What's In Your Backpack?

Written by Victoria Clair
February 04, 2020

This whole article will be based upon a metaphor. I came up with it during a conversation with my young neighbor; he is nineteen and in his first year of college, but I’ve known him since just before his fourteenth birthday. We’ve grown rather close over these past 5+ years; he’s like a grandson to me, especially since I literally live half-way around the world from my own son and grandchildren. So, Mark and I have had many talks as he has grown up, and I think it’s fair to say that we’ve touched upon issues over the years that even his parents wouldn’t touch. I use my being a rather eccentric old lady as my excuse for bringing up the more “delicate” matters.

Anyway, recently, while on his winter holiday break between semesters, Mark and I have had several opportunities to visit with one another, and I used the following metaphor to talk with him about making conscious choices about the burdens he might freely choose in his life, as well as those that life would simply throw his way. What follows is a distillation of our conversations. We are born wearing a backpack and, at our birth, there are already certain “stones” that are in this backpack….stones that will influence a great deal about our lives. When we are born, where we are born, the parents to whom we are born, their socio-economic status, their religious affiliation…..it is all part of the mix of the world into which we are born. Some of the “stones” in our backpack are garden variety stones one might find in any field or along a dirt path. Others of those stones are actually gems….precious gifts.

If we are born to poor parents in a Third World country, the scope of possibilities for our lives are quite different from the possibilities of someone born into an affluent, First World country family. There’s no mystery going on here; it is just how life is.

And so our backpacks may already be quite heavy for such a little one coming into the world. We are all broken, but if we are born to parents who are more broken than most, the parenting we receive will, most probably, leave us with our own brokenness by the time we reach our teens. Poverty, alcoholism, domestic abuse and so many other forms of brokenness in our parents do certainly play a big part in how we grow into our own adulthood. If, on the other hand, we are fortunate enough to be born to less broken parents who can at least give us some advantages, our little backpacks are lighter and easier to carry through our childhood.

Some of the “gems” in our childhood backpacks are, as I mentioned above, “accidents of birth”; the luck of the draw, so to speak. And, at least for our first few years of life, our parents are going to have a good deal of power over what gems or stones go into our backpack. If they teach us early about making healthy choices regarding food; we may be lucky enough to grow into our teens with fewer bad eating habits. If our parents were keen to teach us about responsibility at an early age by helping us to learn how to pick up our toys, put our soiled laundry into a hamper, feed the family pets, set the table or help with the yard work, then we can chalk up another gem in our backpack. Being a responsible adult does not happen by accident, and the earlier we learn to take responsibility, the better off we will be when we become adults and are left responsible for the whole of our lives.

Some other gems that may be in our backpack from youth can include: taking music lessons and actually choosing to practice; being a part of team sports; learning how to develop a healthy circle of friends who support us and to whom we give our support; learning how to be an active, contributing member of our community through participation in Scouting or other organizations that provide youth with opportunities to learn how to be a part of a community.

But life sometimes throws both small and large stones into our backpacks when we least expect it. Perhaps our parents decide to get a divorce, or someone we live dies; a beloved extended family member, or even a pet who had become a member of our family. Perhaps we, ourselves, find our lives disrupted with an accident that results in a broken bone. A good friend betrays us, and we feel lonely and frightened. All of these, and many, many other “stones” can find their way into our backpacks. As we grow in maturity, we begin to learn that we don’t always have control over which stones end up in our backpack. It is our job to take responsibility for those we do choose for ourselves and to handle those life throws our way to the best of our ability. Not all the stones we chose for our backpacks are bad, but they all do weigh us down, even the gems. Learning to play a musical instrument is most certainly a gem, but if we are going to take it seriously, we need to put in the time and effort of practice. Our education is the same. Some kids think they are getting away with something if they can just skate through school with the minimum effort. It may take until they are in their 30’s or 40’s to realize that they made a poor choice way back when they were ten years old, but that choice will weight them down throughout their lives.

