Posted by Tim on 21st November 2011
A friend commented recently that I use the word ‘unpacking’ a lot. It’s true: as a traveller I find myself unpacking frequently, and being of an orderly disposition I don’t really feel settled in until the case is unpacked and everything’s neatly packed away. You know I’m really tired if I get home late but leave the bags unpacked on the floor till the morning.
But it’s not this sort of unpacking that she was talking about. It’s when unpacking is a metaphor for reflection on an experience, an emotion, or event. You could equally call it processing, but I think that sounds a bit too, well, process-oriented.
In my experience mission workers do far too little unpacking. We carry a lot of clutter around with us, and often pay a price for taking our ‘excess baggage’ with us. It can be very unhealthy to take with us everywhere we go our crates of past disappointments, frustrations and hurts. Spiritually and emotionally, it’s good to travel light. So how do we get rid of our excess baggage?
Unpacking is the activity of reviewing what has happened to us, reflecting on it, learning the lessons, and moving on. We are most accustomed to doing this when we have a debrief. We look back at our last term of service and review what went well, or badly, and how we grew as a result. Truthfully recognising our role in the events, and how we reacted to them, helps us. It can bring emotions to the surface which, once acknowledged, can be dealt with.
People who follow Ignatian spirituality do this practice regularly, in many cases at least once a day. They call it the Examen. It’s a very healthy procedure which involves analysing how we feel, particularly if a strong emotion has surfaced. We can do it periodically, often in the aftermath of a challenging event or incident. Asking ourselves such questions as Why was I so angry? What was I afraid of? or What made me feel so happy? will help us learn about our emotions and understand our responses. By examining our choices and our reactions, we create a place in which we can forgive those who have wronged us, and repent of the wrongs we have done.
Sometimes when emotions rise up it’s because we feel vulnerable (even if it’s only subconsciously) It has been compared to sitting on top of a wobbling pole, so we try to re-establish security by placing big rocks around the base of the pole to stop it wobbling. These rocks represent potentially compulsive behaviours like shopping, drink or drugs, being a star employee, excelling as a parent/partner/child, eating, or having sex.
These activities, while not necessarily wrong in themselves, help to bolster our short-term feelings of self-esteem, so when we’re tempted to indulge in one or more of them to excess, it is helpful to ask why. It may be that some recent experience has undermined our self-esteem so that we need to take steps to feel good about ourselves. The problem is that none of these activities actually delivers long-term good self-esteem, so we have to keep on doing them to feel good. Only a full appreciation of our relationship with God in Christ can set us free from this cycle of compulsive self-destruction.
Sometimes we experience emotional instability because we are carrying too much excess baggage. It’s rather like having a case which won’t shut without us sitting on it, so the stuff inside keeps spilling out at inopportune moments. This is what happens when our emotions burst unhelpfully into daily life.
The solution is to open the case and get everything out. Take a good look at each individual item (memory, emotion, experience) and decide whether you really need to keep it. If not, throw it out. If you do need to keep it, fold it up neatly and put it back in the case, which will now shut properly.
Orderly unpacking will help us travel lighter.