 days; the choices that must be made, the things we need, and the things we don’t need.

Now is a great time for pruning. A great time to consider what we need and what we don’t need. What will we leave behind? What will we cut out of our life? With the load lightened, we can become fleet of foot once again. We can be nimble in the face of the twists and turns. We can throw our pack in an overhead or carry it 500 miles without missing a beat. We will find the lightness permeating our state of mind and more clarity in our priorities. We will also find we have more energy to help others carry their loads.

Wishing you and yours a very Happy and Fruitful 2024. May the road rise to meet you…and find your lightened self ready for this voyage.

Showing 2 comments
  • Jennifer

    Happy New Years Eve Phil!
    Thank you for the thoughts to ponder and a look into my own personal voyage! Also for the guilt of over packing for this week😂

  • John Harrison

    Thank you Phil for these thoughts and words. A joyous 2024 to you and your family too.

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