For better or worse, we begin making decisions that will affect the rest of our lives at a very early age….much earlier than most parents are comfortable admitting. As much as we might know that it is in our child’s best interest to study the spelling list for the test on Friday, or for that same child to take a keen interest in such character building activities as being responsible for feeding the family dog, participating in group activities like scouting, or learning to find pleasure in reading, parents all too often find themselves feeling more like a jailor than a parent as they try everything they can think of the steer their child in what they perceive as the right direction.

And so, we finally reach the age of “majority”; that time when the law of the land tells us that we are now free to make our own decisions. Most kids look at that day as a day of emancipation from rules, some of which have felt far too restrictive. “Nobody is ever going to tell me what time to go to bed or what I can watch on T.V. ever again.” We become the captains of our own lives as we fantasize about what those lives will look like once we are in charge of them for ourselves. Most teens leave home not having more than an obscure idea of just how heavy those backpacks they are carrying can get in the next few years.

My neighbor, Mark, chose to go to college; a decision that I wholeheartedly support. It will be his way of getting out of the cycle of poverty that has been a part of his family history for generations. He has completed one semester and has started his second. I still smile when I think of the time he came over for a visit and told me how he had to stay up until 3:00 in the morning doing homework one night. This was the first time in his life that he had to make a choice between sleeping and getting his work done. When he told me this, I just laughed and said: “Mark, losing sleep is part of the rite of passage for college students. Wait until you find yourself having had to pull an ‘all-nighter’.” And so, Mark is learning that by choosing to go to college, he had consciously, or perhaps, not-so-consciously, chosen to put a rather large stone into his backpack. I reminded him that this particular burden at least had an ending date. He’s learning, and this is a good thing.

I’ve tried to talk with Mark about his choices needing to have both “Intention” and “Attention”. Once he had the intent to go to college, he now has to follow through with “attention” to class material and homework. Living a “Conscious Life” is all about “Intention and Attention”. It’s all a part of becoming a responsible adult; it is also a necessary component for all of our lives if we seriously seek to become more whole as our life journey continues.

From the time we either start college or begin working in our first full-time job after high school, we find ourselves having to make more and more decisions, often feeling uncertain about the choices we do make. Some young adults extend their time of living with their parents; some go off to college and live either in a dorm, a fraternity (or sorority), rent a room in someone’s private home or share an apartment with other young folks. Except for college housing, the same is true for those leaving home after high school and starting out on their first, often low-paying, job. This is typically the time when the hard truth of reality begins to set in. The recently “emancipated” young adult begins to realize that there may be a huge gap between the life they envisioned for themselves and the reality of things like homework, jobs, bills, keeping their clothes clean and attending to housekeeping at least to the point that rodents don’t take over! A lot of time, energy, effort and a certain amount of money go into daily life once we are out on our own.

There are HUGE choices that we are faced with having to make from the ages of 19 to, say, 30. The choices we make during those eleven years will have a huge impact upon the rest of our lives: where we choose to live; the kind of work we choose to pursue; what we choose to do with our time outside work; the kinds of friends we bring into our “circle”; who (or even if) we choose to be in a long term domestic partnership; whether or not we decide to follow a particular spiritual path….the choices are almost without limit.

What I have discovered, and is often mentioned in popular psychology books, is that it’s best not to make too many changes in our lives in a short period of time. Our bodies, minds and spirits need time to adjust to changes and the weight they add to our backpack. I remember that, back when I was teaching psychology, my eyes would practically spin in my head when some young bubbly student would come up to me with stars in her eyes and say something like: “Oh, Dr. Clair, I’m graduating next month, and two weeks later my boyfriend and I are getting married. He has a job offer in “Tim-buck-two”, so we’ll be moving there right after our honeymoon. And, by the way, I’m pregnant.” YIKES! Older readers are probably bobbing their heads up and down and thinking: “Yup, too much too fast. There’s going to be some whiplash, for sure. Hope they make it.”

