Suitcases, values, and what really matters

Driving to work I pass by, as I have so many times before, one of my community’s homeless men. And, as always, he’s pulling a rolling carry-on suitcase, once deep red but now a bit muted from its life on the streets – a bit like him, you know?

And I think he must be carrying just about everything he values inside that suitcase. One suitcase that fits the dimensions of a carry-on, which is in the neighborhood of 22x16x10.  Fifty linear inches, if you add length, width, and height.

I find myself wondering what he carries inside that faded red suitcase. Clothes? Books? Pictures? Memories? Food? Money? It must be something he values so much to carry it with him every step of his daily journey.

So that begs the question, of course. What would we carry around with us if we had to tote what we most value every place we walk? Truly, many of us would need a moving truck, because we’ve collected so many things that we believe matter and we’ve become attached to so many things that have defined us. Can’t live without my iPad®, must have my smart phone, need that internet connection, love my new bed, I wouldn’t be without my month’s worth of shoes and pants and shirts and mementoes and artwork and toys and … let’s not even begin with the beliefs we harbor as well.

I don’t mean to diss material possessions, because they tend to be useful and make life more pleasant – although I could make a good argument against a few of them if I were so inclined. (I’m not.) But as I drove past that man today, I started thinking about what would matter so much to me that I would expend the energy to take it with me wherever I go.

I don’t believe it’s a quick process; it’s actually a multilayered one. I rather think it’s like peeling an onion. The outer skin is easy to identify and discard. It’s when we reach the onion itself that we tend to eyeball it and think, well, it looks ready to slice and saute. (Have you ever begun sauteing an onion you’ve sliced only to find that a few of those slices turned out to be more skin than substantial onion? For me, it’s because I get lazy and don’t want to do the rest of the work, lest the tears start flowing. Plus, it physically hurts.)

Likewise, it can be hard work sometimes, digging around in our heads, trying to figure out just what we really hold closest to our hearts.

It reminds me of a coaching exercise (I actually do this myself at least once or twice a year just to try to keep my focus).  Toward the end of the exercise, my clients frequently squirm a bit – it’s hard work, after all – and I squirm right along with them. Here it is. Try it:

Dig down deep and select 30 attributes that make you “you” – 30 values, behaviors, traits, beliefs, attributes that you love, that define you, that matter and make you who you are. Stuff them carefully in your bag. It’s a tight fit.

You’re off on a journey (that’s easy: just call it “life”). Your journey meanders all over the land, but to get to your final destination, there are two bridges you must cross, and underneath both of them live trolls. At each bridge, the troll will require payment before you can continue. And, no, there is no other way across.  His payment, he informs you, is to hand over 10 of those 30 attributes you carry in your bag. Once you give them up, they’re gone. So which of those 30 values and attributes and beliefs and traits will you sacrifice? Which can you live without if necessary? Sacrifice away!

Whew! You now have 20 left. But don’t you feel a little lighter, more focused? Aren’t your steps a little easier? Your bag weighs so heavily on your shoulders. Your journey has become more pleasant without all those “things” to worry about and guard and pay attention to.

Soon you reach the second bridge and the second troll (who looks just like the first troll, oddly enough). Ah, again: hand over 10 of those attributes and values, please, and then you may cross. Wow, it’s harder, isn’t it? You’re getting deep into the heart of the onion; this can make the tears flow. But you must go forward. So what can you live without? What can you NOT live without? What really, truly matters? Go ahead. Give up what isn’t crucial.

Ouch. You now have 10 left for the rest of your journey. But how much lighter are your steps? That bag is no burden at all! You can run, you can stroll, you can, perhaps, pick up items along the way to add to your bag. Oh, but be careful, lest you reach a third bridge, and a third troll.

I believe I will spend some time tonight boiling down what really matters to me and what I really value so it fits with ease into a small, faded red carry-on suitcase. I will visit, in my mind, those  bridges and those trolls. And I’ll walk over that second bridge – no, I’ll SKIP over that second bridge – knowing what really matters is all I need.

Today, I am thankful for that homeless man, who has reminded me to always drill down and understand what’s truly important enough to carry around with me every place I go – to not get burdened by things that ultimately don’t matter and by activities that hold little meaning.

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