So, when we are young and having to make big decisions, it’s best we test out our backpacks to see if we can feel reasonably comfortable with the weight we are tempted to add. Graduating from college is about taking a big stone out of our backpack, but establishing ourselves in a new location and a new job is already adding two big stones to that backpack. Perhaps now is not the best time to cement a long-term relationship or bring children into our lives. If leaving home or school means a long-distance move, we are also taking some of the gems out of our backpack by losing our easy access to the very people who have been a major support system in our lives: parents, school chums, people we grew up with. Our first year in a new location is going to be challenging as we try to not be so scared about being in the adult work-force and launching our new career. We’re probably having to start establishing a first “home” for ourselves, even if it is a one room apartment furnished with cast-offs from parents and other relatives. We’re going to have to figure out how to live on our own; no more school cafeteria, and it’s probably not in our best interests to have all our meals come from Dunkin Donuts, burger joints, pizza parlors and Chinese take-out. If we didn’t learn to cook from mom (shame on you!) then we might realize that we actually need to buy our first simple cookbook and learn to make basic food that will help us stay healthy. Young bodies can take a lot of abuse regarding the kinds and quantities of food and drink we thrown down our stomachs, or how much sleep we get, but as someone on the far end of the life-spectrum, I’m here to tell you that we weren’t getting away with anything. As we age, our bodies begin to let us know the price we were paying back when we didn’t know any better. We do reach an age at which our bodies seem to say to us: “Time to pay up, my friend.” Choosing to move into a long-term relationship needs to be as conscious a choice as possible. Otherwise, we might find ourselves in a string of “long term relationships” when that was neither our intent nor our desire. The best possible start any couple can have is to be friends before they become lovers. Establishing a heart and soul bond with another person is a far better foundation for lasting relationship than the fact that they “curled our toes” from our very first meeting. (I use “having our toes curled” as shorthand for good sex with Mark. Grandmothers have to show some restrain, after all. He knows what I mean when I say that to him. I know he knows, because he usually blushes.) In any case, the worst mistakes we can make with regard to long term relationships is to move into one too quickly, or to not leave one once we realize the relationship is not a good one that will take us through the long haul. We really need to make sure we want this stone in our backpack, because it is a hell of a big stone, even if it is mostly pure gold, and taking this stone out of our backpack once we realize the relationship in not working can be quite costly….both financially and emotionally.

Another HUGE stone that we need to make choices about at a relatively early age is whether or not we want to include children in our lives. It really is mostly up to us, and those who “leave it up to god” are, at least in my book, playing with fire. To bring children into our lives before we are truly ready for that kind of long-term responsibility is, quite frankly, being irresponsible to the highest degree. I’m not waving the flag of abortion in anyone’s face here. At least that is not my intent. But I am waving a flag of warning for making wise decisions as to when we are ready to welcome a child into our lives, and if we were foolish enough to find that we are responsible for a conception, I do support the idea of an early abortion. Mostly, I’m advocating the wise use of contraception for straight couples. This may go against the religious tradition in which you were raised, BUT, just remember….once you are one of the responsible parties for the conception and birth of a child, you OWE IT to that child to take on the responsibility of parenthood. That’s one HUGE stone that you will carry for at least 18 years…..and probably more.

And for those of you who are considering bringing a child into your life, remember this: bringing that child into your life is putting a stone in your backpack that you will not be able to fully identify for some years to come. You may be lucky enough to have a child in your family who is a true treasure in many ways OR you could end up with someone who brings you great pain as you watch them making one bad choice for themselves after another. Are you really ready to put that kind of stone into your backpack? And, if you are, just how many of these stones can you carry before you realize that your backpack has become incredibly hard to carry…..almost backbreaking. Be aware, our bad choices with these particular stones are weights that both we AND any children we may parent, will have to carry for a lifetime.

So……here you are……perhaps coming into your middle years, and this is about the time to sit with your backpack and look through it. Perhaps you decide that it’s time to take some of those stones out of your backpack; or maybe your doctor has added a stone with a diagnosis you were not prepared to receive. The company you have worked for is downsizing and you get the proverbial “pink slip” and suddenly find yourself among the many middle-aged adults out there looking for another job. This one hit me when I least expected it. Being in one’s late 50’s and suddenly without a job is HUGE. On one hand, you have lots of experience and much to offer an employer. From the employer’s perspective, this may not be an advantage. You are going to want a higher salary than some kid fresh out of college. You may also be judged as being too old to be flexible and make the necessary adjustments to the demands of a new employer. Stones in….stones out……some by choice and some thrust upon us. This is the journey of life.

For those of us who tend to be control freaks, reaching middle-life can be excruciatingly painful! We begin to realize we have increasingly less control over our lives; perhaps our doctors have told us that we need to watch our cholesterol, sugar intake or blood pressure. We didn’t have to keep an eye out for our health and well-being before, and this news being put on our radar can be a bit rattling. Having our kids rebel and make decisions for themselves that we know are not good choices is a hard pill to swallow, but we somehow finally learn that we don’t have nearly the influence on them that we once thought we did. We look back at the hopes and dreams we had for ourselves when we were young and we realize that we have probably lived more than half our lives and haven’t come as far as we thought we would have by now. It’s time for a reality check, and reality checks are painful. Perhaps we take our long-term-relationship stone out of our backpack and realize it has died, and we can’t even remember when those first signs of its death came into our awareness. We may simply have been inattentive; we put long term relationships on autopilot and are then surprised to discover that we have flown way off course and didn’t even see it coming.

Mid-life is about taking our lives off autopilot and adjusting our course. Hopefully, these course adjustments will be in time to salvage what might have been. Other times, we are confronted with having to accept what is and move on. And the journey continues.

My mother used to say: “Old age is not for sissies.” Wow, was she ever right about that one!

Suddenly we find ourselves entering into our “elder” years. Our years as senior citizens typically start in our 60’s, although AARP welcomes you into the fold at age 50! I remember the first time I received my free AARP magazine with my mail. I’m guessing they have access to enough information from our Social Security numbers. Anyway, that was most certainly a rude awakening! To only be 50 and have a whole sector of the world consider me a “senior”? You have got to be kidding; I was just getting going!

I’m presently quickly approaching my mid-70’s. My health is not great. I had one mild heart attack twelve years ago and a major heart attack nearly three years ago. My prognosis with my last heart attack was that I had “about a year” left to live. If I live for four more months, I will have lived nearly three times as long as my cardiologist predicted. In other words, I’m well aware that I’m living on “borrowed time”. From my personal perspective, I can honestly say that there’s absolutely no advantage to physical aging. There are, however, many spiritual and psychological advantages to being my age. I have less physical stamina and energy than ever before. Someone else does most of my grocery shopping and errands for me. When I do leave my house, which is typically only every one to two months, I have a “helper” with me. We rent a wheelchair at the mall and she takes me from place to place. There are an increasing number of foods I just don’t eat anymore because they play havoc with my stomach and intestines. I may weigh the same as I did in my 30’s, but that weight doesn’t look the same on me now as it did back then. I often think that there’s enough hanging “stuff” on my upper arms that if I were to jump off a building and hold my arms out, I just might be able to stay airborne, or at least glide long enough to make a soft landing! My vision has never been good; I’ve been wearing glasses since second grade. But now I need to either read hardcover books or use my e-book so that I can have larger print. The print in paperbacks and magazines is just too small for me now. I’ve lost 50% of my hearing in my right ear and about 30% in my left. I know that there are celebrities older than me who talk about how great they feel. Well……I’m happy for them. As for me and my friends of approximate similar age, we all agree that the physical challenge of aging really sucks.

The stone of working full-time, or even part time, was taken away from me. I did not retire by choice. I spent nearly 20 years teaching psychology to college students and loved almost every minute of it. It was a second career for me and if it had been my choice, I would have stayed on, at least part time, well into my late 60’s. I still miss teaching; I loved the exchanges I had with students in the classroom. So, if you are approaching retirement age, please do think it over carefully before making your decision. I’ve enjoyed many aspects of retirement, but perhaps a little less of it would have felt better. Of course, if you hate your job and have the financial resources to retire…..then go for it!

Other stones that are often taken out of our backpack may or may not be of our choosing. With society being so mobile these days, we may find ourselves with adult children and grandchildren living in other parts of the country from us….or in other countries. I have chosen to retire in the Philippines. My son lives in the States with his wife and children. I miss them, and we stay in close touch via emails, but that’s not the same as being able to spend time with them.

Where we retire is another stone we need to choose for ourselves. Increasing numbers of Americans are realizing that retirement life in the States will put them in a much lower income bracket than they ever thought possible. Many are choosing to move to other countries where their retirement income will keep them in the middle or upper-middle class income bracket. Those were my reasons for choosing to retire in the Philippines. Sometimes this particular stone in my backpack seems to weight me down considerably. I miss my family and quite a few amenities that were once available to me in the States. But, I have to admit that, most times, I’m grateful for the life I have created for myself here.

Being retired has given me the wonderful opportunity of choosing how I spend my time. I’m not gainfully employed anymore, and I can afford to have someone come to clean my house twice a week, do my laundry and run most of my errands. My heath since the heart attack has made all of this help a necessity in my life, and I’m grateful that I have the funds to pay for this kind of help. If I were in the States, I would be needing to live in an assisted living facility. Here, I remain independent. And so I have had lots of time on my hands and have used it to write; read; try out new recipes; and have even resurrected a hobby I’ve always loved, but hardly ever found time for when I was working. I paint on canvas. My home is filled with my paintings, and I must admit that I do enjoy sitting in my comfy chair and just looking at my own artwork. I’ve had a couple of offers from people who have wanted to buy some of my paintings, but they are my “babies”, and I can’t imagine letting any of them go just now.

I also spend a great deal of time both in meditation and simply just sitting with my thoughts. These past ten years have provided me with the time and opportunity to sift through my life and take a long look at the choices I’ve made over the years and to evaluate those choices. Some, I’ve come to realize, were not wise choices, and I have had to learn to forgive myself and let go. I find that this is not a “one-off” event, but rather a process. Regret can become a heavy stone in our backpack if we aren’t willing to examine our lives and release what no longer nurtures us. But these are also the years when we can take the time to recognize all that we have accomplished as well. We can rejoice in those battles we have fought and won. Many of those battles will have taken place within our own hearts and minds, but we do come to a place at which we can realize that they were battles none-the-less.

One of the stones in our backpacks that we often find ourselves needing to release during our old age is ownership of things. Several times in my life I have been faced with having to “downsize”. Each time I did this, I was struck by the fact that many of the “things” I had worked so hard to acquire just no longer fit into my new life. The big house that was needed while we were raising a family just no longer makes sense when it’s just one or two of us left to live in it. The time, work and expense of upkeep may start to feel overwhelming. And so the process begins: passing on precious mementos to our children; finding out if any of them would like some of the furniture in the house that we no longer need and won’t fit in our new housing; everything we have needs to be examined and evaluated. “Do I (we) really want to keep this? Is this important enough to pack and find a place for in our new home?” Staying within the country and simply downsizing to a smaller place is difficult enough. Choosing to move half-way around the world requires the kind of downsizing that can feel heartbreaking. I is a very real kind of letting go.

There are other “stones” (in the form of expectations) that we will find ourselves needing to be removed from our backpack. Our physical health may place limitations upon what we can accomplish or do on any given day. And even if we have not been diagnosed with Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, most of us do find our minds slowing down a bit. I used to pride myself on my ability to multi-task. As I have gotten older, I’ve found out the hard way that my mind works best if I do one thing at a time. I got an electric slow cooker because I had burned too many pots of dry beans that I had left to simmer on the stove and then completely forgotten about until the smell of burning food got my attention. I’ve had to learn that downsizing the expectations of what I can accomplish in one day has also been part of the aging process.

In closing, as I come to the end of my life, I find myself so grateful for this life; ALL OF IT…..stones and all. Life is a gift, and we never know what we’ve got until we slowly peel away the layers over the years of our lives. The good times were lovely and provide me with wonderful memories. And, looking back, even the bad times have proven to have had benefits. They made me stronger; they proved to me that I’m capable of far more than I ever thought was possible; they brought me some hard-won wisdom for which I am very grateful.

So, if you are already an elder, you probably know a great deal of this already. If you are young and thing that your own old age is too far away for you to spend much time thinking about, do know that once you are old, you will look back and have a sense that the whole of your life has flashed by in a very short flick of time. Savor all of it….even the rough patches. And, if you can, try to see each stone in your backpack as something that has come into your life for a purpose, even if you didn’t choose to put some of them into that backpack. All those stones are going into making you into the person you will become…..and we never stop “becoming” until we take our very last breath!